Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion

Within the past few years art in dress has become an accomplished fact, and historic costume as a serious subject of art research has developed new and fascinating possibilities. The far-reaching archaeological connections of the subject have been especially emphasized as recent discoveries and excavations have more and more brought to light the manner of dress in the ancient world. The trend of fashion a few years ago took a turn far backward into antiquity. What was worn in the days of the Pharaohs was made to seem new, interpreted by Parisian designers who dip into ancient history with such careless aplomb, and flit with case from one epoch to another, from early Egyptian to Victorian days before yesterday.

It is acknowledged that it is this facile dexterity in combining past and present, the ability to cull suggestions from other eras, and endow them with the personal touch of today--and tomorrow--that has given the French designers their supremacy in dictating modern fashions. In the field of stage costume design there has been much rivalry in European centers, while in America the desire to create in all fields of costume design has already had very practical results. There are now plenty of opportunities for training in this branch of art. We have not only the numerous special courses offered in art schools, but still more important, the co-operation of museums and art reference libraries, opening up avenues of special knowledge only waiting to be utilized by individuals. And the study of the evolu tion of costume has a wide interest going far beyond the merely professional one. In the glass of fashion down the ages is presented such a wealth of human associations of universal interest. 


For the beginnings of civilized cos tume we must go back to the source of most civilized things, the Valley of the Nile. In Egypt at some remote unknown dates were evolved the original types of covering for the human body the tunic, the robe, the skirt accompanied by shawl or cape. These were all worn with few variations by both men and women. Man did not really adopt the present nondescript and uniform attire prescribed by civilization till the beginning of the nineteenth century A. D. it is to be remembered. Modern interpretations of Egyptian costume have an air that is dashing and bizarre; in reality the Egyptians were conservative in costume as in all else. They appear to have kept on with the same fashions century after century, though archaeology has now progressed far enough for experts to say that certain things were fashionable in such and such a dynasty. In periods when all the arts flourished most dress became less primitive. The recent discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen illustrates a very brilliant period of course. Linen was the principal material used and the highly decorative effects were usually obtained by borders and fringes. Skins were worn, garments of gazelle hide, cut and seamed, and panther and leopard skins thrown over the shoulders. A warrior's metal cuirass appears, formed of scales, and it was imitated in all-over scale patterns. 

With the aid of a little imagination we can conjure up from the remote past typical Egyptian figures. Most familiar, through having been adapted by modern fashion, is the clinging or wrapped style of garment extending from ankles to bust, with a deep, ornamental collar worn over the shoulders. The marked physiognomy was often surrounded by a wig, with a diadem placed low on the forehead. Head-dresses show varied and elaborate symbolic forms, the uraeus in front of the tall helmet, or skullcap shapes, is familiar. The most recent excavations have unearthed rich treasures in jewelry. The art of Egyptian lapidaries and goldsmiths is shown in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, girdles and finger-rings of exquisite workmanship. The innumerable little jars and boxes for cosmetics, and the metal hand-mirrors, are witnesses of how much of life was vanity, then as now. 

All these things belonged to the luxurious side of ancient life, but Egyptian art records the humbler phases too. There are figures of dark skinned slaves brought to the Nile ports in war-galleys from the African interior, wearing the primitive loin cloth, or the short skirt, which were commonly worn by servants and peas ants, and by scribes. Strange foreign figures are sometimes portrayed, of Asiatic envoys, and "Philistines" with a distinctive head-dress and European cast of features. Many different notes in the garb of old Egypt throw light on the daily life of the people.


The Assyrians were somewhat more elaborate in their dress than the Egyptians. Their kings, at least, wore long tunics, small shawl draperies fastened to girdles, and many dangling tassels. The ancient Assyrian head-dress, the fez, or tarbush, has persisted to the present day. Wool was used as well as linen, and furs in hunting costume. There was more embroidery than in Egypt. An illustration in a recent costume book of the tunic of King Assur-bani-pal, seventh century B. C., richly embroidered and fringed, is a model for a modern tunic, just as it is shown. Another king of antiquity, the great and terrible Darius of Persia, is shown in a robe draped rather elegantly on either side with the aid of a tight girdle. He wears a high crown and earrings, and carries in his right hand a tall cane, and in his left a sort of symbolic scepter.


Many centuries before the period of Darius, in the Minoan era, in the island of Crete, appear to have been worn quite the most amazing clothes in the ancient world. Archaeologists have taught us to regard the Minoan era as the "Forerunner of Greece,"  but nothing could be farther from classic draperies than the costume of the two famous little faience figures of Greece," but nothing could be farther from classic draperies than the costume of the two famous little faience figures of the snake goddess and votary, date about 1600 B. C., that, in bodices so tightly laced, and skirts so distended, seem actually barbaric forerunners of eighteenth or nineteenth century court fashions of France. These doll-like figures are symbolic, doubtless used in the performance of sacred rites. However a few other discoveries have furnished evidence that this was a prevailing mode for women of Crete, and the Greek mainland also.  


Though little is known about the earliest Greek costume and the transitions to the later style, the Heroic Age of Greek story and legend must have been one of bright-hued garments and rich gold ornaments. Modern  knowledge obtained from the excavations of Mycenae and Tiryns points to a very real background for Homeric traditions. Details are wanting, and we do not know exactly in what attire to picture the women who lived when fair Helen is supposed to have beguiled her victims, and Penelope kept her lonely state. For modern representations of old Greek dramas founded on the Heroic Age, costumes are chosen with some latitude as to time and place. Stephen Phillips' modern play of " Ulysses " was first brought out in London twenty years ago, and authorities of the British Museum lent their aid in designing the superb setting and costumes according to the latest knowledge then available. Architectural details were based on the discoveries at Mycenae, but the characters were dressed from artistic suggestions of a later date. A little more information is available nowadays, and producers have made some experiments in accuracy. 

Fortunately Greek costume of the highest period of civilization is so fully illustrated in the multitude of figures on fifth and fourth century vases that they are veritable mines of suggestion. There are most charming figures to be found, in those attitudes of rhythmic grace and vivid action that are still the despair of modem gymnastics and "beauty culture." Vase paintings are not the only source of knowledge, there are the little Tanagra statuettes in terra cotta, petite fashion models of every day Hellenic costume, full of style and distinction that have such an intimate appeal even without the color that once made them more life-like. Greek costume was not so monotonous as it may at first seem to have been. The tunic, or chiton, is long or short, and varied in the adjustment, the mantle, or himation, is disposed in different ways, and.there are borders and small-figured ornament. Beauty of coloring has always to be imagined. Much of what looks like "accordion pleating" appears, and when some Maenad or ' Bacchante wears a leopard skin over her transparent pleated draperies there is an exotic effect such as strikes the modern fancy. There are scarfs, and fans, and pointed hats, and jewelry has ceased to be of barbaric design and profusion. And what coiffure has ever been designed more becoming than the Greek-if becoming at all? Modern fashion, since the First Empire modes, has not tampered much with the Greek high period until recently. A combination of the untrammelled figure and drapery sent designers straight back to it. Goddesses may be out of tune with the modem scheme of things, but there are always a few women who look their best in evening gowns of classic lines. 

There are late Greek fashions of the era when Oriental influences in the wealthy and flourishing Greek colonies must have produced changes, and these have not been so thoroughly investigated as more ancient modes.


The Romans followed the Greek style of dress so generally that their costume does not present many features of special interest. We picture the Roman lady as a conventional, dignified figure, in her stola, falling in ample folds from neck to feet, adjusted by a girdle. The palla was an outer garment, and a fold of it was used to cover the head out-of -doors, by matrons of high degree; further protection was afforded by the parasol or umbrella carried by slaves. The famous toga of the Roman citizen is an appalling garment for the modern man to con template, though we do not question its ancient dignity. In magnificent triumphal processions there must have been varied costumes. The proud Eastern beauty, Zenobia, walked in chains as a captive in such a triumph. The hero of the occasion rode standing in a chariot, clothed in tunic and toga of purple embroidered with gold, and he carried an ivory scepter topped with an eagle, while over his laurel crowned head a slave held a gold wreath. The slave had also another duty to perform-at intervals he whispered in the car of the hero the strange warning: "Look behind. Remember that you are but a man." The triumphal chariot was preceded by dancers and singers, and followed by soldiers in brilliant military trappings, their spears garlanded with laurel. In everyday life the proverbial Roman luxury and lavish expenditure were for the accessories of dress--jewels, elegant foot-gear, and the elaborate equipments of the toilet and bath.

Silk was used in Rome as a costly material difficult to obtain, but it is well known that the secrets of silk culture, and the weaving of silken fabrics, reached Europe from China by way of the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium. China was advanced in the textile arts far back in antiquity. Sculptured figures of the T'ang period have clinging draperies in graceful lines that are Greek in suggestion, though more complicated in style. Recent archaeological explorations in the mysterious and debatable lands on the western borders of China, and north of India, have disclosed an ancient art showing varied Oriental and Classical influences. Interesting notes on costume are to be gathered from the decoration of cave temples of this region.


 Roman Constantinople had a busy and bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere, and even in antiquity the rich products of all the East came to her gates. It is easy to understand that there were contacts of refinement and barbarism new to the world, which produced the prodigal luxury and sumptuous display that reached a climax at the sixth century court of Justinian and the beautiful Theodora. But Byzantine art is not of a character to illustrate costume very freely. A search for Byzantine fashions always leads to an Italian church, San Vitale, at Ravenna, where a mosaic group shows Theodora and her attendants in a style of costume that is already* mediaeval. The empress is wrapped in a long cloak, heavily embroidered, and she wears a coronet and deep collar of pearls. Her ladies wear short mantles, and the dresses beneath are really dresses in the modern sense. Garments were cut and sewed more than the ancient ones, and sleeves became a prominent feature. Remains of the Coptic period in Egypt show this development was widespread. As time went on there was the greatest progress in weaving patterned fabrics, and some stuffs were stiff with jewelled ornamentation. The simplicity of costume of the ancient world was succeeded by the brilliant pageantry that is presented by the garb of the Middle Ages. 

Yet some very ancient influences in costume have survived in out-of-the-way places, and to seek out these survivals and preserve them before they disappear, is part of the province of modern investigations. This was done in Russia, and few people stop to think how much of the fame and vogue of the Russian ballet, and the Russian opera and drama, is due to the painstaking research and extensive resources which were at the disposal of Russian costume designers. The Russian, or "Muscovite," artistic developments include such a bewildering variety of influences-Byzantine, Scandinavian, Mongolian, Greco-Scythian--all these and others are to he found.


Visiting art critics from abroad sometimes wonder that Americans have not made more use of the aboriginal art of the Western Continent (in spite of the Taos productions) and seem not to realize that it has never been part of our previous civilization, but is in fact more detached and alien than the ancient traditional art of the Old World. North American costume of the immediate past is all that we have to go upon in picturing northern Indians of distant epochs. Experts think it has not changed  much, except for a few garments imitating the cut of civilized ones, and the bead-work and aniline dyes which are modern. It is beautiful in color combinations and some textures, yet primitive in a way that has balked translation by fashion artists; whatever has been done has not amounted to much. The little that is known of Central and South American ancient costume indicates types of a different character, more elaborate and varied, showing something of those more advanced conditions of civilization which have been so much of a puzzle to the learned experts. There are strikingly distinctive styles of adornment, of which the Mayan type seems the most developed, with such strange forms of head-dresses, and massive gold ornaments, as are not to be found among Old World peoples. The textiles of  ancient Peru are now well known for fine quality of weaving and originality of design. Perhaps sometime in the future a really great opera will be written, founded upon some legend of prehistoric America, and there will be an opportunity for effects in scenery and costumes in a style of primitive art that has not been exploited to any great extent.

Philadelphia, Pa.

 McAlister, Mary. "Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion." Art and Archaeology 15, April 1923: 167-175.

Uncovering Tutankhamen I The Boy King I Buried Treasure I Metropolitan Connections I Cinematic Contributions Stop the Presses I Literary Illusions I Fashion is King I Americans Abroad I Main