History of Lingerie II: Ancient Greeks

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Just as every region in the US has its own style and way of doing things, so did each of the cultures within Ancient and Classical Greece. The Mediterranean basin was a vast region comprised of multiple city states, with their own rulers, dialects, and most certainly, their own way of wearing underwear.


Bronze statue of Aphrodite holding her apodesmos to her breast.

While Ancient Greek civilization can trace its origins back to the 6th millennium BC Stone Age, during the period between approximately 1600BC and 350AD various tribes of Greek origin dominated the political landscape. The empire stretched from Macedonia to Crete, and from Sicily to Asia Minor. Many distinct cultures overlapped, many were absorbed. While there isn't a great deal of evidence about the lingerie of the ancients, we know that during this era that spanned millennium, ideas and fashions were transmitted across the Mediterranean basin from one conquering tribe to the next. Sometimes those fashions were adopted, and sometimes they were scorned.

The Mycenaeans invaded and overtook the ancient Minoans living on Crete, and while the Cretans had celebrated the female form in all its glorious sensuality, and created undergarments to emphasize the breasts, hips, and waist, lingerie in Ancient Greece was another matter entirely. The Cretan crinoline and corset would have had no place in Athenian society, and wearing such items would have been beyond obscene and in no way tolerated.


The hourglass silhouette of the Minoan woman would have caused a riot in Athens.

One of the most infamous Greek women of all time, Helen of Troy, if indeed she was a real woman and not just a character out of mythology, lived during this period. Helen, aka Helen of Sparta, has been depicted in many a Hollywood movie as a scandalous two timer using her sex appeal to bring down a kingdom. Hollywood in general depicts the Classical Greek culture as one in which the women were highly sexualized, but the reality is actually the opposite. The average Grecian woman at the time of Helen, whether Athenian or Spartan, would not have flaunted or considered using her sexuality to gain favor.


"Hey Paris, let me take off your tunic." Rossana Podesta as Helen of Troy, 1956.

The ancient Athenian male had some very unusual ideas about sex - it was considered part of the natural world and Greek men were more interested in aesthetic beauty. Women were generally thought of as a necessary evil, and the sexual act between men and women was viewed primarily as a means to childbearing and progeny. They didn't, however, hold the same disdain when it came to having sex with boys. The whole idea of a highly sexualized society is ironic; the media depictions of brutish womanizers and scantily-clad women bears little resemblance to the real peoples of the ancient Athenian culture.


Barbarians and babes, Hercules and the Captive Women had the party going on.

Women in the early days of Greek civilization wore only a straight piece of cloth that featured no sewing or hemming. This simple garment eventually became two separate yet similar pieces, the peplos worn by the Dorian peoples and the chiton worn by Ionian peoples - though later there was also a version of the Doric chiton. Both garments were ankle length for women but the peplos was completely open on the right side, and the chiton was originally open on both sides. The naked female form was in clear view when women walked. The peplos was a plain, straight garment made of thick wool secured at the shoulder and having no sleeves. The feature that specifically defines the peplos is that the top edge of the fabric is folded over, creating a sort of bib in front, and what could be pulled up as a hood in back to protect the wearer from wind or rain.


The Peplos was open down the right side leaving the body completely exposed.

The chiton was usually made of lightweight wool or linen and was more gauze like in weight. It was more decorative in nature and was sometimes pleated. A series of pins or buttons attached the front and back together all the way down the length of the arm so that when the garment was belted with the zo'nula it created deep sleeves. Eventually these open sections were sewn. No undergarments were worn under this type of dress, though women did wear a cloak-like item in winter months to protect themselves from the elements.


The Ionic Chiton is universally recognizable.

Athenian women were not wearing any undergarments beneath their tunics for the most part, and much of the body would have been visible, but what is important to realize is that respectable women were not walking around in the streets. Married women and girls were sequestered inside their own homes, and might have only come out for special occasions, religious ceremonies, or perhaps to speak with a neighbor. Slaves and members of the lower class might have been walking around wearing tunics that barely covered their naked bodies, but the average woman definitely was not. Though their bodies were sometimes in clear view beneath their tunics and women would publicly undress for bathing or religious purposes, the ancient Athenians didn't consider these acts salacious in any way. Bathing and religious festivals were simply part of everyday life, and not to be considered lewd acts meant to arouse or titillate.

What the Greek woman did wear, though, was the zona. More accurately, women wore the zo'nula (diminutive form of zona). Both men and women wore the zona around the hip or waist area of the body to cinch the tunic and create a pocket for carrying things. It's also thought that a maiden may have worn a specific type of zo'nula that was removed once she was married. The zo'nula was attached at the front using a pin, or fibula. Much has been made of the idea of the zona as the origin of the modern day girdle, but the actual history is not nearly as glamorous as all that. The zona and zo'nula were simply belts used to either create pouches for carrying things, to help men hold on their armor, and for both men and women to cinch their tunics to keep them from flapping all over the place or getting in the way during work.


Statue of the goddess Flora, shown wearing the zo'nula over her peplos.


Flora would have pinned her zo'nula with this Bronze Age fibula.

When it comes to what Greek women were wearing for support, it seems that a much of the history of the subject is sports related. Undergarments of the ancient Greeks included primarily the apodesmos or strophion. The strophion, made of narrow bands of cloth twisted and wrapped around and beneath the breasts was generally worn on top of the tunic. The apodesmos being narrow bands of cloth wrapped around the breasts to flatten and support was worn under the tunic or in the case of the athlete as a solo garment. The intention was to flatten the breasts so they wouldn't move, which is not unlike today's' sports bra. They were made of either wool or linen and were tied or pinned in the back. Mentions of this type of underwear can be found in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as in the works of Herodotus and Aristophanes. Versions of both of these garments were worn up to and through the Middle Ages.


An example of a narrow, twisted strophion worn over the tunic to support the bust and add shaping.

Narrower versions of the apodesmos were called anamakhalistekr and mastodeton, and were essentially thin pieces of red ribbon that bound the breasts from the bosom to the waist. These items are thought to perhaps have some erotic nature, as much of the information available is associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.


Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is associated with the apodesmos. Terra cotta statue, 58 BC.


The Spartan girl would have been on the field training, 450BC.

The Spartan woman had a completely different mind set from the Classical Athenian woman, and her fashion and clothing speaks to the vast differences between the two tribes. The Spartans were a culture that was in essence a war machine, and the peoples lives were one in which they were in perpetual preparation for battle. Girls were trained in athletics, held property and inheritance rights, and were educated to read and write, unlike their Athenian sisters. It is this mind set that informs the need for any garments that truly could be considered underwear, and it's the broad range of activities and freedom that the Spartan woman enjoyed which gave rise to the use of them.


Ancient statue of a Spartan girl, circa 520BC

The painting by Euaion, circa 450BC shows Atalanta, who is probably the second most famous Spartan woman, wearing a stethodesmos and diazoma. The stethodesmos is a more elaborate version of the apodesmos, having straps, where the apodesmos simply winds around the bust and ties off.


Atalanta, a legendary Greek warrior living during the height of Spartan rule.

The diazoma are basically briefs, or a loincloth, as the word itself is defined by the meaning "to pass through." Atalanta was a fierce warrior who fought in battle along side the men, and her "underwear" wasn't for the purpose of donning beneath her tunic, it was to allow her the freedom of motion she needed on the battlefield while also affording her some protection or perhaps ease of motion with regard to binding the breasts. It has nothing to do with modesty, Spartan girls trained in the nude, just like their male counterparts.


The Chamber of the Ten Maidens, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily.

The island of Sicily was under the rule of the Greek empire during the time of Spartan dominance, and though there are many Greek ruins on the island, one site in particular is misrepresented on the net as being of Greek origin. The Villa Romana del Casale was built during the 5th century AD, long after the Greeks had been conquered by the Romans. There is a famous room in the Villa called The Chamber of the Ten Maidens, with an incredible mosaic showing ten young performers engaged in various circus activities. The images of the Maidens have been used in several cases to represent the Greek apodesmos, and though it looks like the same garment, and was influenced by the Spartan female athletes, what these circus lasses were wearing on top would have been called the strophium adopted and slightly modified from the Greek word for twisted belt, or fascia, taenia, or mamillare, and on bottom the subligaculum or subligaria.


Leather Sublugaria discovered in a Roman era London excavation in 1953. The garment dates to around 100AD.

As the Classical period transformed to the Hellenic, the Athenian woman wore a new type of tunic as well as under-tunics, which through the centuries would eventually turn into the slip and the chemise. During the Hellenic period the stethodesmos became more like a scarf, and was sometimes sheer in nature. The Hellenic period also saw female sexuality becoming more pronounced. For example, Plutarch's Dialogues on Love notes that young girls could be the object of sexual desire as well as young boys.


Late Classical period Grecian woman wearing a sheer stethodesmos, 450BC.

Tunics worn by women during the Hellenic period were held together at the shoulders and were quite different from previous incarnations of the tunic, which used a fibula, usually in the shape of a hook or needle, to hold the fabric together. Hellenic tunics were usually pleated and made of fine material. A belt sectioned the tunic, allowing for flowing movement around the legs, though the arms were covered. Clothes also became longer and wider during this period, and eventually a hood was added. These garments completely enveloped women and marked the beginning of sensuality as part of the Greek woman's presence. The Hellenic woman wore two tunics made of smooth material under her strategically-wrapped outer tunic, the himation. Under these tunics she wore a scarf or bands around her breasts and hips. Wearing such items gave the new Athenian woman a sense of her sexuality that Greek women of previous generations had never experienced.


Urania, goddess of astronomy, wears a chiton and draped himation in Hellenic style. Restored Roman statue copied from the original Greek, circa 300BC.

The Hellenic woman, like her earlier Athenian sisters, did not show her body in public for any reason, religious or otherwise. This lack of exposure gave female nudity an erotic value it didn't have before. Early pieces of Greek clothing were considered representative of ancient Greece's humanist victory over nature, since clothing was worn to indicate status rather than to protect and showcase the body. The sexualized female form of the Hellenic period saw a return to nature, as nature and sexuality are so closely tied. It's clear that Helen of Troy, in spite of being Spartan and from the Classical era, is always depicted as a Hellenic woman, simply because it was a sexier time when women were finally being allowed some measure of sexual identity.

Women no longer had to hide their physical assets in a world that had previously down-played their sexuality. Like in ancient Egypt, clothing in the ancient Greek world had been about status, but as classical Greek civilization declined, sexuality played a bigger role. Athenian women held little or no status in the world of ancient Greece. Unlike ancient Crete, a largely matriarchal society, Athenian women were mothers and housekeepers that had virtually no say in government or religious ceremonies. They were not considered full citizens, and marriage was only a business arrangement, something it would continue to be for many centuries. Athenian wives were confined to the house, and there is evidence that men and women lived in separate parts of the Greek household.

The Romans would later adopt the Greek word tainia, meaning "flat band" or "ribbon" which they called the taenia, in addition to other Greek undergarments like the strophion and the zona, which eventually developed into a full torso girdle. The sexuality that dominated Roman civilization in a way completely unlike that of the Greek world gave rise to popularity of the courtesan. For all the sexualized depictions of Greek goddesses and women in 20th and 21st century media, like those in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess television series, actual female sexuality in ancient Greece was reduced to nearly nothing, with the underwear to prove it.