Fashion—Ancient Greek Style
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
WHY did the Christian writers Paul and Peter need to give specific advice about female dress in the first century? For example, Paul wrote: “I desire the women to adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind, not with styles of hair braiding and gold or pearls or very expensive garb.” (1 Timothy 2:9) Similarly, Peter found it necessary to speak about “the external braiding of the hair,” “the putting on of gold ornaments,” and “the wearing of outer garments.”—1 Peter 3:3.
They were writing to Christians living under the influence of the Hellenistic culture, which derived directly from ancient classical Greek civilization. Was there such a thing as fashion in ancient Greece? When many think of a typical ancient Greek, they may likely imagine him or her wearing the ubiquitous khi·tonʹ, or tunic—the gownlike garment—regardless of the time period being considered or the wearer’s sex or place of origin.a Is that image right? No!
How the Inner Garment Was Made and Worn
A close inspection of statues, ceramic paintings, and classical writings reveals that ancient Greek dress was more than just a matter of long white robes. Styles, fabrics, colors, and patterns, as well as accessories, were varied and diverse. Women especially employed a great variety of ingenious devices to enhance their appearance.
Readers of the ancient Greek poet Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, which described the ten years’ wanderings of the mythical hero Odysseus, may recall that while waiting for his return home, Penelope, the hero’s wife, continued to weave and unweave the same piece of cloth during all those years. Homer makes a few more references to clothing, implying that the production of cloth was one of a woman’s major domestic responsibilities from earliest times.
After cloth had been woven, it was cut to make the khi·tonʹ—a linen, and later sometimes woolen, shirtlike article of apparel—which formed the basis of both men’s and women’s clothing. In Archaic times (about 630 to 480 B.C.E.), the woman’s khi·tonʹ (then called the e·sthesʹ) consisted of a plain piece of cloth about the height of the woman and measuring twice the span of her arms. (Compare John 19:23; Acts 10:30, The Kingdom Interlinear.) The khi·tonʹ was fastened with brooches, which originally were made from the leg bones of small animals and later from metal. It was open at both sides, held together by a girdle at the waist and thus had the appearance of two separate garments.
Later, in the early sixth century B.C.E., the Ionian khi·tonʹ appeared more like a dress than a tunic, being sewn up at the sides and not folded over the top, and consequently, it was more economical in its use of material. Far from being uniformly white, the fabric was sometimes striped with long narrow bands of different colors, or fringes were added. Saffron and red were among the favorite colors used. In the Hellenistic period, Asian influence brought new brilliant colors, such as pink, blue, violet, and yellow. Other materials, decorated with gold thread or embroidered with flowers, were initially reserved for statues of the gods or for actors portraying them.
What Else Would an Athenian Lady Wear?
No self-respecting Athenian lady would leave her house without putting on her hi·maʹti·on, or mantle. This rectangular piece of cloth could be worn in various ways—thrown over the shoulders like a shawl, draped over the right shoulder and under the left arm, or pulled up over the head as protection from the sun. Mantles came in varying sizes too, larger ones for cold weather being more like a cloak. The hi·maʹti·on often had decorative borders, and the folding and hanging of it in such a way that the folds appeared like pleats must have required great skill.
The kyʹpas·sis, a kind of short jacket that buttoned at the front, was sometimes worn instead of the hi·maʹti·on. No hats, as we know them today, were worn by women, though on a particularly hot day, a ski·aʹdei·on, or sunshade, might be carried. Wealthy Greek ladies often wore a peʹplos, or woolen garment. The Greek Scriptures also contain a reference to a “headdress” (Greek, pe·ri·boʹlai·on) in Paul’s writings.—1 Corinthians 11:15.
Indoors, shoes were not normally worn by the ancient Greeks, and sometimes not outdoors either. According to the poet Hesiod, country folk wore ox-hide sandals lined with felt. Short women sometimes wore shoes with cork platform soles in order to appear taller.
The Putting On of Gold Ornaments
Ornaments made of sheets of gold decorated with relief representations, chiefly of animals and plants, were very common. Other popular ornaments were the scarab and the scaraboid, regularly set in swivel rings. Bracelets—sometimes called oʹphis (serpent) or draʹkon (dragon)—were favorite pieces of jewelry.
Excavations have brought to light diadems, medallions, necklaces, pendants, rings, and other ornaments. Such articles for personal decoration were usually made from gold, iron, and copper and less frequently from silver, whereas beads were of glass or semiprecious stones.
Earrings were also popular. Sometimes they were external insignia of dignity, marks of power, or a showy display of material prosperity. Girls normally had their ears pierced at an early age.
Styles of Hair Braiding
Hairstyles were many and varied in ancient Greece. One of the most popular had a center parting with the hair tied back with a colored ribbon. Some women wore their hair gathered into a coiled bun on the top of their head. Others wore a short, straight fringe of hair across the forehead. Sometimes ribbons were tied around the forehead and decorated with a small metal button in front. Iron curling tongs were used to create artificial curls. It is also evident that in classical Athens many women dyed their hair. The rhetorician Lucian criticized the frivolity of women who used “machines” to make curls and who squandered their husbands’ fortunes on Arabian hair dyes.
The popular hair styles worn by rich ancient Greek women were extremely elaborate and very time-consuming. Such hair styles required many long hours of preparation by a beautician and much expense, and they were very showy, drawing attention to the wearer.
Women Who Adorn Themselves
The use of makeup was another Eastern habit brought to Greece by tradesmen and travelers. In the fifth century B.C.E., Athenian women used lead to whiten their faces. Lips were reddened, and rouge, made either from seaweed or from the roots of plants, was used. Eyebrows were emphasized with soot, and eyelids were darkened with kohl (such as powdered antimony sulfide), while mascara was made from the dung of cows or from a mixture of egg white and gum.
Archaeological research in ancient Greek palaces, cemeteries, and settlements has brought to light a multitude of objects related to the beautification of women. The wide variety of instruments and utensils includes mirrors, combs, hook-shaped pins, elegant small knives, hairpins, razors, and miniature vases for perfumes, creams, and pigments.
The True Beauty
Generally speaking, despite the gibes of the ancient Greek satirists, stylishness was a much admired quality in a woman and one to which the ancient Greek lady devoted a great deal of time, effort, care, and attention.
For the Christian woman, this could easily have overshadowed the emphasis that should have been given to spiritual qualities. That is why the apostle Peter rightly emphasizes that the most beautiful and important clothing a woman can wear is “the secret person of the heart in the incorruptible apparel of the quiet and mild spirit, which is of great value in the eyes of God.” (1 Peter 3:3, 4) Any woman who wears that style of personal inner adornment, along with clean, modest attire, will always be beautifully dressed, in a flawless and timeless fashion. Paul wrote to Timothy: “I desire the women to adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind, not with styles of hair braiding and gold or pearls or very expensive garb, but in the way that befits women professing to reverence God, namely, through good works.”—1 Timothy 2:9, 10.
a The khi·tonʹ is mentioned 11 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures and is translated “inner garment” and “undergarment” in the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. See W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Volume 1, page 198, under “Clothing.”
[Box on page 24]
Ornaments and Religion
Very often the representations found on ancient Greek ornaments are of a religious nature. Some were medallions depicting various gods and goddesses, such as Artemis, and demigods, such as Hercules. Very common gifts devoted to shrines throughout Greece were ornaments with religious ritualistic scenes. Reflecting the pagan belief that the human soul survives the death of the body, many decorative ornaments were placed in the burial places along with the dead person.
[Pictures on page 23]
Left: The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena
Above: Gold medallion with bust of Artemis
Right: A girl dressed in a “hi·maʹti·on”
Below right: Gold diadem
Far left: A goddess clad in a “khi·tonʹ” and a “hi·maʹti·on”
Left: Gold bracelets terminating in snakes’ heads
Upper right: Acropolis Museum, Greece
All other photos: National Archaeological Museum, Athens
[Picture Credit Line on page 22]
Acropolis, Athens, Greece