Spotlight on Dress History in Athens and Crete

Admiring the Snake Goddess at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

Following on from my post two weeks ago on the fashion-centric reading material I stuffed in my carry-on, I wanted to share some images and musings from three museums I visited on my recent trip to Greece.

Bronze pins of the Geometric and Archaic Periods, 8th-7th Century BC

There were no contemporary fashion exhibitions on currently, (although I just missed out on seeing the Benaki Museum’s Monsters in Fashion) so my hunger for sartorial  information was fed via visits to the National Archaeological Museum, The Greek Folk Art Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Crete in Heraklion.

It has been quite a long time since I looked very closely at Greek vases and statuary, or reviewed the names of Ancient Greek garments as I learned them in an Art and Fashion class at FIT, but as I wandered the Archaeological Museum in Athens, these images and terms came back to me. Himation, chiton, fibulae, amphora…the geometric period and then the splendor of the black figured and red figured clayware.

Attic red figured lethykos. Woman folding a himation. 480-470 B.C.

While it is well-known that these vases often featured erotic scenes (you can buy calendars, playing cards, coasters, etc. featuring these images at most souvenir stands in Greece – even at the airport!), I was as usual turning my eye towards representations of dress and to reflect upon just how little clothing changed over such a long span of time. Certainly there are differences in the representations of dress, as refelected also in the changes in stylistic technique, but the basic garments for men and women were virtually static for 500-1000 years. Perhaps that is just how it seems to us in retrospect, but in the age of fast trend led fashion, it is hard not to be incredulous at women wearing the same sort of dress for centuries! What is less surprising is the enduring influence that Ancient Greek Fashion has on contemporary fashion, and I was reminded of this as well while wandering what seemed miles of glass cases brimming with vases. From the Greek key design or meander and Medusa head used a a logo/trademark by Versace, to the influence of draping and drapery as seen in Greek statuary, that never really leaves the catwalk for very long.

The Greek Goddess look in the Early 19th century

The Goddess look, inspired by the Ancients, and the rediscovery of their art treasures, has long fascinated fashion – from the Empire style of the early 19th century, to the red carpet and awards show dress of the moment.

Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs at the Costume Institute Gala 2009

This is a topic well-examined and illustrated by the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Goddess: The Classical Mode in 2003.

The second museum I visited, the Museum of Greek Folk Art was a real gem – and the sort of place that almost seems a secret – because no one else is there. During my visit, one museum guard followed my husband and I from floor to floor greeting us at each gallery as if she had not seen us just second before.  

The museum itself was a feast of folk costume, regional textiles and embroidery, jewellery, household objects and photographic documentation of peoples and customs of mainland and island Greece.

Along with the displays, texts in Greek and English caption almost every item on display, so a careful visit can leave you reading for hours! By the time we left the galleries, my head was so full of new information about the diversity and history of Greek textiles and their meanings that I needed to sit and have what might have been my fifth iced coffee of the day.

19th Century Embroidery from Crete

Other than the buzz of new knowledge, I was also however a bit saddened that this wonderful museum, in the center of tourist Athens, held seemingly little or no interest to the hordes of visitors swarming around the Acropolis.

My last stop on the cultural circuit was the Archaeological Museum of Crete in Heraklion, famed for its holdings of Minoan art, most of which were unearthed at nearby Knossos, which I also visited.

Votive robes made of faience with decoration of crocus flowers. Knossos, 1600 B.C.

The Minoan Snake Goddess, though rather less demure than her later Hellenic counterparts, is one of my most favorite icons of fashion. With a tightly girded waist (perhaps the first “corset” in dress history), full bare breasts, a long tiered ruffled skirt and towering headdress – not to mention serpents for accessories – she was surely an icon of style as well as more traditional aspects of femininity such as fertility and domesticity. While the Snake Goddess is perhaps not emulated by starlets on the red carpet, or pinned to the mood boards of couture designers, her influence has been felt and I like to trace all waist-cinching garments back to her! The display case that holds two versions of  Snake goddess figurines also displayed two ‘votive offerrings’ to the goddess which were stone representations of dresses. Seemed to me like a fitting way to revere the divine feminine! I have long desired to make a Snake Goddess costume, and while discussing it as a possible Halloween costume for this year with my friend hosting us in Crete, she reminded me of the Athens Olympic opening ceremony, which begins with a costumed performer as the Snake Goddess, and traces all of Greek art history in a slowly moving and graceful tableau.

Costumed performer as The Minoan Snake Goddess at the 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Athens

If you don’t have a trip to Greece on the calendar, watch this stunningly designed tribute to its cultural history – which is sure to doubly enrapture those with an affinity for dress history, costume and icons of style.

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  • rita nancy September 20, 2011 09.10 am

    Bronze Pins?
    They look a lot like spindles to me!

  • Jenna September 20, 2011 06.02 pm

    Yes Rita, these do resemble spindles! They are indeed pins, and were essential accessories in the Ancient Greek wardrobe, used as fasteners for holding rectangular non-sewn garments on the body. Toga pins, so to speak, which pierced and fastened textiles. Thanks for the comment!


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