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Garments in Classical Greece

Garments in Classical Greece

Problems with Terms.

The terms for Greek clothing types can be confusing, all the more so because the Greeks themselves sometimes used them carelessly. The carelessness is understandable, for every piece of clothing in ancient Greece, whether for men or women, consisted of a rectangle of cloth. The difference was in the size of the cloth and how it was draped over the body. To add to the confusion, Greek styles were adopted by the Romans. Rome's national costume was the toga, but in the third century b.c.e. Rome extended her rule to the Greek cities in what was called "Magna Graecia" (Great Greece) in southern Italy, and the more that the Romans learned of Greek culture, including fashion, the more they were fascinated by it. The Roman Publius Scipio Africanus, who was responsible for the defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 b.c.e., was among the Roman leaders who adopted Greek fashion over the Roman toga. The confusion arises from the fact that the Romans adapted Greek fashion to their own, so it is not always easy to find exact Greek equivalents for Roman costumes. The toga, too, seems to have started its long history simply as a rectangular piece of cloth—the shape it had when it came off the loom.

Dorians versus Ionians.

The Dorians were Greeks who migrated into the Peloponnesos—that is, the area of Greece south of the Isthmus of Corinth—after 1150 b.c.e. when the Mycenaean civilization was foundering, and they founded a number of states, notably Sparta in southeast Greece, and Argos to the north of it. The Dorians favored physical fitness and simplicity in their everyday life, and Dorian fashions reflected it. The Spartans in particular were famous for their austerity. The Dorians liked plain fashions that allowed the body free movement. The Greeks whom the Dorians displaced fled to Athens and from there, they set out for the western coastline of modern Turkey and the offshore islands, where they founded twelve cities which grew and prospered. This was Ionian Greece: twelve cities joined together in a loosely organized league, and though there were more Greek foundations on the coastline of Turkey and the islands than the twelve Ionian cities, it was Ionia that set the style. Ionian fashions reflected the affluent, comfortable, and luxurious life which the Ionians enjoyed, and though the Ionian cities lost their independence by the mid-sixth century b.c.e., they continued to thrive. The types of costume worn by both the Dorians and the Ionians were the same, but whereas the Dorians preferred simple styling and lack of embellishment, the Ionians favored more elaborate fashions and fine fabrics. In the fifth century b.c.e., however, the Ionian cities fell under the domination of Athens and they lost their preeminence as style setters.

Greek Clothing Terms.

The basic item of clothing was the chiton, which was a tunic. If it was short, it might be called a chitoniskos, which means a "little tunic," and if it lacked sleeves, which was generally the case, it was called an exomis, which means a "sleeveless garment." There were some tunics with sleeves, which Romans with a conservative mindset considered a mark of oriental luxury, though in fact, Rome's greatest general and politician, Julius Caesar, wore one. The variety of terms becomes more confusing with the Dorian chiton which is, in fact, a peplos (a simple rectangle of cloth folded and hung from the shoulders). The epic poem Iliad, written by the Greek poet Homer, described the heroes who fought at Troy as wearing a cloak over the tunic which was called a chlaina, or sometimes a pharos; strictly speaking, they were not quite the same, for the pharos was a larger garment. In fact, Homer used the word pharos for any large piece of cloth, including a ship's sail or a funeral shroud. The chlaina seems to have been a general term for any heavy woolen cloak worn in cold weather. In the classical period, the word usually refers to the cloak called the himation, an outer garment worn by both men and women. The Romans used the Latin word pallium for himation, and regarded it as a peculiarly Greek costume, to such a degree that comedies staged in Roman theaters that were adapted from Greek plays were called fabulae palliatae—scenarios played in Greek dress. Another popular cloak was the chlamys. It was an oblong swatch of cloth that made almost a perfect square when it was doubled. The peplos, also called the Dorian chiton, was a rectangle of cloth folded over at the top and then doubled and draped over the body, and held in place with safety pins or brooches at the shoulders. The overfold or apotygma at the top of the garment could hang down as far as the waist. It was probably the earliest Greek dress for women, and it was capable of many variations.

The Chiton.

The Greek word chiton translates as tunica in Latin, from which the English word "tunic" is derived. It was a shirt worn directly over the body, sometimes as an undergarment. There is evidence of prototypes in the Minoan period, but it is in the sub-Mycenaean period (after 1200 b.c.e.), about the same time as the perone or safety pin appears in Greece, that men began wearing a short, sleeveless tunic recognizable as the chiton worn by the warriors in Homer's Iliad. The word chiton has Eastern origins, for it is related to a Semitic word that refers to linen cloth; this evidence suggests that the earliest chitons were linen garments, though later they are often woolen. Chitons came in a great variety of styles. Young men and those regularly involved in physical activity preferred a short chiton which left the legs bare. If the skirt of the chiton was too long, the wearer pulled it up and let it hang over his belt in a fold known as a kolpos. A warrior wore a chiton as an undergarment beneath the cuirass (a piece of armor that protected his torso). A passage in Iliad illustrates the use of a chiton in a description of how the warrior goddess Athena put on her armor: first she took off her peplos, which was a woman's dress, and pulled on a chiton as an undergarment between her cuirass and her skin. Those individuals who are not as active, such as older men, men of high rank, and professional musicians, might wear a chiton long, reaching to the ankles, and over it they would wear a cloak such as the chlaina or the pharos. Both the short and the long chiton were prevalent all over the ancient Greek world.

The Ionian Chiton.

About 600 b.c.e., the end of what art historians call the "Early Archaic Period," draped statues of women wearing chitons that reach the feet, leaving only the toes bare, began to appear. There are good early examples from Ionia, where several seated statues have been found lining the Sacred Way to the temple of Apollo at Didyma. The so-called kore-statues of young girls (in Greek: korai) found in Athens in the debris from the Persian sack of the Acropolis in 480 b.c.e. also provide models of the chitons worn by women in the Middle and Late Archaic periods. Made of fine linen, they fell in regular folds to the feet, and over them a woman would wear a shawl or a cloak like the himation or the chlaina. The evidence of the sculpture suggests that the Ionian chiton came into style in Athens about 600 b.c.e., replacing the peplos or Dorian chiton, as it was sometimes called. The historian Herodotus, writing in the second half of the fifth century b.c.e., explained the replacement of the peplos in Athens as the result of a violent incident, the accuracy of which cannot be verified. According to Herodotus, in the early seventh century b.c.e. the Athenians made an attack on the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf. It failed, and only one survivor of the Athenian expeditionary force returned to Athens. Upon his return, the widows of the men lost at Aegina mobbed him and stabbed him with the safety pins from their Dorian chitons in grief and anger that he alone should have survived. The Athenians were so shocked by this murder that they passed a law forbidding women to wear the Dorian chitons which were fastened at the shoulders with safety pins, and instead ruled that they should wear the Ionian chiton, which was sewn and did not use the safety pins that could become lethal weapons. The Aeginetans continued to use safety pins, however, as did the Argives who had helped the Aeginetans defeat the Athenians; in fact, Herodotus claimed that they adopted safety pins with even longer shafts which were more lethal.

Reaction Against Dorian Dress.

Even if the incident really happened, it was probably not a singular event that prompted the change to Ionian style for women's clothing. The Aeginetans and the Argives were both Dorians, speaking the Dorian dialect of Greek, whereas the Athenians were Ionians and by adopting the fashions of the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor whose cities were flourishing at this time, the women were making a political statement. Later, when Ionia was conquered by Persia after 546 b.c.e., the Athenians tended to look down on the Ionians because they were no longer free men and their sumptuous fashions seemed to signal a willingness to be subjects of the Persian king; in the Greek mind, anything Persian was associated with luxury and opulent living. But at the beginning of the seventh century b.c.e., Ionia was the cultural leader of Greece. Men in Athens wore Ionian chitons as well, and Thucydides, a younger contemporary of Herodotus, remarks that the older Athenians of his day still wore them. But the Persian Wars in the first quarter of the fifth century b.c.e. ushered in a taste for simpler fashions in Athens; in Dorian Greece, the Dorian chiton had never gone out of style. In the new postwar world, the elaborate Ionian chiton was considered a mark of oriental luxury and soft living. It suggested the Persian way of life.


introduction: Towards the end of the seventh century b.c.e. the ornate Ionian chiton came into fashion among Athenian women. Unlike the peplos or Dorian chiton, as it was sometimes called, the Ionian chiton did not need safety pins. According to Athenian tradition, the fashion changed following a gruesome incident involving the lone survivor of a disastrous Athenian military expedition against Athens' bitter rival, Aegina. When the man returned to Athens with the bad news, the widows of the lost soldiers killed him with the weapons most readily accessible to them: the pins in their clothing. Thereafter, the fashion for Athenian women changed to a style that did not require pins. The incident was reported by the historian Herodotus writing in the second half of the fifth century b.c.e.

The Argives and Aeginetans agree in this account, and the Athenians, too, admit that only one of their men returned to Attica alive: the only point of dispute is the occasion of his escape, the Argives saying that he got away after they had destroyed the rest of the Athenian force, the Athenians claiming that the whole thing was an act of God. Even the sole survivor soon came to a bad end; for when he reached Athens with a report of the disaster, the wives of the other men who had gone with him to Aegina, in grief and anger that he alone should have escaped, crowded round him and thrust the brooches, which they used for fastening their dresses, into his flesh, each one, as she struck, asking him where her husband was. So he perished, and the Athenians were more horrified at his fate than at the defeat of their troops in Aegina. The only way they could punish their women for the dreadful thing they had done was to make them adopt Ionian dress; previously Athenian women had worn Dorian dress, very similar to the fashion in Corinth; now they were made to change to linen tunics to prevent them from wearing brooches. Actually this kind of dress is not originally Ionian, but Carian, for in ancient times all the women in Greece wore the costume now known as Dorian. But the Argives and Aeginetans passed a law that in both their countries brooch-pins should be made half as long again as they used to be, and that brooches should be the principal things offered by women in the shrines of these two deities; also, nothing from Attica was to be taken to the temple, not even pottery, and thenceforward only drinking vessels made in the country should be used. From that time to the present day the women of Argos and Aegina have worn brooches with longer pins than in the past—all because of the quarrel with Athens.

source: Herodotus, Histories. Rev. ed. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin Books, 1972): 309–310.

Fashions in Chitons.

The peplos came into style again in Athens after the Persian Wars, but it did not displace the chiton. In fact, chiton and peplos existed side by side throughout the fifth century b.c.e., borrowing features from each other. The kandys, a chiton with long sleeves worn over longer chiton became fashionable for free women during the century. Sleeves were considered exotic; the Persians wore them, and in the last quarter of the fifth century, fashionable Athenians developed a taste for styles with a touch of Persian opulence to them. Also during the same century there are examples of a short tunic reaching to the waist that is worn over the chiton. It is probably what was called the chitoniskos, or "little chiton," and it seems to have been made from a heavier fabric than the chiton itself and is often richly decorated. Men in the classical period abandoned the Ionian chiton, as Thucydides pointed out, but it continued to be used by priests, charioteers, singers, musicians, and actors. The short, sleeveless chiton remained in style for physically active men. For ceremonial occasions, however, the himation became the costume of choice.

The Himation.

The himation was an essential outer garment for both women and men. It was simply an oblong woolen shawl of generous dimensions. There were various ways of draping it around the body. A woman, for instance, might drape it under the right arm and pin or tie it at the left shoulder. In colder weather she could drape her upper body with it and draw it over the head like a cowl. Sometimes, however, she used a separate piece of cloth to cover her head, with one end falling down over the himation. A man threw his himation around his body from left to right, confining his arms; in fact, it was the mark of a gentleman not to extend an arm outside his himation. Wearing one's himation with grace was a mark of social standing in the community and it cannot always have been an easy achievement, for the himation was generally worn without fasteners like buttons or safety pins, and the wearer must have sometimes used his hands that were hidden by his himation to hold it in place. It was far too awkward a garment for a working man, who generally wore a chiton without sleeves called an exomis. In fact, wearing a himation signaled that the wearer did not have to do physical labor. Politicians and philosophers liked it, and in portrait sculpture, it had some of the same connotations as the Roman toga, which it somewhat resembled. It showed that the wearer was not a member of the common people, and it was a fine garment to wear when delivering a lecture or a public speech.

The Peplos.

The peplos was a woman's costume consisting of an oblong swatch of woolen cloth. The cloth was first folded horizontally so that the top quarter was turned back, and then it was doubled by folding it from top to bottom. What resulted was a piece of cloth doubled over to form a square, with an overfold called an apotygma in Greek on the upper edge. It sheathed the body of the wearer, and was fastened at each shoulder by safety pins or buttons so that it hung free. On the right side, the peplos hung open, and one might catch glimpses of the woman's body as she moved. Young women in the Greek city of Sparta liked this style, but women elsewhere usually wore a belt or girdle at the waist to keep the side of the peplos closed and thereby preserve the wearer's modesty. The open side of the peplos might also be pinned together; in Homer's Odyssey, one of the suitors trying to win the favor of Penelope, Odysseus' wife, presented her with a peplos that had twelve gold pins. Since it needed only two pins, or at best four, to fasten it at the shoulders, presumably the rest were used to pin up the open side.

The Origin of the Peplos.

The peplos was not a Mycenaean costume, and probably it arrived in Greece about the same time as the safety pin—that is, in the sub-Mycenaean period (after 1200 b.c.e.), after the citadels of the Mycenaean civilization had fallen and the great palaces destroyed. The Dorian newcomers may have brought the peplos with them, for they migrated into Greece in the sub-Mycenaean period, and so the name "Dorian chiton" which was sometimes applied to the peplos, may be justified. It was, however, worn in early Athens also until the end of the Early Archaic Period, about 600 b.c.e., when women switched to the Ionian chiton. With the reaction in Athens against frills and frippery after the Persian War, the peplos came back into fashion. In Sparta and the rest of Dorian Greece, the Ionian chiton never displaced the peplos. As the Greek language evolved, the word "peplos" acquired a wider meaning and applied to a variety of costumes. There was, however, one instance where the word "peplos" continued to mean a simple, old-fashioned piece of woolen cloth folded to form a woman's dress. Every four years, at the Great Panathenaea festival in Athens, the women of the city presented the goddess Athena with a new robe that they had woven. They used it to dress the ancient wooden statue of Athena Polias—that is, Athena, Guardian of the City—the most sacred cult statue in Athens, which was kept in the temple known as the Erechtheion. The robe was a peplos and the pattern did not change.

Peplos Types.

Styles change with time and the peplos was no exception. From the classical period of the fifth century b.c.e. on, we must distinguish between the peplos worn without an undergarment, known as the peplos endyma, and the peplos worn over a chiton, the peplos epiblema. The girdle in early examples of the peplos simply encircled the waist, but with the skirt above it tucked up so as to form a loose fold. The apoptygma, or overfold, which at first was short, grew in length until it reached the hips. In statues and relief sculptures of the fourth century b.c.e., the overfold is sometimes shown falling freely, but more often as time went on it was held in place by the girdle. The peplos epiblema that was worn over a chiton developed a number of variations. Sometimes the skirt came down to the ankles and only a glimpse of the chiton underneath can be seen at the bottom. Sometimes the peplos came down no further than the knees, and the chiton was shown covering the lower legs. Some statuettes of Athena show her wearing a peplos with an overfold that has pleats of unequal length, and sometimes the peplos is shown pinned only at the right shoulder with the overfold pinned along the right arm to form a kind of short sleeve. It is hard to distinguish this kind of peplos from the Ionian himation. In fact, the Greek authors themselves used the terms for their clothes more indiscriminately as we move into the fourth century b.c.e.

The Chlamys.

The chlamys was a garment of non-Greek people in northern Greece, the Thessalians and the Macedonians. In fact, the chlamys, along with the petasos or causia (a hat with a brim), was the national costume of Macedonia. The distinctive items of costume worn by foreigners from the north when they are depicted on Greek monuments were the chlamys, the causia, the alopekis (a fox-skin cap), and the embades (boots that came part way up the calf of the leg). A Macedonian nobleman signaled his standing by wearing a purple chlamys and causia, and Alexander the Great, the king of Macedon who conquered the Persian Empire, made the chlamys his customary dress. The chlamys was a swatch of cloth that was more or less rectangular with three straight sides and the fourth side concave. It was worn by putting it around the shoulders, straight edge up, and fastening it at the base of the neck, so that its folds fell down as far as the knees. The chlamys might also be fastened at the rear, leaving the wearer's back and buttocks bare. The two ends of the concave side formed points hanging down on either side, and were often compared to wings. Upon its introduction into Greece, it became the usual costume for horsemen. It appears on the Panathenaic frieze from the Parthenon in Athens, where young ephebes (youths undergoing their military training) are shown wearing it as they gallop in the wake of the procession or prepare to mount their horses. In the Greek city of Sparta, the chlamys became the costume of choice for the Spartiates, the military elite that ruled Laconia. It was not adopted by the Romans, but the Romans had a number of military cloaks which were similar, such as the paludamentum, the abolla, and the sagum. The trabea worn by the members of the equestrian order in Rome when they paraded on horseback in honor of Castor and Pollux seems to have been a similar garment. The chlamys, however, lasted into the Byzantine period. In the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna (Italy) there is a mosaic of the empress Theodora (527–548 c.e.) who is shown wearing a chlamys as part of her imperial regalia.


Ephraim David, "Dress in Spartan Society," Ancient World 19 (1989): 3–13.

Evelyn B. Harrison, "The Dress of the Archaic Greek Korai," in New Perspectives in Early Greek Art. Ed. Diana Buitron-Oliver (Washington, D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1991): 217–239.

Rolf Hurschmann, "Chlamys," in Der Neue Pauly (Stuttgart/Weimar, Germany: J. B. Metzler, 1997): 1133.

—, "Chiton," in Der Neue Pauly (Stuttgart/Weimar, Germany: J. B. Metzler, 1997): 1131–1132.

Marion Sichel, Costume of the Classical World (London, England: Batsford, 1980).

David J. Symons, Costume of Ancient Greece (London, England: Batsford, 1987).

see also Architecture: Greek Architecture

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