Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Contemporary Deconstructions of Classical Dress

The richness and variety of the costumes represented in ancient Greek art are often the result of simple manipulations of the three basic garment types: the chiton, the peplos, and the himation. Positioning a waist cinch or a shoulder harness and removing a fibula introduced to the ancient wardrobe the possibility of innumerable effects. Over time and through a range of artistic interpretations, these variations have themselves been modified and metamorphosed into an even greater diversity of effects. 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 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 (03.12.17), which employed a cinch or belt, the Empire waist was structural with an almost vestigial bodice connected to a floor-length skirt by seaming (1983.6.1; 07.146.5).

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 (07.286.23; 32.11.4) and ties. Frequent depictions of double girdling on both the peplos and chiton suggest that the most common practice was to use one cinch functionally in order to pull in the waist and raise the hemline by hitching up the fabric to create a kolpos, or blouson. When a second binding was employed, it was worn over the blouson to establish a visible, decorative waistline. Over the centuries, artists and designers have used both double girdling and the blouson to imbue their creations with a relationship to this ancient practice.

Another zone of classical allusion has been the neckline. Antique representation 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 (32.11.4; C.I.56.60.6a,b).

Over the two millennia that separate us from the Greco-Roman ancestry, a small number of independent ancient variations in the method of wearing the peplos, chiton, and himation have also been transmitted. Even when at a considerable remove from a direct reference to specific ancient garment types and their manipulated forms, such details retain the ability to invoke a classical model.