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Ancient Greek, Roman & Byzantine Costume
By Mary G. Houston
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
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THE term Aegean is now used to describe that civilization which had its fountain-head in Crete and its latest development on the Greek mainland. The period here covered is c. 2100 B.C. till 1100 B.C. The Palace of Minos, at Knossos, in Crete and the ancient City of Mycenae on the Greek mainland have given rise to the words Minoan and Mycenaean, as the great wealth of archaeological discovery yielded up by these two sites justifies the usage. Sir A. Evans has divided Aegean civilization into three periods and has laid down the dates for each as follows: "Early Minoan" 3400 B.C.–2100 B.C., "Middle Minoan" 2100 B.C.–1580 B.C., and "Late Minoan," which includes Mycenaean, at 1580 B.C.–1100 B.C. He relates the above three periods to some extent with the periods of the "Old," "Middle" and commencement of the "New Kingdom" in Egypt. (Dating —Old Kingdom 3400 B.C., Middle c. 2375 B.C., and New 1580 B.C.– 610 B.C. See Cambridge Ancient History.)
The costume of Minoan Crete and of Mycenaean Greece has now become almost as familiar to us as that of Ancient Egypt and Assyria, but until some sixty odd years ago the very existence of the brilliant civilization, of which it is a part, was hidden from mankind. The discoveries of Schliemann at Mycenae and near-by Tiryns and later those of Sir A. Evans and others in Crete held perhaps the greatest archaeological surprise the world had so far known. It was, indeed, the light thrown on Aegean costume, more especially that of the women, which gave most cause for astonishment. Hitherto the simple draperies of the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians led us to imagine that these and none other were the garments of the ancient world—when, therefore, there emerged the earlier Minoan ladies wearing costumes apparently distended by crinolines and their descendants of the later Minoan and Mycenaean Periods in tight-fitting jackets and flounced skirts, all previous conceptions as to the dress of this remote period were dissipated. The origin of this elaborate style of costume must be assigned in the main to the island of Crete itself but there are influences from the outside world which cannot be ignored. Professor Childe in his book The Most Ancient East tells us that on the walls of prehistoric Spanish cave-shelters there are drawings which show women who are wearing "bell-shaped skirts." Again in the matter of flounces the same authority cites the "kaunakes" as a woollen material where the threads of the web hang down in loops giving the appearance of flounces. This flounced material was characteristic of the costume of the ancient Sumerians and is considered to have been originally made from the skin of a sheep with the fleece left on; afterwards this was imitated in weaving. In Mesopotamian lands it survived as the costume of the gods after ordinary men and women had taken to plain woven draperies, and it is very frequently seen on cylinder-seals from Mesopotamia where gods are represented. Small objects like seals are easily transported, and some of them having travelled to Crete (one found at Platanos in Crete shows a costume similar to Fig. 2 dating c. 2000 B.C.) would suggest the idea of flounces for the dress of persons of distinction. It will be of interest to compare two examples of Mesopotamian costume with an early Aegean illustration. Fig. 1 is from a bas-relief which is now in the Louvre and which has been dated c. 2900 B.C. Here Ur-Nina, Patesi (High Priest) of Lagash, is represented with his family. Fig. 1, said by one authority (Waddell) to be his daughter "Lidda" and by another (Rostovtzeff) to be his prime minister "Dudu," is wearing the characteristic Sumerian skirt, which in this early example may be of actual sheepskin; there is an extra wrap covering one shoulder. Fig. 2 is from a Mesopotamian seal-impression (c. 2000 B.C.). It represents a minor goddess, and in this case the costume is the "kaunakes" woven woollen stuff with flounced effect. Here the smaller shawl entirely covers the upper part of the body with the exception of the right shoulder. Fig. 3 shows a woman wearing a flounced cloak with one arm free. This is a betrothal scene from an ivory cylinder found near family. Fig. 1, said by one authority (Waddell) to be his daughter "Lidda" and by another (Rostovtzeff) to be his prime minister "Dudu," is wearing the characteristic Sumerian skirt, which in this early example may be of actual sheepskin; there is an extra wrap covering one shoulder. Fig. 2 is from a Mesopotamian seal-impression (c. 2000 B.C.). It represents a minor goddess, and in this case the costume is the "kaunakes" woven woollen stuff with flounced effect. Here the smaller shawl entirely covers the upper part of the body with the exception of the right shoulder. Fig. 3 shows a woman wearing a flounced cloak with one arm free. This is a betrothal scene from an ivory cylinder found near Knossos and is of early Middle Minoan period (c. 2100 B.C.). It can be noted here that the male figure is nude except for a belt (to which a dagger is attached) and a sheath which depends from the belt in front. (Owing to the lack of detail in the original the belt has been supplied from another early Minoan figure of the same date.) It is almost unavoidable, when describing Minoan costume, to refrain from giving that of the women prominence of place owing to the fact that in the earlier periods Minoan men were almost nude, and even in the later epochs, except on some occasions of ceremony, wore only a small kilt or abbreviated apron depending from the waist-belt back and front.
Before dismissing the subject of foreign influence on Minoan styles the proximity of the ancient civilization of Egypt to that of Crete must not be overlooked. At a very early period in Egyptian history we find that a cloak enveloping the whole figure was not unusual as an article of dress, and it has been suggested that this may have been the origin of certain costumes found at Petsofa in Crete, which illustrate the first definite style of Minoan costume and are of the early Middle Minoan Period. Sir A. Evans considers that a long cloak, as worn by Cretan women, was cut out "after the manner of a cope" (compare Etruscan semi-circular "toga"). A girdle was passed round the waist over the cloak and knotted in front; also holes were cut to allow the arms to emerge. Fig. 4a is a drawing made from an artist's lay figure upon which a cloak, cut out on the plan of a cope, has been draped after the manner suggested by Sir A. Evans. In the above sketch the drapery used for this "cope" or cloak was a thick cotton poplin material (such as is customarily used for window curtains) and the miniature lay-figure was a little over one foot in height. If an actual woman of average height were draped in a cloak made from either thick woollen felted cloth or from leather, the effect would be similar and there would be no need to distend the bottom of the garment with a crinoline or hoop. Fig. 4b shows the cloak as a flat pattern; its diameter would, of course, depend on the height of the wearer. Fig. 5 is from a statuette found at Petsofa and of early Middle Minoan Period. Here we have a costume possibly cut on the lines of Figs. 4a and b or perhaps developed from that into a fitted bodice with skirt attached, which latter is either cut with gores narrowing at the waist or gathered into it. There is also a striped decoration upon the skirt which has the appearance of applique work. This, if of leather, would certainly help to stiffen it and so assist the crinoline-like silhouette. The " Medici collar" effect at the back of the neck is seen also in Fig. 4a and is the result of the "cope-like" cutting out. The padded and knotted girdle somewhat resembles that of the "Snake Goddess" at Figs. 7d and e though in the latter case the waist is encircled with actual snakes. The hat of Fig. 5 swells outwards over the ears and when viewed from the front is not unlike a certain type of European headdress of the fifteenth century A.D. This figure should be compared with the highly ornamented "votive" skirt of later date shown at Fig. 29a. Here is an instance of the older fashion surviving as a sacred garment; so, for example, the costume of the thirteenth century A.D. has remained in use as the almost universal dress of sacred personages as represented in European Christian art. Fig. 6 is a male costume contemporaneous with Fig. 5, if indeed it can be called a costume at all, when so near to absolute nudity. This man wears, in front, a leather sheath such as was worn in predynastic Egypt and in Libya and over it a small loin-cloth of indefinite shape which may be of leather also or possibly wool or linen (it is painted white on the statuette like the boots). A dagger is attached in front of waist and high white leather boots are worn as in present-day Crete. The small disc-like cap or hat has been added from another example.
We now come to the more elaborate women's costumes of the later style (which developed towards the end of the Middle Minoan Period) ; this shows a change in the silhouette of the skirt, which fits fairly tightly down to the knees and then develops a slight flare at the bottom. Most, but not all of these skirts are flounced and the tightly fitting bodices show clearly-marked seams indicating a highly developed school of dressmaking in which there are several methods used to achieve the desired fitting. It is difficult to resist speculation as to what induced the Minoan dressmakers to attempt their elaborate effects and again to try to put forward a theory as to how they succeeded in carrying out their ideas with such distinction. The Mesopotamian "kaunakes" costume from imported seals gives an answer to why these flounced skirts appeared, and possibly the answer as to how the bodices were fitted with such success lies in the suggestion that the first material dealt with by these workers was leather, not woven material; then, when the style was developed, the effects achieved by the use of a medium easy to cut, and lending itself to moulding the figure, such as leather undoubtedly is, give the answer as to how the style was formed in the first place. We must also recall the fact that the Cretans were already skilled workers in leather. The Minoan warrior carried a shield covered with bull's hide, he had high leather boots and the wearing of leather skirts or aprons was common to both priests and priestesses at certain religious ceremonies (seeFig. 13, p. 15). It can be said that, in costume, the idea of fitting as opposed to draping seems to be connected with the use of leather; one has only to recall the tightly fitting tunics and the trousers of the ancient Persians, Phrygians and Scythians as opposed to the floating draperies of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to recognize this fact. Besides the flounced and flared skirt and the elaborately cut, tight-fitting bodice which characterized the Minoan women's dress of this period we find the belt always an important feature. This covers the joining of bodice and skirt. It is sometimes padded, at other times made apparently of metal and curved to the figure. In addition there is a third garment which was often worn over the skirt which took the form of an apron back and front and was apparently borrowed from male costume. This double apron was not, however, of universal wear and has, possibly, some religious significance. The head-dress, when worn, seems to have been either a tall tiara in three tiers or a species of round hat widening at the crown and greatly resembling in silhouette the Scottish tam-o'-shanter. This flat-crowned hat had also points in common with certain Hittite examples and even with that Persian cap called by the Greeks the "mitra." Indeed the tall tiara had also its prototype in Hittite costume. Shoes or sandals were, in Crete, essentially for outdoor wear, naked feet with possibly anklets were worn indoors. As will be seen from the illustrations the costumes of this era were lavishly decorated, the ornament thereon having generally the appearance of embroidery. Certain types of pattern, however, suggest weaving, and in some cases small metal plaques may have been used as a sort of applique.
Figs. 7a, b and c, is a diagrammatic rendering of the well-known faience statuette called the "Snake Goddess" from Knossos. This is now in the Candia Museum but the British Museum possesses a replica. The date is of the latest Middle Minoan period and from this period onwards the style here shown becomes stereotyped in its main features until the fall of Aegean civilization at the end of the twelfth century B.C. The main features of this dress with its bodice, skirt and curious double-apron are described on p. 10, but Figs. 7d and 7e show the head-dress in back and front views, the hairdressing and the three live snakes coiling over the body of the goddess, which have been omitted from Figs. 7a, b and c in order to show clearly the method of seaming on the tight-fitting bodice. Plate I. is a free drawing from the companion statuette to Fig. 7. This has been called the "Votary" or Priestess to the Snake Goddess. (The statuette is practically in monochrome; Plate I. is coloured after a contemporary fresco). Here we are introduced to the flounced skirt and flat tam-o'-shanter shaped hat each so characteristic of this later style. The flounces of this skirt have the appearance of being pleated and the tam-o'-shanter hat is decorated with ornamental discs, also at Fig. 8, which is a front view of Plate I., we see perched on the top of the hat an animal which resembles a miniature leopard or other spotted creature; this has been omitted from Plate I. for lack of space. A contemporary male costume is shown at Fig. 9—the well-known "Cup-bearer of Knossos" (Candia Museum). Unlike the two previous women's costumes, the dress at Fig. 9 is a style which did not long survive and may be said to have disappeared early in the Late Minoan Period. This is, no doubt, due to the fact that it is most probably a foreign importation either from Western Asia or from Egypt. The youth here represented is probably of noble birth, one who served as a page in the royal palace. He wears no sandals, being in indoor dress. A noteworthy feature of this figure is the pinched-in waist, this peculiarity was not confined to the Minoan women of the close of the Middle and throughout the Late Minoan Periods. The men, by means of their tight metal belts, were even more successful in compressing this portion of the body and gave the impression of being almost ready to break in two at the waist. This peculiarity is also in evidence when we come to examine Mycenaean male costumes, as will be seen at Figs. 23 and 25. A very interesting sidelight on the costumes of the Cup-bearer type is seen in the representation from an eighteenth-dynasty Egyptian tomb at Thebes of a procession of foreign envoys carrying gifts and called by the Egyptians "Men of the Keftiu" or "Men of the Isles." These men, with their long hair arranged in characteristic Minoan fashion and with kilts recalling that of the Cup-bearer, show this costume as seen by a foreign artist. Fig. 10 shows this Egyptian drawing. Here sandals are worn as part of outdoor dress and it is interesting to note that sandals of almost identical design have been found on an ivory statuette from Crete. As has been said this almost knee-length kilt was not in wear for any considerable period and it may be considered as a court-dress of the close of the Middle Minoan Age. Both previous to and after the age of the long kilt, the truly characteristic Minoan male costume was the double-apron depending from a tight belt. At the back the apron usually reached more than half-way down the thigh, but in front it was shorter, often only just covering the leather sheath (which was generally worn underneath it) or at times it was worn a few inches longer than the sheath. Fig. 11 shows the costume of a young prince or chieftain. It is part of a bas-relief decoration of a vase found at Hagia Triada in Crete and is an example of male costume of the Late Minoan Period; here the long hair in its arrangement differs little from that of Figs. 9 and 10. In this case the sandals have developed into puttees, but the long kilt has disappeared and in its stead we have the double-apron slightly longer at the back than in the front. A dagger is thrust into the belt and the deep jewelled collar is almost as massive as that worn by the ancient Egyptians. Fig. 12 is a restoration of the costume worn by a king or prince of the commencement of the Late Minoan Era—the original is in the museum at Candia and reproductions are installed in other museums, as, for example, at Oxford. Here we have the typical loin-covering of the Minoans. The tight metal belt seems to be padded inside and the double-apron reaches half-way down the thigh at the back, but in front it merely covers the leather sheath which is evidently present underneath.
Excerpted from Ancient Greek, Roman & Byzantine Costume by Mary G. Houston. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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