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An Analysis of Women's Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status Pt II: Ancient Greece

by Sarah Andrews

When asked why people desire physical beauty Aristotle responded, "No one that is not blind could ask that question" (Etcoff, 3). It struck Aristotle that the appeal of beauty was innate. Grecian art and sculpture certainly allow us to see that the Greeks valued an ideal human form very much. The ancient Greeks seemed to view the body as a whole. They found and enjoyed beauty in its entirety, and on the body their sexual focus was not limited to the genitals (Taylor, 54). Greek statues depict women as youthful and round; a tapered waist connected high conical breasts and curvaceous thighs. Women were depicted as the perfect vessels for motherhood, which was their greatest function in Grecian society (Tyrrell, xiv).

For any given object balance and unity were of utmost importance, however, Aristotle also insists that every form must be considered with its function in mind, "Given a material, a form, and the composite of these, the primary being is this union of matter and form; therefore, its material is in a sense a part of it; but in another sense it is not, for its parts are only the elements which are stated in its definition.. At least if each being is well defined it will not be defined without reference to its function" (Aristotle 150-151).


Aristotle insists on form being viewed as a whole concept, not a myriad of parts, and also that it is impossible for an object to exist without relation to its function. This might explain the Grecian predilection for sculpture, which could showcase the entire body and its raiment. Hellenistic Greek sculpture reveals a new interest in the eroticism of women. Before the fourth century BC most sculpture included only female subjects who were heavily draped with clothing. The Athenians reveled in male nudity for it symbolized a distinction between Greek and barbarian, implying a superiority of the former. This "heroic" nudity as it is commonly labeled was confined to the men at Athens (Pomeroy, 142). Athenian women as a rule did not participate in athletic activities, therefore there was no occasion for them to strip (143). However, the most striking hallmark of Hellenistic art may be the development of the nude female figure in sculpture. The most common manifestation of the nude woman was Aphrodite who while sexually attractive, also embodied religious ideals. So the female form began to take on a heightened sexuality (145).

Greek sculpture allows us to examine Greek clothing and it is wise to keep Aristotle's rule of form and function in mind as we do so. In the context of clothing it is imperative to compare the structure of clothing as it relates to its function. An analysis of a person's clothing can lead to discoveries about their place in society. Grecian women and men alike wore the chiton. It was one long tunic draped around the body and caught at the shoulders with pins. Men often wore knee length chitons, while women preferred the ankle length (Ewing, 14). The Odessy and the Iliad both refer to the zone which was a band of material, which bound the waist like a girdle. It was hidden under the overflap of the Doric chiton to gather the garment to the figure (Abrahams, 45). Homer describes Trojan women as wearing "deep bosomed" garments, which refers to the deep hollow between the breasts, but writes of the barbarian captives as "deep girdled" which refers to the wasp-waisted ladies of Knossos (Abrahams, 15). So the predecessor of the corset constricted the women of Greece.

The difference between the men and women's dress has much to do with their functions in society. The men, as warriors, needed the mobility afforded by the short, loose chiton, whereas the women, we can assume, were restricted to tasks that could be accomplished in a long gown and tightly wrapped torso. In fact the cultural ideal of the Greeks was the adult male warrior. This depended upon the imperative that boys become warriors and fathers and girls become wives and mothers of sons (Tyrrell, xiv). Thus the women's role is essentially to bear legitimate male heirs, and so their dresses were not built for any other function than to look attractive and remain passive brood mares. Herodotus emphasizes this while describing, a moment of change in dress for Athenian women in 568 BC. Previously the chiton was attached at each shoulder with a large pin made of bone or metal. However, Herodotus tells of a failed war effort by the Athenians after which only one man was left alive to bring the news home. The distraught widows of Athens were so enraged that they stabbed the messenger to death with their brooches. The women were punished and compelled to adopt the Ionic form of dress, which features a chiton with no pins (Abrahams, 40). The pins on the chitons had allowed the women to rise up in anger and take action, and so their dress was modified. The dress of Grecian women seemed dictated by their perceived societal role.

There was exception among Greek women however, the short chiton is sometimes found on Greek monuments of women as well. It follows the longer style in its pinning and arranging but is not as full and reaches only to the knee. It is worn by women or girls engaged in exercise or by the warring Amazons. It is often adapted to reveal the right breast which allowed an Amazon warrior greater freedom of movement to use her bow (Evans, 34). The difference in dress is reflected in the cultural role of the Amazon. In the Greek imagination Amazons reflected the destructive forces unleashed when women abandoned their roles as nurturers of men and appropriated virile attributes instead (Yalom, 23). The Amazon myth is the reversal of the cultural imperative: women who go to war and refuse to become mothers of sons (Tyrrell, xiv). These women gain power by adopting the actions and dress of men. The practice of uncovering and unfettering the right breast, or in many cases removing it all together, announces their unwillingness to submit to a male dominated culture which demands the modest covering of life giving breasts. On the other side of the spectrum is the example of the Greek Hetairai who were known to bare breasts for a different reason; prostitution (Yalom, 160). The word hetairai means companion to men, and the Greek courtesans enjoyed the unique privilege of education which fostered their intellectual and artistic abilities (Pomeroy, 89). The Hetairai were notoriously mercenary. They were the only women in Athens to exercise financial control over their money. From the time of Rhodopis, an Egyptian courtesan freed by Sappho's brother, prostitutes were credited with dispensing of their fortunes in extraordinary ways. Rhodopis was reputed to have supplied the funds to build a pyramid (91).

These women provide two wonderfully divergent examples of female power. The Amazon found power in living apart from men completely. In their purely feminine society it was a badge of honor to remove one breast to increase physical prowess. The Hetairai, however, might gain her own sort of freedom. A woman could choose to be a prostitute by exploiting her body. If she was wise she might save enough money to open her own brothel and reach financial independence separate from a man (Pomeroy, 91). This is an ambiguous type of power however, and in this case the women themselves perpetuate lowered status for women. Unfortunately in a male dominated society the exploitation of the female body is a profitable business. In the end both the Hetairai and the Amazon claimed a higher status in their society than the citizen wife did, and this is exemplified in their dress. However, the objectified prostitute gained power only through the misuse of her body while the Amazon gained power by creating a society without men, so neither of them attained true equality in normal society.

The Greeks invented the predecessor to the corset, the zone, which served as a constricting force upon the body of the docile citizen wife. However, Amazon women rebelled against this completely. They wore the shorted chiton and often left their right breasts uncovered, (if it was still in place, as many removed it to improve their use of a bow). They were the antithesis of the proper citizen wife and their clothing was purely functional (Houston, 50).

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Copyright Sarah Andrews. Reprinted at with permission


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