Dress like a Greek

In every book I've written, I've included a few paragraphs of explanation about ancient Greek clothing. And in every book, I've taken those paragraphs out before it goes to the publisher, because explanation is exposition, and Exposition Is A Bad Thing™.

Herewith, so I can stop typing the same thing over and over, is how to Dress Like A Greek.  This should help next time you're going to a toga chiton party.

To make a basic chiton:
  1. Stand and hold your arms outstretched to the sides.
  2. Have a friend measure you from wrist to wrist, and shoulder to ankles.  
  3. Cut two sheets of linen.  Bedsheets are a traditional source.
  4. Dye the two sheets in bright colours.  You can go to town on this.  Greek clothing was as colourful as they could make it.  Typically there'd be a border and within that, some sort of symmetrical pattern.
  5. Sew the sheets together down the right hand side, leaving a space for the arms. 
  6. You're done with the manufacturing.  Wasn't that simple!
  7. Put your right arm through the gap you left in the sewn side.  Use pins — fibulae — to attach the front and back at both shoulders.  Ancient Greek fibulae were ornate, silver affairs.  Large broaches are a decent modern equivalent.
  8. Pin the left side.
  9. Tie a belt rope around the waist.  This can afford to be tight because, as you're probably noticing by now, there is a lot of extra material.
  10. The Greeks didn't have bras, I'm devastated to report.  Tie a rope beneath the relevant bits and then across the chest in a cross and over the shoulders where it can be tied at the back.  With all that extra material up top you can get a similar effect.  Greeks liked to thread colourful strands into the belt and chest ropes to make them pretty.
The woman on the right wears a chiton.
The young lady on the left wears a chitoniskos.
To finish off, get hold of a long, wide scarf made of pure wool.  Drape this over your shoulders and down an arm.  This is your himation.

The chiton was the standard dress for all women and upper class men.  The chiton + himation combo was the ancient equivalent of a suit and tie.  It was probably about as practical too.

Diotima is a lady of perfect modesty.  She always wears a chiton.  She has a collection of silver earrings, necklaces and bracelets that display her exquisite taste.   When she has to shoot her bow, she pulls the right sleeve up to her shoulder and hooks it over one of the fibulae.  Her target is unlikely to live long enough to be offended by the fashion crime.

Note that there were no hems in any clothing.  Also, Greek clothing was never cut or tailored.  Two rectangles of fabric is what you have to work with.  I've driven illustrators and book production people to drink by telling them the elegantly tailored tunics that they've put on Nico and Diotima are lovely but wrong.

I should emphasize that, as with modern clothing, there appears to have been considerable variation in the designs.  I should also emphasize that there isn't a single surviving example of a real classical Greek chiton, so everyone's staring at the same vase pictures to guess how they were made.

A chitoniskos is a little chiton.  Boys often wore daddy's old, cast-off chiton, cut down to size.  Take the chiton you've just made, cut it so it ends above the knees. and cut the sides until it's slightly too large for the target child (these kids tend to grow).  Socrates wears a chitoniskos, whenever he can be forced to wear anything at all.

Artisans and middle class workers didn't wear chitons.  There's no way you could do practical labour wearing that thing.  Instead, they wore an exomis.  Chitons are unisex, but the exomis is men-only.  Here's how to make an exomis:
  1. Do the stand-and-measure thing as before.  But stop at the elbows, or even less, according to taste.
  2. Sew down the right, as before.
  3. Now, when you put it on from the right, forget about pins.  Just tie the top left corners over the left shoulder.
  4. You're done!

Everything reverses for left handed men.  Sew the left side rather than the right, and tie over the right shoulder.  You can actually tell if someone is left or right handed by which side they wear their exomis knot.

The exomis is obviously very loose, and anyone looking from the left side is going to get an eyeful, but the Greeks weren't exactly bashful and even walking around naked was perfectly acceptable.

Nico almost always wears an exomis.  That's partly because he comes from an artisan family where the exomis is standard daily work wear for his dad, but it's mostly because it's so much easier to battle bad guys with less material to deal with.  The one time he tried to knife fight in a chiton, he tripped over.


Sarah W said...

So tie-dyed togas are accurate? I remember a few of those in college . . .

Thank you for that comment about the "eyeful" on the left hand side---I was still trying to figure out how sewing one right-hand seam would close both sides and leave a neckhole. Clearly, I am of Puritan, not Grecian, extraction!

Gary Corby said...

I'm not sure about tye-dye, but colourful for sure. I must stick some pictures in this post...

Socrates is believed to have hung out (literally) at the agora wearing nothing but a short leather cloak and carrying a stick. Clearly they don't do philosophy lectures like they used to.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Haha! I'm actually having a Roman murder party next weekend so this post might come in handy. Great details!

And you know, I'm not sure I ever pictured the Greeks in rainbow hues, always white. Funny how those little inaccuracies worm their ways into our brains.

Gary Corby said...

That's the curse of all those white marble. It makes even me think in terms of white. But it was all painted, or died, or whatever. Blues, greens, reds and yellows were popular.

Loretta Ross said...

You make me want to write a movie set in ancient Greece and convince some director to cast all my favorite actors as artisans. Properly costumed, of course. ;)

A chiton, though, sounds like the world's easiest Halloween costume. What would you do about footwear? (Assuming it's Missouri in late October and going barefoot isn't really an option?) And they were big on braiding with the hair, right?

Barrie said...

Very interesting! I love the "tie a rope beneath the relevant bits" explanation!

Gary Corby said...

Wow, that last comment I wrote was full of typos. That's what I get for writing anything at 1am.

Loretta, yep, Greek clothing is very easy. Footwear is even simpler: bare feet. Unless you want to go formal, in which case leather sandals. Sandal design hasn't changed much in a few millenia, so anything made of leather and board will be fine. If it was really cold, they'd wrap rags around their feet before putting on sandals to hold the rags in place. Plato's Symposium explicitly says Socrates was known for his ability to walk barefoot in even the coldest weather.

Hi Barrie! I found a couple of pictures with rope tied underneath the relevant bits, but none were clear enough to post, unfortunately (or in copyright). The best I could manage was this flicky photo of a very similar Roman period dress: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ian-w-scott/4988113575/.