May 1–August 3, 2003

The Metamorphoses: Classical Transformations and Contemporary Permutations

The richness and variety of the costumes represented in ancient Greek art are the result of simple manipulations of the three basic garment types: the chiton, the peplos, and the himation. The positioning of a waist cinch or a shoulder harness and the removal of a fibula introduced to the ancient wardrobe the possibility of innumerable effects. Over time and through diverse artistic interpretations, these variations have been modified and metamorphosed into an even greater diversity of styles. Still, the resulting garments retain their connotative relationship to the original historical model.

One of the details that has come to denote the ancient silhouette is the cinching-in with a belt, the zone, that occurred above the natural waistline. In Napoleonic France, this "classical" waistline rose to a point directly under the bustline, even higher than the mid-ribcage level preferred by the ancients. This exaggeration, ubiquitous as a fashion during the Neoclassical period from the 1790s through the 1810s, came to be called the Empire waist. Unlike the waistline of antiquity, which employed a cinch or belt, the Empire waist was structural with an almost vestigial bodice connected to a floor-length skirt by seaming.

While the chemise dress of the Empire period relied on pattern-cutting to establish the high Neoclassical-style waistline, the fullness of ancient Greek apparel was controlled by the use of bindings and ties. Depictions of double girdling on both the peplos and chiton suggest that one belt pulled in the waist and raised the hemline, thereby creating a kolpos, or blouson, and a second binding, worn over the blouson, established a visible, decorative waistline. Over the centuries, artists and designers have used double girdling and the blouson to evoke this ancient practice.

Another zone of classical allusion has been the neckline. Antique representations of one-shouldered, breast-baring garments shown on goddesses and Amazons as a specific signifier of their mythic identity are the basis for the association of asymmetrical necklines with Hellenic attire.

Over the two millennia that separate us from the Græco-Roman period, a small number of clothing types have come to represent classical dress. As in ancient Greece, inventive variations of wearing the peplos, chiton, and himation have emerged. Even at a considerable remove from direct reference to specific ancient garment types, such details retain the ability to invoke a classical mode.