Clothing and Adornment

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Clothing and Adornment



Seasons. Keeping warm in most parts of Greece was a problem only in winter, and even then not an especially difficult one, with temperatures rarely approaching freezing. Protection from the sun was more of a problem, but it too was easily accomplished. The absolute need for clothing, then, was relatively small, and its production and use was driven much more by fashion than necessity.

Wool. Most Greek clothing was made of wool, for reasons having to do with economics, technology, and climate. Wool is warm and water-resistant: to this day it is the best natural fiber for warmth, and its ability to wick away moisture makes it suitable for warm weather as well. The climate of Greece is well-suited not only for humans wearing wool, but also for its original wearers, the sheep. These animals can survive on fairly poor, semiarid pasture land that is incapable of supporting farming (they were, of course, an important source of food as well). For this reason wool was readily available; in addition, it is easy to spin, making it far easier to produce than cotton or silk. Thus, it was far cheaper than other fabrics. Selective breeding took place to improve the quality of wool, and certain regions, such as Miletus, had an especially good reputation for wool production. Goathair was occasionally used as well.

Other Materials. Other fabrics played a minor role. Linen, cultivated in Greece as early as 1200 b.c.e., was fairly common and was used for some tunics and undergarments, since it was less scratchy than wool. It was, however, less durable and more difficult to produce. The stems of the flax plant were dried in the sun, then soaked in water, then dried again, and then beaten with a mallet to separate the husks from the fibers; only then were the fibers ready for weaving. Silk was used as a luxury fiber: the earliest silk known in the Classical world was found in an upper-class grave in Athens, dating to around 400 b.c.e. It was probably

not imported from China, but instead the product of wild silkmoths on the Greek island of Cos (in the Eastern Aegean). Leather was the usual material for shoes and was used as well for armor, including breastplates and shields. Furs and skins, while readily available, played almost no role in standard Greek dress. They could be used to keep warm in an emergency (the climate did not require their regular use), or by rustics. Wearing fur—especially that of exotic, wild animals—was the mark of the foreign, barbaric, or heroic. Thus, the maenads, legendary followers of the god Dionysus, dressed themselves in fawn- and panther-skins; and Heracles wore the skin of the Nemean lion he had slain. Cotton was unknown until Hellenistic times, when its cultivation spread from India into Egypt.

Production. Spinning and weaving were of great economic and symbolic significance for women. Clothing production began with removing the wool from the sheep, which was often accomplished by plucking rather than shearing. The raw wool would then be treated to remove dirt, burrs, and lanolin (an oil, now used as an ointment), combed through and made into balls, dyed, and then spun. To spin, one used a spindle—a tapered rod, made of wood or bone, with a weight at the larger end to increase the momentum of the spindle. The unspun fiber was placed on a shorter rod known as a distaff; the weaver would draw out a few fibers from the wool on the distaff, attach them to the spindle, and let the spindle spin. The weight and rotation of the spindle added twist to the yarn, greatly increasing its strength.

Looms. The spun yarn was then woven on a loom. Until the Roman period, looms varied little in design: they consisted of two upright posts with a transverse beam running across them at the top. Looms typically were leaned up against the wall, rather than being suspended from the ceiling. The individual threads of the warp were attached to the crossbeam, with weights at the bottom to make them hang straight. Horizontal rods were placed through them so that they would alternately be in front of and behind the rods: this allowed the cross-fibers (the weft) to be woven alternately over and under the warp, using a shuttle which was dragged across horizontally. Periodically, a comb would be used to push the weft threads upward to pack them in more tightly.

Dyes. Another advantage to wool is that it takes dyes well, and could be dyed in the fleece before being spun (making it possible to dye large batches conveniently). A variety of sources were used for dyes, including plants, insects, and shellfish. In many cases the wool needed to be treated with special agents (such as iron or alum) for the dyes to hold, and dyeing was normally done by skilled craftspeople. The most famous and expensive dye was the purple derived from whelks (a type of shellfish), known as porphura, from which the word purple is ultimately derived. Originally developed by Phoenicians from the city of Tyre, this dyeing process was later duplicated in Greek cities, and many cheaper substitute purples were developed. The different shades (ranging from violet to scarlet) remained the most sought-after colors for Greek clothing and other textiles, although the association of purple with social status never became as strong in Greece as it did in Rome.

Patterns. Weaving technique, even in the earliest periods, was quite advanced. It was possible, for example, to produce intricate patterns in a weave by varying the color of the yarn. In Homer’s Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), Helen “weaves a great web, a red folding robe,” and works “into it the numerous struggles of Trojans, breakers of horses, and Achaians, struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.” Although not much cloth has survived from classical Greece (there is more from the Roman period), depictions of intricately patterned clothing (especially that designed for choruses in drama) reveal the skill of ancient weavers. (Intricate designs could also be embroidered, although this was less common.) Professional weavers, or highly trained slaves, would produce these complex patterns; most clothing, however, was homemade, produced by the women or slaves of the household that wore it. In these cases patterns would be simpler, consisting of geometric shapes or bands of color; many garments, especially those worn by men, were plain and undyed.

Cleaning. Clothing was most often washed in water, but could also be taken to the fuller for cleaning. This process would involve treading it underfoot in a mixture of water, urine, and fuller’s earth, then rinsing it in tanks. (A similar process was used to treat wool cloth prior to wearing.) It was normal to patch and repair clothing instead of discarding it: given the scarcity of material goods and the lack of annual changes in fashion, most items of clothing were probably in use for many years.

Types of Clothing. Greek clothing was loose rather than formfitting, and was usually made of large pieces of cloth that were woven into their desired shape rather than tailored. Greek apparel may be divided into two basic types: that which was draped (periblêma, literally, “thrown around”), and that which was put on or entered into (enduma). The former category includes all heavier formal or informal outerwear; the latter includes various types of tunics. (Trousers were completely foreign to the Greeks.) Unlike clothing in the modern world, Greek clothing changed little over time: while there might be minor variations in style, the same basic types of garments, cut along the same lines, remained in fashion for centuries. Yet, the Greeks were far from unconcerned with fashion; to them, fashion was tied to small details—ways of draping a mantle, for example, or of tying up a tunic—and to specialized, high-quality production (robes from Corinth and tunics from Amorgos were highly prized). There were not, however, the sort of wholesale changes of garment type or style that characterize the modern fashion system. (Fashions were more changeable, however, for hairstyles, jewelry, and footwear.) In general, clothing was more expensive and difficult to produce than it is in the modern world, and most people owned little of it.

Gender. Another surprise for the modern student of antiquity is the fact that for much of the period men and women wore basically the same clothing: if a woman appeared in public in a man’s cloak, it would not cause raised eyebrows. Gender differences, as with fashion, tended to be found in the smaller details and accessories: the decoration of certain garments, the types of fasteners used, hairstyles, and such adornments. Status could also be difficult to determine from clothing: rich people obviously had fancier clothing and kept it in better shape, but there was no separate costume for slaves, and (in contrast with Rome) there was no special garment adopted upon reaching manhood.

Outer Garments. The basic outer garment for men was a mantle known as the himation. This garment was a large, rectangular piece of cloth, measuring about nine by six feet, without a hole for the head, which was draped over the body in a variety of ways (sometimes simply or with intricate folds held up by a belt). The himation was similar to the well-known Roman toga (except that the toga consisted of a larger, semicircular piece of cloth). It was put on by being draped over the shoulders and back, then brought around across the front of the body going from right to left. The free, folded end of the himation could then be draped over the crooked left arm, or thrown back over the shoulder for greater freedom of movement. The weight of the cloth would tend to keep it in place, although the garment must have been somewhat prone to slipping, since it was not pinned except in unusual cases (such as emergencies). If greater freedom of movement was required, the himation would be dispensed with altogether. Draping on the wrong side (that is, over the right shoulder) was considered eccentric, ignorant, or rustic. In Plato’s Theaetetus (circa 360 b.c.e.-355 b.c.e.) Socrates sneers at people who “don’t know how to fold the himation over the left shoulder the way freeborn citizens do.”

Exposed Flesh. The himation could be draped to cover the right shoulder, although it was common to leave it exposed. This practice was fashionable among many

groups, including court speakers and politicians in fifth-century Athens. To have that much exposed flesh on a formal occasion strikes modern readers as odd, but this dress was not at all unusual for the Greeks. Their clothing in general left a lot of uncovered skin, which is due in part to the warm climate, but also to their attitude toward the body, which was viewed with much less modesty than in modern society. This mind-set was particularly true for the male body—athletes competed in the nude—but even to a surprising extent for the female body, considering the culture’s desire to keep women under control and out of sight.

Versatility. The himation was a versatile garment, and for some people the only garment. Normally it was worn over a tunic, but Spartan men are said to have worn only the himation after the age of twelve. They were imitated in this style by Socrates and other philosophers who had a taste for simple living, and by those who could not afford any other clothing. For the poor, it could also serve as a blanket.

Cloaks. The other common type of men’s outer garment was the khlamus, a cloak made of thick, stiff material, pinned up at the shoulder or joined in front of the body. It was worn primarily by soldiers, adolescents, and horseback riders.

Women. For women, the himation came into fashion by the fourth century. Prior to that women had worn the peplos, which was a larger rectangle that was wrapped, rather than draped, around the body. Consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth of variable dimensions, the peplos would be wrapped around the body horizontally, then fastened together over the shoulders with pins. This style would leave one side of the garment open, perhaps exposing the wearer’s body. The Spartans—famous for giving women some of the same physical training and freedom as men—were said to wear the peplos in a style that revealed the thighs (earning this style the nickname phainomêrides, or “thigh-displayers”). In Athens and elsewhere, less skimpy peploi were more common. A longer garment could be folded over before wrapping, so that the extra material would hang down in the front, giving the appearance of an upper garment over a long skirt. A wider peplos would have extra material on the open side, which would hang down in folds, giving the appearance of a full, elegant garment. If large enough, it could even be pulled up over the head as a veil or hood (women on funeral monuments are sometimes depicted in this manner). The open side could also be sewn or pinned up, giving the whole the appearance of a neat, fairly tight cylinder. In addition, the use of a belt would also allow for a formfitting sort of garment, while creating the opportunity for more folds. Elegant folds were highly valued, to judge from the care which artists of the Classical period took in depicting garment folds in sculpture and vase painting. In addition, the folds in a garment could make a convenient carrying place for objects.

Legend. Herodotus tells a fascinating but fictitious story about the Athenian abandonment of the peplos: Athenian women, outraged at the sole survivor of an expedition against Aigina, stabbed him to death with their brooches. From this point on, Athenian women were forbidden to have brooches; and for this reason they had to give up the peplos and switch to the linen tunic known as the khitôn. In fact, wearing of the peplos continued in some areas—it was thought to be Dorian, and therefore a bit rustic and old-fashioned.

Undergarments. The khitôn was sometimes an undergarment for a himation (not for a peplos, which needed none), but it could also be worn alone, in informal contexts or in warm weather. It differed from the other garments in belonging to the class of enduma, that is, it was put on like a shirt rather than draped. It was made of two pieces of rectangular cloth (linen or wool) sewn together on the sides and on the shoulders, and was usually sleeveless. There are exceptions, however: women’s tunics could be held together by buttonlike discs on the shoulders, around which the cloth could be tied. Sometimes men’s tunics were fastened together at the shoulder by pins. Usually a tunic would be drawn in by a belt at the waist; it might also be held in by a wider band (known as the zôstêr) higher up. For men the khitôn ended at about mid-thigh; for women it was typically somewhat longer. At night, the wearer would remove the belt and use the khitôn as a nightshirt.

Work Clothes. A variant on the standard Khitôn is the exômis, which was fastened together on only one shoulder, leaving the other arm free. For this reason, it was a common work costume, for free people and slaves alike. There also existed the full-length Ionic Khitôn (the shorter one is called Doric), which was a long, cylindrical gown-like garment that reached the ankles. Originally a common garment for men, it fell out of fashion for everyday wear (being replaced by the combination of himation and Doric khitôn), but was still used for ceremonial and religious occasions. Among these occasions were chariot races, and the famous Charioteer of Delphi wears an Ionic Khitôn. Gathered above the waist, it draped in long, parallel folds, with gathered pleats along the side forming a sort of sleeve.

Special Garments. The Doric Khitôn was usually worn next to the skin, although those who could afford multiple tunics would sometimes wear them in cold weather, or use a softer linen tunic under a woolen one. For the lower body, triangular loincloths were probably common (although underwear is not always depicted in paintings or sculpture) and were regularly worn by menstruating women. Women sometimes wore a strophion, a soft cloth band designed to restrain the breasts.

Footwear. Shoes were usually made of leather, although fibrous plant materials could also be used, as could cork or wood for the soles. Evidence from vase paintings suggests that Greeks often went barefoot indoors; regularly going barefoot outdoors, however, was considered a mark of eccentricity, at least by those who could afford shoes (this observation was frequently made in reference to Socrates). Shoes were usually produced by specialized tradespeople and could be bought ready-made or made-to-order: one vase painting shows a cobbler using a customer’s foot as an outline for cutting leather.

Sandals and Socks. Sandals were the most common shoe type: easy to construct, cheap, and cool during warm weather. They were tied on rather than slipped into: leather thongs attached to the sole were wound about the ankle and big toe, leaving the upper part of the foot mostly uncovered. Boots were available for travel, military service, and other occasions demanding sturdier footwear. There were also specialized shoes like the kothurnos, a high, thick-soled boot worn by tragic actors. Socks (sokkoi) were known, but not as common as they are today. They were produced with a knitting technique rather than being woven.

Fashionable Shoes. Women’s shoes were more varied in design and often quite elegant and fashionable. A mime by the third-century poet Herodas depicts two urban women shopping for shoes, and the shopowner lists no fewer than sixteen varieties. Unfortunately, scholars have few details on what any of these looked like, and even when there are illustrations on vase paintings, it is often impossible to match these up with the named styles. Designed for formal occasions, many of these shoes were delicate and dyed in various colors. Heels were flat rather than high, and women who wanted to increase their height used cork inserts.

Hats and Accessories. People generally went around bareheaded most of the time. For men, a basic type of hat was the pilidion, a plain felt or wool bonnet that could be used as a nightcap, or worn on cold days by slaves and workers, but was not a hat to wear on any occasion when appearance was important. It was worn by the god Hephaestus in his role as patron of workers. A similar design was called the kunê (literally, a dogskin cap, although it was usually made of cowhide). The pilos was a tall, conical hat that was more fashionable than the pilidion. Perhaps the most familiar Greek hat was the petasos: low-crowned and with a broad brim to keep off the sun, it was traditionally worn by travelers (and by Hermes, their patron god). It had a chin strap and when not in use could be pushed back off the head and worn between the shoulders. Felt, being denser than spun and woven wool, was especially good at providing protection from rain. Women wore a version of the petasos known as the tholia, and also covered their heads with scarves and cloth headdresses.

Belts and Walking Sticks. Belts were usually thin, simple bands of leather or cloth, although in some cases they could be broader and highly decorated. In addition, a walking stick was a common accessory—useful for balance on uneven roads or rocky areas, and even for holding up the folds of one’s himation.

Beauty. Greeks who had sufficient income and leisure devoted much care to their personal appearance, and standards of hygiene were high. For men, there was a tension between the desire to look good (the Greeks were great admirers of youthful male beauty) and the desire to seem naturally beautiful without having to work at it. For women, elaborate attention to beauty was considered perfectly normal. Men were expected to be physically robust and athletic (whether from work, military training, or leisure-time exercise), and sun-darkened skin was considered the norm. Women, by contrast, were supposed to have white, untanned skin, and a man whose complexion was too light might be viewed as somewhat unmanly and suspected of spending too much time indoors with women.

Hair Length. In the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.) it was common for men to wear their hair long: in fact, one of the standard terms for the Greeks in the Iliad is “flowing-haired.” Like many older fashions, this style fell out of favor in most places by the fifth century, but survived in Sparta, a traditional and conservative society. It was common in Athens for youths to cut off their long hair upon reaching adulthood and to dedicate the hair to a god. Adult men wore their hair at about collar length (a modern term, of course, since the ancient Greeks had no collars) and sometimes paid careful attention to its styling. Barber shops were common, and they seem to have been for the Greeks (as they have been in the present-day United States) popular places to gather and talk. Judging from hairstyles found in sculpture, curled hair must have been common for special occasions, and curling irons are among the personal-care artifacts that have been found in excavations.

Facial Hair. Beards were almost universal for men until after the time of Alexander the Great, although the styles varied a bit. The cheeks were sometimes shaved while the beard was trimmed square or in a point. In the fifth century (when full beards were in fashion), razors were thought of as quintessentially feminine implements, so that a character in a comedy by Aristophanes questions another character’s masculinity by accusing him of always carrying a razor.

Hairstyles. Women’s hairstyles were, not surprisingly, more elaborate than men’s. Women usually wore their hair long (in fact, they rarely cut it) and sometimes kept it curled and piled up on the back of the head or held in place by the kekruphalos, a sort of hairnet that gathered it backward off the forehead. Most common was a style in which the hair was braided and drawn into a knot behind the head; hair was worn down over the shoulders on special occasions, such as religious festivals. Slaves, both male and female, had short hair. A variety of hair-care implements have been found by archaeologists: scissors, combs (made of wood, bone, or tortoise shell), and a wide variety of hairpins. It was also possible to dye one’s hair, with blond being a popular color, and wigs were available.

Makeup. Cosmetics were widely used by women, especially to achieve the whiteness that was so highly prized. White lead was used, and a type of rouge derived from orchids could be added as a blush. Eyeliner in black or brown was also popular. There were a great variety of perfumes, as well as lotions for skin care. Removal of body hair was the norm (including in many cases pubic hair), which could be accomplished with razors, tweezers, and depilatories. For women, the chief risk in applying makeup was that of appearing too seductive or too much like a hetaira (courtesan): a wife was supposed to look appealing to her husband, but somehow not too appealing.


The cultivation of grapes and production of wine were important parts of the process of civilization. This link was also a commonplace in Greek thought: barbarian peoples were known for liking beer or milk and being ignorant of wine. Thus, in Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.) the Cyclops Polyphemus is tricked by Odysseus, since he is unused to strong Greek wine, and his drunken stupor allows Odysseus and his men to blind him and make their escape from his cave.

Greek attitudes toward drunkenness were less conflicted than in present-day society. While realizing that excessive drinking could be damaging to health and could cause a variety of social ills, the ancient Greeks accepted without question the pleasure that alcohol could provide. In Euripides’ play Bacchae (circa 406 b.c.e.), the blind prophet Tiresias praises the god Dionysus for his invention of wine:

Mankind, young man, possesses two supreme blessings. First of these is the goddess Demeter, or Earth, whichever name you choose to call her by. It was she who gave to man his nourishment of grain. But after her there came the son of Semele [Dionysus], who matched her present by inventing liquid wine as his gift to man. For filled with that good gift, suffering mankind forgets its grief; from it comes sleep; with it oblivion of the troubles of the day. There is no other medicine for misery. And when we pour libations to the gods, we pour the god of wine himself that through his intercession man may win the favor of heaven.

Although wine was an everyday beverage, and was usually watered down to prevent extreme drunkenness, drinking in the context of the symposium was highly regulated and directed toward achieving a state of pleasurable, but not excessive, inebriation. Wine was mixed in large bowls called kraters (Greek kratêres), and the number to be consumed at a symposium was a vital decision made by the symposiarch, or master of ceremonies. In a fragment of a play by the comic poet Eubulus, Dionysus discusses the proper measure for drinking:

Three kraters only do I propose for sensible men: one for health, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep; when this has been drunk up, wise guests make for home. The fourth kratêr is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris; the fifth to shouting, the sixth to revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth to summonses; the ninth to bile; and the tenth to madness and people tossing the furniture about.

Jewelry. The type of clothing worn in Greece made jewelry a common accessory for both men and women, although women wore quite a bit more. For a peplos and for certain types of khitôn pins or brooches were necessary to fasten the garment; and various hairstyles demanded pins and clasps. The historian Thucydides in the late fifth century speaks of upper-class men wearing golden “grasshopper” brooches to hold up their long hair, and this is probably a survival of an Archaic Period practice when men had long hair. In the fifth and fourth centuries, men wore little jewelry except for signet rings, which could be used to place an identifying seal in clay or wax.

Feminine Decorative Items. Women, in addition to functional pieces that held up clothing and hair, wore a variety of purely decorative jewelry: necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and earrings. In the Archaic Period, necklaces were heavy; lighter ones became fashionable later, sometimes with amulets or gems suspended from them. Bracelets and anklets could actually be worn further up the arm or leg and could be plain bands of gold or silver, spiral patterns, or even the form of a snake coiled up on itself. Earrings were designed for pierced ears and, like necklaces, evolved from heavy to light: small circular or patterned studs were the most common type.


Robert Flaceliere, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles, translated by Peter Green (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

Dorothy M. Johnson, ed., Ancient Greek Dress (Chicago: Argonaut, 1964).

Michael L. Ryder, Sheep and Man (London: Duckworth, 1983).

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