May 1–August 3, 2003

Mythic Details: The Greek Key, Laurels, and the Attributes of Goddesses

Most early post-classical depictions of ancient Grecian themes represent the gods, demi-gods, and mortals in loosely draped, monochromatic robes. If present at all, the only ornamentation is a narrow banded border of braid or embroidery. However, vase paintings, painted sculptures, and ancient literary references provide extensive evidence for the use of decorative embellishments in ancient Greek dress. A cursory survey of red-and-black figure vase paintings reveals that antique dress was composed of a rich variety of patterned textiles.

Among the most common designs seen in ancient art is the Greek-key pattern, a rectilinear meander. Other abstracted forms of wave patterns, geometric repeats, and palmette friezes were also seen on classical garments, as were more intricate borders depicting animals, birds, and fish as well as complex battle scenes. Nevertheless, such patterns have only rarely been used by later artists or by contemporary designers. Of all these motifs, the Greek key and wave patterns appear most frequently in designs intended to evoke the antique. In some instances, the key pattern is broken into a discontinuous segmented band, but even this disrupted linear repeat is sufficient to sustain the classical connection.

Although well represented in art, mythological attributes of Olympian deities are less common in fashion. However, the ancient Greek practice of recognizing achievement and bestowing honor through the presentation of a coronet of flowers and leaves was reflected in Neoclassical embroideries and in more recent creations. Certain details of the coronets originally associated with the presiding deities—laurels for Apollo, olive leaves for Athena, roses for Aphrodite, ivy for Dionysos—are perhaps too esoteric for the purposes of fashion and have generally been obscured. Still, other mythic attributes have continued with their original meanings intact. Christian Dior, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, and Gianni Versace have incorporated in their designs attributes of Greek goddesses—peacock feathers for Hera, sea foam and shells for Aphrodite, and the aegis (breastplate) for Athena.

Over time, reductive simplicity emerged as a way of conveying an aura of the antique, a strategy that was further developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Still, patterns and designs from the repertoire of ancient ornament, as well as various attributes of the Olympian deities evoke classical antiquity. Incorporating these elements into their creations, contemporary designers have introduced to fashion the narratives of ancient myth. In a field characterized by constant change, they have clung to the illusion of an ideal of beauty through the resonant imagery of classical decorative motifs.