Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome

By DeBrohun, Jeri | History Today, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome


DeBrohun, Jeri, History Today


Jeri DeBrohun looks at the meanings expressed in the style of clothes and personal adornment adopted by men and women in the ancient world.

DID THE ANCIENT GREEKS and Romans have a sense of fashion? Historians of dress have traditionally claimed that fashion in the modern sense did not exist in Greece and Rome, but this assertion rests upon a misconception of rather sophisticated Greco-Roman attitudes toward physical appearance, as well as upon definitions of `dress' and `fashion' that are too limited.

As is abundantly clear from their art and literature, the ancients attached great importance to ideals of bodily perfection and to outward appearance in general. Both the Greeks and the Romans demonstrated, from their earliest history, an extraordinary awareness of the potential of the body (and various modifications that could be made to it) as a means of marking social, political, religious, and even moral distinctions, aside from the opportunities dress and body decoration represent for self-expression or the pursuit of beauty. The ancients manipulated the expressive potential of clothing and adornments in a myriad of contexts: in their rituals, in theatre, and in the political arena, as well as in literature. There is also considerable evidence of innovation, experimentation, and the determined expression of personal style, even in Republican Rome where societal norms or expectations were ostensibly rigid in regard to clothing, correct grooming, or the use of adornments such as jewellery, perfume or cosmetics.

The term `dress' includes any modification of, or supplement to, the body that conveys meaning that can be `read' by others. For the ancients it encompassed much more than clothes but also included beards, hairstyles, and wigs, perfumes and cosmetics, jewellery and accessories, and colour, whether of clothing, hair dye, or skin treatments (tattoos, for example).

`Fashion' may be said to encompass any of four forms. First, there is a conscious manipulation of dress that strives for effect, a `momentary instance' of fashion, `fashion statement' or `fad'. Second, fashion may designate innovations in dress that are more enduring than simple fads. Some of these changes occur abruptly, whether due to political upheavals, economic fluctuations, or even the sudden abundance (or scarcity) of certain materials; other innovations may develop more deliberately. Third is the phenomenon whereby styles in a particular area of dress change swiftly and repeatedly, with the new ones replacing the old in rapid succession. Finally, fashion may refer specifically to the use of such adornments as cosmetics, fragrance, hair treatments, and jewellery, whose primary raison d'etre is to enhance a wearer's natural features. Primarily considered the preserve of women, this aspect also plays a significant role in the lives of men, especially in the male-dominated societies of Greece and Rome, in which the `correct' appearance was often a necessary prerequisite to a man's political success.

Antiquity displays examples of fashion in each of these four senses. Plutarch, the prolific first-century AD biographer, described how the flamboyant young fifth-century BC Greek politician Alcibiades flouted convention with his outlandish behaviour, including this `fashion statement':

   All his statecraft and eloquence and lofty purpose and cleverness was
   attended with great luxuriousness of life, with wanton drunkenness and
   lewdness, and with effeminacy in dress -- he would trail long purple robes
   through the agora ... He also had a golden shield made for himself and
   decorated not with ancestral insignia but with a likeness of Eros wielding
   a thunderbolt. The reputable men of the city looked on all these things
   with loathing and indignation, and they feared his contemptuous and lawless
   spirit.

Alcibiades' bizarre apparel mirrored his personal and political style, which was at times so at odds with the deportment of traditional Athenian statesmen that it inspired fear among his fellow Athenians that he was aiming at a personal tyranny. …

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