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Author: Duchess Andromeda Lykaina
This is intended as an extremely broad overview of the clothing worn by the Ancient Greeks. For every generalization made, someone can usually find a counterexample to prove it wrong. It is also the case that garments labeled with the same name appear in widely different forms across different centuries. Last, how we define “Ancient Greek” in terms of where and when can change the landscape of clothing considered. So, keeping all of that in mind, let’s proceed.
There are four typical Ancient Greek garment types: chlamys, himation, peplos, and chiton.
(χλαμύς): a short cloak primarily worn by men while traveling or for military purposes.
1) Terracotta of young man wearing chlamys; Greek/Boetian, ca. 300-250 BCE, British Museum
2) Lekythos red-figure Hermes; Greek/Attic, ca. 480–470 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art (image on left)
3) Bell crater red-figure Perseus, Athena, and Hermes; Greek/South Italian, ca. 400–385 BCE, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
4) Calyx krater red-figure Cadmus and the Dragon, Greek/Paestan, ca. 350-340 BCE, Louvre
A chlamys is frequently shown draped over the left shoulder and clasped on the right, but it might have been clasped in front of the clavicles or even left open draped over the back and both arms. The god Hermes is typically represented wearing a chlamys. A chlamys would probably have been made of wool. I suspect that there may have been more than one version, including a form where it was not perfectly rectangular in shape, but instead came in at the ends. In Book 2 Chapter 5 of his Geography, Strabo, a 1st century BCE Greek geographer, writes:
Thus the length of the habitable earth is above twice its breadth. It has been compared in figure to a chlamys, or soldier’s cloak, because if every part be carefully examined, it will be found that its breadth is greatly diminished towards the extremities, especially in the west… That in configuration it resembles a chlamys is also clear, from the fact that at either end of its length, the extremities taper to a point.
Example 1 above could have been created by a sort of half-circle where the straight edge is placed over the left shoulder with the circular edge towards the floor. The cloak is held in place by taking two points along the straight edge and pinning them together, letting the rest of the straight edge out to the two points hang long at the side. An almond shape is also possible, and seems like a better fit for Strabo’s description, with both edges curved and arriving at a point on each side. The terracotta statuette displays what looks distinctly like a point or corner, providing evidence against a truly oval shape.
Example 2 seems to suggest a rectangular shape. We see the pair of corners of the bottom edge clearly hanging towards the floor, but we also see what looks like a second set of corners near the right shoulder, above the caduceus and in line with his finger tips. It is easy to see how a rectangular garment would create these four corners.
Examples 3 and 4 do not tell us much in terms of shape, but they show us that the plain fabric we see in 1 and 2 is not the only option. The most commonly depicted decoration is a stripe around one or more outside edge, such as in example 3, but it’s possible that they might have been decorated with patterns such as example 4. In example 3, I am inclined to hypothesize the non-rectangular type here, guessing that the solid stripe might run along the circular edge with the straight edge along the top and hanging down the sides left plain.
(ἱμάτιον): a longer, rectangular cloak worn by men and woman as an outer garment.
- Terracotta statuette of woman in himation and Ionic chiton, Greek, ca. 450-400 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art (image on left)
- Terracotta statuette of pair of women wearing himations, Greek/Corinthian, 3rd century BCE, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
- Frieze from Parthenon with two men in himations, Greek, 447–432 BCE Louvre
- Neck-amphora with red-figure Zeus in chiton and himation, Greek/Attic, 480-470 BCE, BritishMuseum
There are a variety of ways to wrap the himation. The most common shows the himation coming over the left shoulder, wrapping around the body mostly covering the lower half, and the excess fabric collected over the left arm. As with Greek garments in normal circumstances, the right side is left free. For more modesty, or to create mystic, the entire upper body and even the head can be wrapped. For men, the himation carries an air of higher status and possibly intellect, as it is shown on orators and symposium attendants. It seems likely that most himations were made of wool, but it’s possible that another fabric could have been used in some scenarios. Like the chlamys, there are depictions of plain, striped, and patterned himations. The difference between chlamys and himation seems to be one of cut and arrangement for specific purposes.
(πέπλος): a one-piece rectangular garment worn by women, wrapped around the body and characterized by an overfold (apoptygma) formed by folding the upper portion over the top, creating a flap.
- Caryatids (Maiden supporters) of the Erechtheion, Greekm 421-406 BCE, British Museum (image on left)
- Funerary Statue with Peplos and Back-Mantle, Greek/Attic, 320 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Hydria red-figure, Greek/Attic, 400-300 BCE, State Hermitage Museum (images from Beazley Archive)
- Bronze Athena and owl, Greek, ca. 460 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pins (peronai) attach the garment front to back at both shoulders with the back coming up and over the front. The open side is most often positioned on the right and can be left open or pinned closed. Belting or harnessing can keep the garment in place, both over and under the apoptygma. The voluminous fabric can also be brought up over the belt adding emphasis to the hips. A peplos can be worn by itself, and this seems to be an older fashion, or it can be worn over a chiton as an outer garment. The length of the apoptygma varies, possibly due to the height of the wearer, and it may have been the case that this allowed the garment to clothe a child as the child grew, the apoptygma getting shorter as the child got taller. The peplos is particularly affiliated with the goddess Athena. As the peplos is frequently discussed as being a heavier, outer garment, most likely, it was frequently made of wool. As with the other garments, a variety of decoration styles have been depicted, and as a ceremonial robe presented to statues of Athena, they could be lavishly adorned. (For a deep discussion on the peplos, see “The Fashion of the Elgin Kore“.)
While other Greeks definitely wore the peplos, it seems to have become more of a garment for ceremony than for daily fashion. (For example, see “Back – Mantle and Peplos: The Special Costume of Greek Maidens in 4th – Century Funerary and Votive Reliefs.”) Evidence suggests that Spartan women continued to wear the peplos by itself later than other Greeks, and this was viewed disdainfully by Athenians. Ibycus in Fragment 58 purportedly calls Spartan women “thigh-showers.” Euripides in his Andromache 595-600 writes:
Not even if she wanted to could a Spartan woman be chaste. They leave their houses in the company of young men, thighs showing bare through their revealing garments, and in a manner I cannot endure they share the same running-tracks and wrestling-places.
Another translation includes “with naked thighs and open clothes.” The general consensus is that Spartan women wore a peplos with nothing underneath it and left the side open, exposing the thigh when they walked. One explanation is that, while Athenian women would spend their days secluded in the home weaving, Spartan women had helots to perform this task. In “The Polity of the Lacedaemonians,” Xenophon writes:
And in imitation, as it were, of the handicraft type, since the majority of artificers are sedentary, we, the rest of the Hellenes, are content that our girls should sit quietly and work wools. That is all we demand of them…Lycurgus pursued a different path. Clothes were things, he held, the furnishing of which might well enough be left to female slaves. And, believing that the highest function of a free woman was the bearing of children, in the first place he insisted on the training of the body as incumbent no less on the female than the male; and in pursuit of the same idea instituted rival contests in running and feats of strength for women as for men.
Instead, as their husbands were professional soldiers, Spartan women ran the estate and had more active duties that required clothing that would allow them to perform these functions. Another contrast between Athenian and Spartan fashion is exemplified by the story told by Herodotus in “The Histories” book 5 chapter 87 which explains the adoption of Ionian fashion by the Athenians. Only one Athenian male had survived an attack on Aegina and returned to Athens.
It would seem that he made his way to Athens and told of the mishap. When the wives of the men who had gone to attack Aegina heard this, they were very angry that he alone should be safe. They gathered round him and stabbed him with the brooch-pins of their garments, each asking him where her husband was. This is how this man met his end, and the Athenians found the action of their women to be more dreadful than their own misfortune. They could find, it is said, no other way to punish the women than changing their dress to the Ionian fashion. Until then the Athenian women had worn Dorian dress, which is very like the Corinthian. It was changed, therefore, to the linen tunic, so that they might have no brooch-pins to use.
There is some confusion between a garment called a Doric chiton and the peplos. Others refer to the peplos we’re describing as a Doric peplos, but make no mention of any non-Doric kind of peplos. It seems to be the case that the peplos is affiliated with the Dorians when contrasted with the Ionian sleeved chiton. To make things even more confusing, it’s possible that the excess fabric from the back of the apoptygma could have been brought forward over the arms in cold weather or possibly even pinned to the excess of the front, creating sleeves like what we see with the Ionian chiton. There are also some garments that have been described as a chiton with an apoptygma. It is probably the case that there is more gray area between the peplos and the chiton than we’d like; however, the quintessential peplos is easy to identify as we first described it, and as the Herodotus’ story illustrates, the peplos requires pins.
(χιτών): a lighter garment worn closest to the skin by men and women, made of two rectangles sewn together at the sides and the top, leaving holes for arms and neck.
- Bronze Charioteer of Delphi in Ionian chiton with gathered sleeves and back harness, Greek, 478-474 BC, Delphi Museum (images at Wikimedia Commons) (Image on left)
- Bronze Running Girl in exomis, Greek/Laconian, 520-500 BCE, British Museum
- Marble statue of a woman in an Ionian chiton with gapped sleeves and himation, Greek, 400-350 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Apulian red-figure with Andromeda in Doric chiton and Cepheus in chitoniskos, Greek, ca. 430-420 BCE, J. Paul Getty Museum Malibu (images at Perseus Digital Library)
The term “Doric chiton” is often applied to a full-length garment that does not have sleeves of any kind; it has a sort of tank top or sundress look to it. When the Doric-style chiton stops at the knees or thigh, it is called a chitoniskos or “short chiton.” When one shoulder, usually the right, is left unfastened, it is called an exomis and is affiliated with slaves, workers, and stoics. (For a discussion of the one shouldered chiton on women, see “Baring the Female Shoulder in Ancient Greece.”) “Ionian chiton” describes a typically full-length garment made of enough fabric that the top edge attachment is not just along the shoulders but can extend along the arm, creating sleeves. Typically, a harness is used over the shoulders and across the back to form the sleeves along the body. Some figures, such as Artemis, Erinyes, and Nike are shown with a harness across the chest and between the breast. As these are active figures who carry items like quivers and bows, the cross-chest variety might help better support these items, such as the strap that holds the quiver. The chiton is most often described as being made of linen and can also be decorated in a plethora of styles.
There seem to be a variety of methods for attaching the top. The Doric chiton often appears to be fastened at the shoulder with peronai in a similar fashion to the peplos with the back coming over the front. In this case, the side seams, lighter fabric, and lack of apoptygma would make the Doric chiton distinct from the peplos. For the Ionian chiton, the simplest way is to sew the shoulder seams either straight or with a kind of gather or pleating. (For additional examples, see “Myth: chitons had (only) pinned sleeves.”) Other examples show what appears to be a gap between attachments and small round objects at the attachment points. This has typically been interpreted using buttons, but it does not appear that one side of the fabric is being brought over the other, like would happen if one side had a button and the other had a button hole. Instead, the two sides of the sleeve come together and the attachment mechanism bridges the gap. In some statues, there was an inset decorative item, probably metal, that is missing, leaving just the hole. This may have contributed to the idea that it was some kind of button. Regardless, it’s possible that it was pinned at these points or that a decorative jewelry item was sewn on. In most cases, the gapping looks like it is being created by pulling the sleeves tight around the arm so that, where the sleeve is not attached, the two sides of the sleeves are pulling away from each other.
Colors and Patterns
A common misconception is that the Greeks wore plain woven fabrics left in their natural color, but there are many reasons to discredit this notion. A fairly recent exhibition, Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity, shows how the marble statues would likely have been painted in vibrant colors and lively patterns, and while vases are usually painted using only one or two colors, the subjects are depicted adorned with richly patterned garments. It seems unlikely that the Greeks would chosen to dress themselves in drab, plain clothes while depicting themselves so differently in their art, and evidence exists for woven, embroidered, and even painted designs on clothing. That is not to say that all Greeks would have dressed this way. We can surmise that social class was a key factor in determining how plain or ornamented one’s clothing was, and some groups, such as the Spartans, may have chosen to wear simple garments.
So, that concludes our brief overview of Ancient Greek clothing! You can reach me with questions or feedback at (no spaces) andromedaofsparta @ gmail . com.