In the absence of any surviving clothing, art and literature provide the only evidence of classical dress, opening a Pandora's Box of confusion and contradiction. The apparel of ancient Greece was, even in its own day, subject to numerous modifications and transformations. In the huge variety of costumes delineated in artworks and categorized by scholars, exceptions are rife and consistency is elusive. Because specialists of the high classical period of ancient Greece have developed terminology based on a variety of methodologies—art historical, archaeological, and literary—certain discrepancies are perhaps inevitable. However, in every instance, the glossaries are also a simplified system, identifying numerous and specific forms of dress under quite general labels. In this exhibition, the nomenclature was simplified even further and was based on the structure of the garment rather than any other criteria.
The diversity of women's apparel in ancient Greece can be reduced to three general garment types: the chiton, the peplos, and the himation.
Structurally, the most elemental dress type is the chiton, which is constructed in several ways. The most commonly represented is accomplished by stitching two rectangular pieces of fabric together along either sideseam, from top to bottom, forming a cylinder with its top edge and hem unstitched. The top edges are then sewn, pinned, or buttoned together at two or more points to form shoulder seams, with reserve openings for the head and arms.
The peplos is perhaps a more distinctively Greek garment than the chiton, insofar as the chiton's reductive construction has similarities to apparel types in a number of other cultures and times. However, the peplos has several characteristics that distinguish it from other clothing traditions. Made of one large rectangular piece of cloth, it was formed into a cylinder and then folded along the top, creating an apoptygma, or capelet-like overfold. Although there are exceptional instances of chitons represented with overfolds, a garment is not a peplos unless it has been draped with an apoptygma. Brooch-like pins attached the back to the front of the garment at either shoulder. The fastening of the shoulders with fibulae is the single defining detail of the peplos.
While there are a number of scarf, veil, shawl, and mantle forms worn by the ancient Greeks, it is the himation, with its range of draping and wrapping possibilities, that has been the most evident source of later evocations of Hellenic dress. The himation was a large cloak, always rectangular, unlike the Roman toga, which had some shaping. Like the toga, however, it appears to have had a variety of cultural meanings, depending on its proportion and how it was worn. Generally, when worn by women, it was a garment of decorous modesty, but it has been shown on hetærae, or courtesans, as a device for provocation.
The diminishing number of paradigmatic Grecian dress types belies the artistic and literary evidence. But it may be that in the narrowing of types, their potency as carriers of ideals of the antique became even more concentrated over time. It is in the variation and manipulation of a reduced number of basic iconic styles that later artists and contemporary designers have been able to expand on their increasingly inventive interpretations of Grecian dress.