Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Greek Key and Divine Attributes in Modern Dress

Most early postclassical depictions of ancient Greek 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, pottery, painted sculpture, and the written word have given us extensive evidence of the use of decorative embellishments in ancient Greek dress. A cursory survey of red- and black-figure vase paintings alone reveals that antique dress was composed of a rich variety of graphically patterned textiles (75.2.11).

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 are also seen on classical garments, as are more intricate borders depicting themes ranging from animals, birds, and fish to complex battle scenes. Nevertheless, such patterns have rarely been used by later artists or by contemporary designers. Of all these motifs, the Greek key and wave meander 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 (1979.346.18a,b).

Although well represented in art, the use of mythological attributes to designate an Olympian deity is 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 has been adumbrated in Neoclassical embroideries and in the more recent work of a number of designers. The materials comprising the coronets originally associated with the presiding deities—laurels for Apollo, olive leaves for Athena, roses for Aphrodite, ivy for Dionysos (35.11.3)—were perhaps too esoteric for the purposes of fashion and have generally been obscured. But other mythic attributes have continued with their original meanings intact. Designers as disparate in style as Christian Dior (C.I.53.40.5a-e; C.I.53.40.7a-e), Valentino, Alexander McQueen, and Gianni Versace (1999.328.4) have incorporated in their work attributes symbolic of Greek goddesses—peacock feathers for Hera; the aegis, or breastplate, for Athena; and sea foam and shells for Aphrodite.

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 (1993.345.15a-c). But the classical past has also been evoked in dress by the application of patterns and designs from the repertoire of ancient ornament, as well as by referencing the various attributes of the Olympian deities. 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 enduring and persistent ideal of beauty through the resonant imagery of classical decorative motifs.