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Exhibitions/ Goddess


May 1–August 3, 2003

Exhibition Overview

From the clothing of ancient Greece to such modern evocations as Madame Grès's emblematic creations and Versace's Neoclassical loincloths, classical dress has profoundly inspired and influenced art and design over the millennia. The exhibition presents clothing, prints, photographs, and decorative works of art, from the eighteenth century onward, to reveal the many ways in which classical dress has become a truly timeless style. With more than two hundred items on display, including clothing from the Directoire and Empire periods, the exhibition features loans of vintage and contemporary designs from international couture houses and private collectors along with works from the permanent collection of The Costume Institute.

The designers featured include Paul Poiret, Madame Grès, Madeleine Vionnet, Balenciaga, Charles James, Bill Blass, Holly Harp, Gilbert Adrian, Claire McCardell, Jean Patou, Louiseboulanger, Lucile, Lucian Lelong, Pierre Cardin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent, Fortuny, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Tom Ford for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Halston, Molyneux, Christian Dior, Hussein Chalayan, Mary McFadden, Donna Karan, Isabel Toledo, La Perla, Stéphane Rolland for Jean Louis Scherrer, Valentino, Rick Owens, Dolce & Gabbana, Gianni Versace, Tommy Hilfiger, Carolina Herrera, Ralph Rucci, Christian Lacroix, m.r.s., Julien MacDonald for Givenchy, Lainey Keogh, Shelley Fox, Thierry Mugler, Cesare Paciotti, Miuccia Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Arnold Scaasi, Vera Wang, Giorgio Armani, Alberta Ferretti, Emanuel Ungaro, Stavropoulos, Norma Kamali, Douglas Ferguson, Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain, Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli, Clements Ribeiro, Ann Demeulemeester, Lars Nilsson for Bill Blass, Ronaldus Shamask and Michele Oka Doner, Nicolas Ghesquière for Callaghan, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and the costumes created for Isadora Duncan's groundbreaking dance performances.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are made possible by GUCCI.
Additional support for the exhibition has been provided by Condé Nast.

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.

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.

The Roman poet Ovid recounted an ancient myth in which Pygmalion, a sculptor disenchanted by mortal women, created an image of feminine perfection. When he became enthralled with his own sculpted ideal, Venus—the Greek Aphrodite—responded to his prayers and brought the statue to life as Galatea.

Through the centuries, art and fashion have achieved their own transformations, adding elements not present in the original garments. Even in the most naturalistic representation of Hellenic dress, subjective and prescribed stylistic qualities are inevitably introduced. In depicting details of ancient Greek attire, later artists and designers have changed, as much as preserved, the actual qualities of ancient garb. Among the stylizations that have most influenced fashion designers is wet drapery, a term used by art historians to describe fabric that seems to cling to the body in animated folds while revealing the contours of the form beneath. This sculptural style—evidenced in figures from the Classical and Hellenistic periods—has emerged in fashion as a signifier of classicizing intent. From the nineteenth century to the present, designers have utilized a variety of techniques and materials to replicate its effects.

In some artistic renderings from antiquity, textiles appear fragile, and even ephemeral, qualities that are described in ancient literary texts. Gossamer robes, shawls, and veilings became one of the most potent associations with the antique, as exemplified by the popular use of light mull, a sheer cotton fabric during the Empire period, and also of tulle and chiffon. The classicizing effect is further underscored if the fabric is white, since there has been a longstanding convention that classical styles should be achromatic. This misconception, thought to derive from the faded and abraded surfaces of originally polychromed Greek statuary and architecture, is perpetuated in fashion to this day.

Drapery of the Classical and Hellenistic periods sometimes appears purely as a foil for nudity, clinging and spiraling around the body. Frequently, trhis effect is a stylistic preference rather than an actual manner of dress or response to natural phenomena. Such animated drapery frequently takes on a schematic form, with fluted edges regularized into a rhythmic pattern of handkerchief-pointed "swallowtail" folds, a characteristic that has inspired fashion designers in the twentieth century.

In Greek art, fabrics are rendered with the texture of both regular folds and irregular pleating. Such differentiated representations have also found expression in later fashion designs. By employing a variety of techniques, designers as disparate as Mariano Fortuny, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Mary McFadden, and Norma Kamali have achieved effects redolent of the stylized characteristics of cloth seen in the art of ancient Greece.

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.

Boardman, J. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1993. Bollingen Series XXXV, 42. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Croom, A.T. Roman Clothing and Fashion. Stroud: Tempus, 2000.

Die griechische Klassik: Idee oder Wirklichkeit: eine Ausstellung im Martin-Gropius-Bau. Verlag Phillip van Zabern, 2002.

D'après L'antique: Paris, Musée du Louvre, 16 October 2000–15 January 2001. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2000.

Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Heuzey, Léon. Histoire du Costume Antique. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1922.

Johnson, Marie. Ancient Greek Dress: A New Illustrated Edition Combining Greek Dress by Ethel Abrahams [and] Chapters on Greek Dress by Lady Evans. Chicago: Argonaut, 1964.

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd (ed.). Women's Dress in the Ancient Greek World. London: Duckworth: Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2002.

Losfeld, Georges. Essai sur le Costume Grec. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 1991.

Morrow, Katherine Dohan. Greek Footwear and the Dating of Sculpture. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Neils, Jenifer, et al. Goddess and Polis: the Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Pekridou-Gorecki, Anastasia. Mode im Antiken Griechenland: Textile Fertigung und Kleidung. München: C.H. Beck, 1989.

Sebesta, Judith Lynn, and Larissa Bonfante (ed.). The World of Roman Costume. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

This selected bibliography was derived from the exhibition publication, Goddess: The Classical Mode. By Harold Koda. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003. Distributed by Yale University Press.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) (French, 1903–1993). Evening Dress, ca. 1965. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)