The history of clothing in ancient Greece traces its roots to three significant civilizations: the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, and the ancient Greeks. Each of these civilizations created sophisticated clothing customs. Clothing for these civilizations served not only to cover and protect the body, but also to decorate and enhance the beauty of the wearer.
The Minoan culture developed on the Greek island of Crete in about 3000 B.C.E. Minoans created a thriving society around royal palaces and survived for several hundred years. Archeologists, scientists who study the remains of ancient cultures, have excavated sites in Crete to find pottery, frescoes (paintings applied directly to wet plaster on walls) on the walls of palace remains, and statues. These artifacts provide a vivid picture of Minoan culture, especially that of the wealthy citizens.
Minoan remains indicate that Minoan clothing fit the contours of the body and required knowledge of sewing techniques. Men wore a variety of loin coverings and rarely covered their upper bodies. Women wore tiered, bell-shaped skirts and fitted short-sleeved tops that exposed the breasts. Minoans seemed to idealize tiny waists, and both men and women wore tightly fitted belts, or girdles, that cinched their waists down to a fashionably small size.
When the Minoan culture disappeared in about 1600 B.C.E. , for reasons archeologists still have yet to discover, the Mycenaean culture began to flourish on mainland Greece and invaded Crete, where they encountered the Minoans. The remains of Minoan culture influenced the Mycenaeans who adopted many of their clothing styles. Women's clothing is especially difficult to distinguish from Minoan clothing. Women wore the same long skirts and short-sleeved tops; however, paintings indicate that Mycenaean women did occasionally cover their breasts with a bib or blouse. Mycenaean men appear to have worn loin coverings similar to the Minoans, but more frequently they seem to have worn short-sleeved tunics with a belted waist. The true distinguishing costumes of the Mycenaeans were their armor. Evidence indicates that Mycenaeans were warlike peoples. For battle Mycenaean soldiers wore protective clothing that wrapped the body from neck to thigh in bronze plates, bronze leg guards, and helmets constructed of boar's tusks.
As the Mycenaean culture began to suffer from famines and other environmental catastrophes around 1200 B.C.E. , another culture began to flourish. The Dorians, ancient Greeks, became dominant and conquered the struggling Mycenaeans. Although no evidence about what Greeks wore has been discovered for life between the twelfth and the eighth centuries B.C.E. , by the eighth century art was again being produced and paintings of Greek clothing styles appeared. As one can see in many examples from Greek art, the ancient Greeks had a great appreciation for the beauty of the naked body. Early Greek society did not forbid public nakedness, at least for men. Men always went naked when exercising or competing in athletic games, and both men and women bathed naked in public baths, though not together. Women were required to keep their bodies covered when they were with men.
By the seventh century B.C.E. Greek society was dominated by a wealthy class who wore luxurious woven clothes and decorative jewelry. From this time until the invasion of and defeat by the Romans in 146 B.C.E. , Greeks developed several different styles of clothes. In general, Greeks did not cut and sew their clothes until the fourth century B.C.E. Instead they draped finely woven cloth over and around their bodies to create distinct styles of dress and protective wraps. The wealthiest Greeks could afford fine wool and finely woven linen, which at its most expensive was an almost transparent, soft cloth. Others used cloth woven from the flax plant soaked in olive oil, and peasants used textiles made of coarse wool. The most distinctive Greek garment is the chiton, or tunic. Two different styles of chiton were developed: the Ionic chiton and the Doric chiton, with variations, usually of length, to distinguish styles for men and women. The fabric of chitons was crinkled, or pleated, to enhance the fullness of the drape of the garment. Over the chiton, Greeks kept themselves warm with a variety of wraps, including the himation, chlamys, chlaina, and diplax. Although these draped fashions continued to be popular, by the fourth century B.C.E. both women and men began wearing sewn tunics with a U or V neckline. Writings from this time discuss a variety of specific styles for these sewn tunics and archeologists uncovered a variety of tunic styles in a temple in Attica, a state of Greece that formed the territory of Athens, the Greek cultural center.
Because much of our knowledge of Greek fashions comes from the marble sculptures they left behind, many people once thought that most Greeks wore only white clothes. However, experts now know that even the pale marble of the statues was once covered with bright paint that wore off over the centuries. Greeks, in fact, loved color and many dyed their clothes. Wealthy aristocrats wore purple clothes dyed from a species of shellfish or pure white linen robes. Yellow clothes were worn mostly by women. Black clothes were worn by those mourning the death of a loved one. Peasants dyed their clothing a variety of greens, browns, and grays. Soldiers wore dark red garments to minimize the appearance of blood on the battlefield.
In addition to dyeing, decorative designs were also painted, embroidered, or woven onto garments in many colors. Garments were also adorned with patterns of geometric shapes or trimmed with colorful border designs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.
Norris, Herbert. Costume and Fashion: The Evolution of European Dress Through the Earlier Ages. London, England: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1924. Reprint, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1931.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume: From Ancient Mesopotamia Through the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Greece. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.