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Raphael's vision of Greek clothing
Trousers and shirts were not worn by the Greeks or Romans. Greeks wore a short diaper and a sheet for clothing. People generally didn't wear underwear in the modern sense. Through the use of pins, buttons, shoulder harness, and waist cinches the Greeks were able to produce a variety of clothing from what were otherwise pieces of draped cloth. Garments were often held in place with porpai , dress pins that were sometimes razor sharp and made of gold. Designers such Fortuny, Yves saint Laurent and Madame Grez were much inspired by Greek clothes.

Greek literature features some unusual garments. In Euripides Medea a bride is sent a wedding gift of a gown that tears of her flesh and a headpiece that spontaneously combusts leaving her just bits of bone and charred remains.

The earliest known clothes iron comes from 4th century B.C. Greece. It was a rolling-pin-like metal cylinder rolled over linen fabric to get rid of wrinkle d and make pleats. Ironing was a laborious and time-consuming chore usually done by slaves.

By the 5th century B.C., Greek craftsmen had raised jewelry-making to a fine art. Greek jewelry and ornaments included gold jewelry, diadems, beads, and intricately carved sealing stones. The Egyptians and Assyrians used enamel bricks to decorate their buildings. The Greeks and Romans were masters of using enamels to make jewelry.

Some of the oldest known rings were used as signets by rulers, public officials and traders to authorize documents with a stamp. Signatures were not used until late in history.Most ancient rings were made of steatite (soapstone) or medals such as bronze, silver or gold. Few were adorned with precious stones. Those that were contained amethyst, coral or lapis lazuli. The Greeks believed that coral protected sailors for storms and amethyst had the power to keep people from getting drunk.

Ancient Greek and Roman Fabrics and Dyes

woman spinning cloth
Most cloth was made from wool and linen. Much of it was rather course. Very few remnants of Greek cloth remain. Most of what we know comes from written records, sculptures, bas-reliefs and vase paintings. Penelope's loom was a major feature of the Odyssey . Homer refers to "fair purple blankets" and "thick mantels.”

The Greeks and Romans used leather and developed fairly sophisticated methods of tanning. Roman soldiers wore breastplates of felt and armies traveled with sheep and looms to clothed their soldiers. Instead of mothballs Romans used bare breasted virgins to fight off wool eating moths.

The Romans and Greeks were familiar with silk, but they had no idea how it was made. Pliny the Elder speculated the textile was made from "the hair of the sea-sheep" and Aristotle described the silkworm as a horned worm the size of a cat. Alexander the Great brought silk back with him after his conquest of Persia, and the fabric was all the rage in ancient Rome, where laws were passed to curb demand for the cloth.╟

The Greeks imported from purple cloth from Tyre, embroideries from Sidon and fine linen from Egypt. Silk from China and fine muslins from India began making their way to the wealthy with some regularity after Alexander's conquests. Blue India dye is derived from a blue powder extracted from the indigofera plant. The dye was known to the Greeks and Romans and used by Egyptians to dye mummy cases.

The Greeks used brown, red and yellow dyes made from plants, bark and minerals. Many of their garments were bleached white and adorned with hand applied designs with geometric patterns.

Phoenician Purple Dye

Vestiges of purple dye
industry in Lebanon
The Phoenician City of Tyre grew rich from the sale of a purple-dyed textiles that were used to denote royalty. The dye was produced from murex, a trumpet-shaped marine snail still found among rocks in the eastern Mediterranean today. Piles of the shells and large vats indicated that dye production was carried out on an industrial scale. In Sidon, archeologist found a 300-foot-long mound of murex shells.

According to legend purple was discovered by the Phoenician god Melkarth, whose dog bit into a seashell, resulting in his mouth becoming a rich shade of purple. Other have said the dye was discovered by noting that people who ate the snail had purple lips.

Royal purple was produced as early as 1200 B.C. The dye was made of urine, sea water and ink from the bladders of the murex snails. To extract the snails, the shells were put in a vat where their putrifying bodies excreted a yellowish liquid. Depending on how much water was added the liquid produced hues ranging from rose to dark purple.

"Born to the purple" became a common expression to describe royalty. Purple cloth was treasured by the Greeks and Romans and remained extremely valuable through Byzantine times. One gram of pure purple die was worth 10 to 20 times its weight in gold. Some of the richest people in ancient Phoenician were purple dye merchants.

Purple is no longer made from sea shells in the eastern Mediterranean but it is still is done in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the winter Purpura mollusks are collected from rocks and opened and the purple dye is applied to yarn right there in the spot.

Ancient Greek Clothmaking and Weaving

Spindle whirls from the 10th century BC
Most cloth was made with relatively simple warp-weighted looms. Women and slaves made cloth at home or bought it in shops, worked by freed slaves or artisans, who used specialized in one process---cleaning and carding, spinning, dyeing or weaving.

It is believed that women spent most of their time weaving. Wool was the most common fiber available and flax was also widely used. Cotton was stuffed into the saddles of Alexander the Great's cavalry in India to relieve soreness but that was largely the extent of its introduction to Greece.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

The methods used to make wool and cloth in ancient Greece lived on for centuries. After a sheep was sheared, the wool was placed on a spike called a distaff. A strand of wool was then pulled off; a weight known as whorl was attached to it; and the strand was twisted into a thread by spinning with it the thumb and forefinger. Since each thread was made this way, you can how time consuming it must have been to make a piece of cloth or a sail for a ship.||

To make cloth, threads were placed on a warp-weighted loom (similar to ones used by Lapp weavers until the 1950's). Warps are the downward hanging threads on a loom, and they were set up so that every other thread faced forward and the others were in the back. A weft (horizontal thread) was then taken in between the forward and backward row of warps. Before the weft was threaded through in the other direction, the position of the warps was changed with something called a heddle rod. This simple tool reversed the warps so that the row in the front was now in the rear, and visa versa. In this way the threads were woven in a cross stitch manner that held them together and created cloth. The cloth in turn was used to make cushions, upholstery for wooden furniture and wall hangings as well as garments and sails.||

Ancient Greek Men's and Women’s Clothing

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men's clothes
Greek, Macedonian and Roman men favored toga-like garments while ancient Chinese and Persian men often wore trousers. Greek men wore two kinds of clothing: a cloak draped in various ways around the body with "varying degrees of modesty" (the himation ), and a cloak draped around one shoulder and pinned to the other (the chlamys ). Belts were sometimes worn and excess material was stuffed into a pouch.

Greek women initially wore a peplos , a garment consisting of two bed sheet-size pieces of cloth, one in the front and one in the back, that were held together with two dagger-like pins, one over each shoulder. According to legend this garment was popular until Athens fought a war with the city-state of Aegina. During the battle every man was killed but one. When the survivor delivered the news to the wives and mothers of dead men, the women took out their anger with their dagger-pins, stabbing the man to death. Greek officials were so outraged by the behavior of women, they forced the women to wear Ionic style chintons . These garments were virtually the same as the peplos except they were fastened together with buttons not lethal pins. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

As early as 2500 B.C. women in Minoa wore bras that completely lifted the a woman's breasts out of her garments. Greek and Roman women strapped in their breasts with bands of cloth that flattened their chest and reduced their breast size.

Ancient Greek Hats and Footwear

footwear vase
The first known hats with brims were worn by ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C. The broad rimmed pelasus of ancient Greece is considered by some scholars to be the world's first hat. It was worn while traveling for protection from the weather. They had chin straps that allowed them to hang down on the back when not needed.

Sandals were the primary form of footwear in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Wealthy Greeks wore sandals decorated with jewels and gold. Roman developed sandals with thicker soles, leather sides and laced insteps. Footwear was mainly the rich. The poor mostly went barefoot.

Ancient shoes where generally made from woven palm leaves, vegetable fibre, leather or papyrus and were kept in place on the foot with linen or leather bands. The oldest known shoes are moccasin-like rawhide footwear with laces worn in Babylonia around 1600 B.C. Greek women wore similar shoes around 600 B.C. As early as 600 B.C. Greek women wore socklike slippers called sykhos , the source of the word sock.

In the 5th century B.C. actors wore platform shoes not unlike those worn by modern glam rockers. Early Greek actors and comedians wore a light pull-on shoes or sykhos. Developed versions of these were made of leather and wood and had a division between the first and second toes.

Beauty and Cosmetics in Ancient Greece

Aristotle once said "beauty is a far greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." Unlike the Egyptians and Romans, who used lots of make-up and perfume and wore flashy hairstyle, the Greeks preferred the natural look. The unadorned male body in particular was glorified in sport and sculpture. Make up was associated courtesans.

The customs of make up, coiffed hair and perfume were kept alive by courtesans. They even freshened their breath with aromatic liquids that they rolled around in the mouth and on their tongue. The use of cosmetics was looked down upon on ordinary women. The 4th century historian Xenophon wrote: "When I found her painted, I pointed out that she was being dishonest in attempting to deceive me about her looks as I should be were I to deceive her about my property."

The pale complexion a woman received from staying indoors all the time was seen as a sign of virtue and beauty. Some women whiten their faces, bosoms and necks with a white powder made from lead. Greeks and Roman used an arsenic compound to remove hair and cinnabar, a poisonous red sulfide of mercury, for lipstick and rouge. One of the most popular forms of make-up was cheek rogue. Worn by both men and women, it was made from plant substance such as seaweed or mulberry mixed with highly toxic cinnabar.

Hairstyles in Ancient Greece

Minoan woman Greek men had beards and long hair. Shaving didn't become widespread until the Roman era. The razor, in fact, was considered a woman's toiletry article. Women wore their hair long, unless they were a slave or in mourning, then they sported a bob. The long hair of non-mourning women was gathered, curled, tied and bound in bonnets and bows according to fashion. Roman women often spent hours with there hairdressers, creating elaborate coiffures and this indulgent behavior was often satirized in plays. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Long hair and fair skin were greatly esteemed by the Greeks. Short hair was associated with barbarianism. Greek actors sometimes wore wigs. Greeks and Romans used a variety of hairpins. Roman men reportedly shaved daily. The Latin word for beard, barba , is the source of the word barber.

Upper class Greek culture is the first known culture to prize light or blond hair. It was equated with desirability and innocence. Many Greek heros such as Achilles, Meenelaus and Paris had light hair. Some Greeks lightened their hair with soaps and alkaline bleaches available from Phoenicia. Some courtesans died their hair with a concoction made from apple-scented yellow flowers, pollen and potassium salts.

Men it seemed were more found of lightening their hair than women. They used yellow pollen, yellow flour and even gold powder. The 4th century dramatist Menander wrote: "After washing their hair with a special ointment made in Athens, they sit bareheaded in the sun by the hour, waiting for their hair to turn a beautiful golden blond. And it does."

Ancient Greek Tattoos

Unlike today's tattoos which are primarily decorative, tattoos in antiquity primarily had punitive, magical and medical purposes and were used to identify slaves and undesirables. The custom was so widespread there were professional tattooers who specialized in slaves, criminals and prisoners. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Dacians, Gauls, Picts, Celts and Britons all practiced tattooing . Tattooing were probably introduced to Greece from Persia around the 6th century B.C. But the custom goes back much further than that. Otzi, the 5,500-year-old ice man found in Italian Alps, had tattooed parallel lines on his right foot and ankle, bars along his lower spine, lines at his left calf, and crosses inside his right knee. [Source: Adrienne Mayor, Archaeology, March/April 1999]

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Greek women
Tattoos in ancient times were generally made by pricking the skin with needles and rubbing ink or soot into the wounds. Punitive tattoos were often gouged into the skin with three needled bound together for a thick line. Infection and heavy bleeding were common. Sometimes victims died.

According to Herodotus, the Thracian found fair skin unattractive men and women with tattoos were greatly admired. Thracians who were marked with prisoner of war tattoos had them embellished into decorative tattoos. Among the Mossynoikoi, who lived on the Black Sea in the fifth century B.C., the historian Xenophon observed, "the chubby children of the best families were entirely tattooed back and front with flowers in many colors."

Tattooing captives in wartime was common. After Athens defeated the Aegean island of Samos in the fifth century B.C., the Athens leaders ordered the foreheads of prisoners of war to be tattooed with an owl, the emblem of Athens. When Samos late defeated Athens, the foreheads of the Athenian prisoners of war were tattooed with an image of a Samos warship. A similar fate befell 7,000 Athenians, who were tattooed with images of horses, the symbol of Syracuse, after they were defeated at Syracuse.

In 3rd century B.C. Greece there was a law that allowed masters to tattoo "bad" slaves but forbade the tabooing of "good" ones. A Hellenistic curse read: "I will tattoo you with pictures of terrible punishments suffered by the most notorious sinners in Hades! I will tattoo you with the white-tusked boar."

The Greeks also reportedly used tattoos of animals and geometric shapes to highlight musculature and motion. Figures on vases and kraters often feature tattoos of parallel lines, sunbursts, chevrons, circles, vines, ladders, spirals, zigzags, spirals and stylized animals.

Perfumes in Ancient Greece and Rome

Greek men scented different parts of their body with different perfumes. Writers in 400 B.C. suggested almond oil for the hands and feet, mint for the arms, thyme for the knees, rose, cinnamon or palm oil for the jaws and chest, and marjoram for the hair and eyebrows. Some politicians found use of these of fragrances to be so obsessive they suggested passing laws banning them.

Greeks used perfumed oils based on Egyptian recipes as deodorants. Alexander the Great was fond of perfumes and incense. He had his tunics soaked in the scent of saffron.

The ancient Greeks made perfumes and medicines from roses and added lavender oil to public baths. They also used tangerine, orange and lemon as scents and kept perfumes in translucent alabaster flasks. The Romans poured rose water in their baths and released aromas into the air during banquets and orgies with perfumed white doves that dispensed scent as they flew about. Rich Roman aristocrats slept on pillows stuffed with saffron when they suffered a hangover.

Ancient Greek Hygiene

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perfume bottle
The oldest known confirmed bath tub come from Minoa. Shaped somewhat like a modern tub, it was found in the palace of King Minos in Knossos and was dated to around 1700 B.C. The Greeks did not have the luxurious bathes that the Romans had. Their public baths had showers and hot air rooms attached to the gymnasium.

The Greeks prized cleanliness and may have bathed regularly but they did not use soap. They anointed their bodies with oil and ashes; scrubbed themselves clean with blocks of pumice or sands, and then scrapped themselves with a curved metal instrument called a strigil . After they did all that they immersed themselves in water and were anointed with olive oil.

The strigil was a strange-looking device usually made of bronze. It was used mostly by athletes to scrape dirt and oils off their bodies after competitions and training. The athletes did this rather than wash with soap. The strigil looked sort of like a long spoon with the spoon part stretched and elongated and bent forward and the handle stretched and bent backwards. Strigils first appeared in Greek art in the 6th century B.C. and became symbols of athletes, some of whom where found to have them buried with them in ancient graves.

In The Romantic Story of Scent , John Trueman wrote, "The men of the ancient world were clean and scented. European men of the Dark Ages were dirty and unscented. Those of medieval times, and modern times up to about the end of the 17th century, were dirty and scented...Nineteenth-century men were clean and unscented."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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