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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Classical Art and Modern Dress

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

Through the centuries, art and fashion have achieved their own transformations, in the process injecting new qualities not present in the original garments. Even in the most naturalistic representation of Hellenic dress, subjective and proscribed stylistic qualities are inevitably introduced. In depicting details of the distinctive modes of ancient Greek attire, subsequent 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 cloth that appears to cling to the body in animated folds while it reveals the contours of the form beneath (Victory of Samothrace, Musée du Louvre, Paris). This sculptural characteristic—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 cloth (C.I.50.21.12; 1985.155).

In certain artistic renderings from antiquity, textiles appear fragile, even ephemeral — qualities that are substantiated in ancient literary texts. Such gossamer robes, shawls, and veilings became one of the most potent associations for fashion, as exemplified by the popular use of light mull, a sheer cotton fabric of 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 assumption that ancient Grecian styles were achromatic. This misconception, thought to derive from the faded and abraded surfaces of originally polychromed Greek statuary and architecture, continues to this day in fashion.

Drapery of the classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek art sometimes appears purely as a foil for nudity, clinging and spiraling around the body. Often, this effect occurs in response to compositional requirements rather than to any natural phenomenon or dressing practice. Such animated drapery frequently takes on a more 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 (17.230.35).

In Greek art, fabrics are rendered with the texture of both regular folds and irregular pleating (14.130.9). Such differentiated representations have also found expression in fashion design. By employing a variety of techniques, designers as disparate as Mariano Fortuny (1979.344.11a,b), 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.