Common Interpretations Lacking Evidence

First, if you have evidence for any of these, PLEASE share it with me! It is my intention to gain a better understanding of the garments the Greeks really wore, even if that means sacrificing some of the “pretty Hollywood” interpretations, but as a student myself, I am always open to new evidence. Here, I simply wish to present some pervasive interpretations of Greek garments that seem to be presented without historical citations.

  1. The one-shouldered chiton
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    I’ve already written a paper on the one-shouldered chiton, so I’ll be brief here. This garment is more accurately called an exomis and was primarily worn by male slaves and workers. When women did wear it, it seems to be in abnormal situations, such as by Spartan girls running, or in depictions of mythical Amazons or maenads going crazy. I have found no evidence that a woman would have worn this under other circumstances . Further, there is no evidence for this construction, that of either cutting the upper body fabric at an angle or of pulling all of the upper body fabric off over one shoulder. Instead, the evidence points to simply not pinning the side where the bare shoulder is and letting the fabric hang. This also fits with the purpose: freeing the right arm for better mobility. In short, the Hollywood version is sexy, but does not seem to be supported as an accurate interpretation.
  2. Himation as a sash
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    For women, the himation is a garment worn outside the home for modesty and/or protection from the elements. It serves a purpose and most of the time is fully wrapped around the lower body with quite enough excess fabric to go over the left shoulder and even the head. Sometimes, the entire body — lower and upper — is covered as well as the face. Compare it to the male himation which is, no surprise here, the same garment and can be worn with nothing underneath it. It needs to be decently substantial to be called a himation. Men have a short cloak in addition to the himation, called a chlamys, but even this garment has enough fabric that one could wear it alone without flashing everyone. There is no evidence of the himation being purely decorative and draped like a beauty pageant sash. In the below images of a statue of Aphrodite (200-150 BCE) from the Getty Villa, notice that the top edge of her himation is rolled or twisted at her waist and that it comes up over her head and then still has enough fabric to hang down in front of her left shoulder.
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    For more examples of the himation on both men and women, see this article I wrote for Romana Sum.  Interpretations of some archaic kore statues where the maiden wears chiton and himation provide debate. In one example, the commenter states: “Her left hand grasped a fold of her thin linen chiton, pulling it tightly across her legs; the right hand probably held out an offering. The short himation (cloak), which passes diagonally over her right shoulder and under her left arm, falls in vertical, stacked folds.” It should be noted that this statue is quite worn and lacks detail. In others of the same kore-type (as opposed to the peplos kore), such as the Kore from Chios in the Acropolis Museum (ca. 520-510 BCE) seen below, the blue chiton is of an obviously different pattern from the white fabric that is being pulled tightly, and this fabric matches the pattern of the himation rather than the chiton! Another interpretation is that the “short himation” is the top of a horizontally folded himation. We’ve seen before where the top of the himation has been rolled or twisted, and this interpretation fits the idea of a full-size himation being adjusted for the height of the wearer, folded to achieve a more elegant drape, or even rolled (see the “channel” at the top?) slightly to keep it in place by making it tighter. Additionally, in both cases of the chiton and himation-wearing kore statues, the himation exhibits vertical pleats, suggesting that a substantial length of fabric has been used. For my smaller frame at 5’4″, I find that 10′ in length and 50″ in width is the minimum for achieving the needed coverage and drape.
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  3. Flappy bits on a chiton
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    There is quite a bit of variation among Greek garments, so it’s possible that this does exist and I’ve just never seen it, but in general, we can break garments down into a few types: peplos, Doric chiton, Ionian chiton, Ionian chiton with apoptygma (overfold). (See again this article for more explanation on these.) Both examples of Ionian chiton lack “flappy bits” because of how the Ionian chiton is constructed. For the Ionian chiton sans apoptygma, the top edge is fastened or sewn along the top of the arms, so there is no fabric to hang next to the breast or flap open along the arm. The same is true when we choose larger rectangles and allow an overfold before fastening or sewing the top edge. A peplos (sometimes called a Doric peplos) is characterized by an apoptygma. It is a single piece of fabric, folded over at the top, that is wrapped around the body and pinned at the shoulders, with the open part occurring at one side. Because it is a single piece, the arm hole on the side with the fold is created by not pinning at the corners, but rather moving in along the top fold far enough to put the arm through. This allows for characteristic “flappy bits” hanging down around the arms (depending on period – for a discussion about the differences in archaic peploses and what should or should not be called a peplos, see “The Fashion of the Elgin Kore“). The below image is of a caryatid wearing a peplos. See all of the fabric gathered near her arms.

    A Doric chiton is called such to distinguish it from an Ionian chiton. Sometimes it’s also just called a chiton. (Even other times, the peplos is called a Doric chiton, so clearly there is quite a bit of confusion!) The Doric chiton is made of two rectangular pieces of fabric, sewn up the sides, and pinned at the top corners letting the garment hang from the shoulders. I have found no evidence that, with this construction of having the arm holes on the sides, the garment was pinned further in along the top edge, as in done with the peplos, allowing the corners or “flappy bits” to hang along the arm or down the side of the breast. When it does appear that this is happening, on closer inspection, it seems to be an optical illusion and is, in fact, the loose side fabric being pushed up by either himation or harness. Take for example the same statue of Aphrodite we examined for her himation and look at the fabric hanging next to her right breast. If you look closely, it lacks a distinct corner and instead flows back into the fabric that is being cinched by the top of her himation. 19657365_10108221126239011_6143195182259249224_n.jpg
    There is another explanation for the confusion. My construction — having a head hole from top edge and arm holes from the side edges — works well for women who need less fabric, but for women who need more fabric, this might result in too wide of a head hole. Another construction is proposed by the Met Museum where instead the length of the side is sewn and then arm and head holes are created from the top edge, allowing the pinning to occur not at the corner but further in. See the image below for possible constructions of chiton vs. peplos.Scan.pngNotice, however, that this construction still will not result in flappy corner bits to hang, as the original fabric corners are no longer “edges” but form a loop under the arm. I think it is the case that the interpretation of a chiton with excess fabric hanging open along the arm or down the side of the breast is a confusion between the construction for a peplos and a chiton or between the two chiton constructions. Either way, if someone has a historical example, I would love to see it as I think the flappy bits can be quite adorable!

UPDATE: So, this was written before the murder by dress pin story clicked into the “aha! shoulder rapiers!” epiphany. Then, we can assume that the pins here are straight pins (if earlier period) OR some kind of button (if later period), rather than a safety-pin (fibula type). How buttons were used as a fastener on a doric chiton or peplos is still being hotly debated given that they presumably pre-date the buttonhole. Alternatively, the fabric can be sewn.

So, that’s it for today! If you have any evidence to share, please email me: andromedaofsparta at gmail dot com.

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