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Basic Women's Clothing

Women's clothing of the late Archaic is very simple in basic construction and equally complex in adjustment and wearing. In principle, every woman's garment is an un-sewn, un-pleated rectangle of cloth. Women's clothing can be made of lightweight wool, heavy wool, or linen of various qualities from transparent, filmy linen to fairly heavy linen.


As a guide to looking at Greek art for clues as to women's fashion, note that in general smooth fabric, even draped in complex pleats, is wool, and fabric with tiny pleats and wrinkles is probably linen.

In essence, however, all women's clothing in period is made out of rectangles which are folded and/or pleated into a variety of shapes.

1. Primary Sources

Our primary sources for women's clothing of the late archaic in Boeotia will be Attic Red Figure and Black Figure vase paintings and literary sources, both of which are heavily weighted to Athens and Attica, and both of which have limitations on how much we understand, especially about the minute changes in wearing garments that no doubt defined regional ethnicity and local fashion. We have a single surviving garment from 800 BC (well out of period) and a single surviving large scrap of embroidered linen (probably from a woman's garment) from about 400 BC.

2. Assumptions- Even with a primary source assumptions will have to be made. Given that 85% of our images are Attic and not Boeotian, we have to assume that women in Boeotia dressed much the same way, and that Athens set fashions that women in Plataea followed. This assumption does seem reasonable in the light of Plataea's economic and military ties to Athens. We might also assume that fashion in Plataea lagged behind Athens, as there is a diffusion lag between New York City and Rochester, NY of several years, and as there is between Toronto and Newmarket. Finally, we assume that women in Plataea wore more garments of wool and fewer of linen. Almost all linen in Boeotia had to be imported as raw flax from Egypt 1), and Plataea does not have a port.

3. Interpretation and Uncertainty— Our principle interpretations will lie in the way we see the art and the images on vases and choose to represent them as garments. For example, 19th and early 20th century costume scholars saw the cloth over a woman's breasts in the Doric chiton or peplos as an additional garment pinned at the shoulders. In fact, it is now widely understood as a fold of the main garment, doubled over for modesty. However, this sort of assertion/interpretation is almost impossible to prove with the paucity of evidence. So we'll do our best and experiment with what we know.

4. Constraints- What no woman can do and look correct in her clothes is attempt to wear a modern support garment–no, not even a bra–under her clothes. This will require a certain je ne c'est quoi (or perhaps just sang froide on the part of the women. Console yourselves that the men are in much the same position. That's why they are all working out so feverishly.

Making a Linen Chiton

The seated woman in the picture to the right is wearing a pleated Doric chiton (or possibly a peplos) of linen that has been washed and then wrapped tight while wet and dried in a wrap to preserve the pleats. This is the simplest form of chiton to make, and probably the most flattering, but you'll notice that the woman's breasts show through the fabric.

You can construct this garment quickly and easily. You should start with a piece of linen whose width, salvage to salvage, is at least as great as your own height. Alternatively, you can cut two pieces of linen at least 60 inches wide and rotate them and then sew one edge salvage to salvage and hem all the rest. Either way, you need a piece of sheer, light linen (looser weaves will give the best result) that, when seamed and hemmed, makes a rectangle at LEAST sixty inches by at LEAST your own height.

We strongly recommend experimentation with cheap cotton or muslin fabric until you find a drape, length, and width you like. This experimentation should never be done while back lit and in front of a window.

Once you have established the width and length of your garment, you can take the expensive lightweight linen you purchased, cut it to shape, and hem it. Hemming is the only sewing a garment needs in this period. And yes, one side of your garment is completely open. Yes. You'll note while hemming sixteen or so feet of linen that, while you've saved a great deal of garment construction time from other periods, you still have lots of sewing to do. When you are done, wash the garment and roll it wet into the tightest bundle you can manage. You can roll it tightly by yourself by placing one end under your foot and wrapping hard with your arms. This is, in fact, how a laundress did this in the late Archaic 2). Now put it in the sun to dry, or in winter, on a heating vent. It will take twenty-four hours to dry.

Once the garment is washed and dried in a tight bundle, you'll need pins to dress. You pin the upper hem at the shoulders. This takes practice, and you should work out where you want the pins on your “practice” garment of muslin and then mark the shoulder on your real fabric by embroidering a small circle or even adding a small ring of bronze, brass, or silver like a grommet as a reinforcement. Once this is done, it is always easy to find where you pin goes and the pin will never tear the fabric. It is also possible that women put buttons into the hems of their garments 3). You can use additional pins to adjust the modesty of your garment at the open side. Experiment has shown that just one or two pins will cover a multitude of sins.

The girl in the picture above, a flute-girl or porne is not covering any sins at all, but if you wish your linen chiton to be more modest, you can make it longer (not necessarily wider!) and then fold the top over before you pin it, creating the overhand or modesty roll that you see in the caryatid statue at the head of this article. In addition, that same marvelous statue also demonstrates that even more length could be used up by tying the girdle or zone.

Here's the linen cut to size and edged and hemmed. A stripe has been added. Here's the linen folded and being wrapped to dry after washing.
Here's what mine looked like after I washed and twisted it. Here's what it ought to look like pinned at the shoulders and draped. In the drawing, a zone or girdle has been put at the hips under the “overhang” to provide modesty and reinforce the line of the hips.

Making a Peplos

Peplos is an ancient Greek word that can mean any woven cloth used for a covering, sheet, carpet, curtain, veil, to cover a chariot, funeral-urn, seat 4)5)6), or laid over the face of the dead, 7). However, by the late Archaic, it most commonly refers to a woman's woolen garment “π. ἑανός, ποικίλος” 8)9) 10)11). At Athens, the word had a special meaning for the embroidered robe carried in procession at the Panathenaea 12)“τὸν π. . . ἕλκους᾽, ὀνεύοντες . . εἰς ἄκρον ὥσπερ ἱστίον τὸν ἱστόν” 13); “ὁ π. μεστὸς τῶν τοιούτων ποικιλμάτων” 14)15) 16)17). The evidence suggests that a peplos was almost always of wool. This may simply mean that “peplos” referred to the same garment in wool that we call a “chiton” in linen. To further confuse you (and all of us) costume historians call the peplos “the Doric chiton” whether it is wool or linen. A great deal of research is needed to refine our costume terms in period–but for the moment, the wool “chiton” pined at the shoulders and with an over-fold is called a “peplos.”

Here is Sarah Watt in a wool peplos striped in madder-red (period dye, good color) wool tape. Again, stripes would usually have been woven into the fabric but were sometimes added, and this is the best we can do for now. Textile merchants, take note!

Sarah's peplos has no overfold and a simple Doric shoulder arrangement. Most of the evening she wore a shawl.

The peplos is constructed exactly like the linen chiton, except that there is no need to twist the fabric and make pleats, as the wool will drape all of its own and is sufficiently modest.

Below is Aurora Simmons in a linen dress—somewhere in the gray area between a chiton and a peplos. She has an upper and a lower “zone”—the upper tied just under her breasts, and the lower just above what would be the modern “waist.” She has a third zone down at her hips, and a fourth a little below, giving the layered effect so often seen in statues.


The diagrams for the linen chiton will suffice to construct a wool peplos. Again, it is essential to begin with yardage of cheap cloth to get the total fabric length and width you'll need to be happy and modest in your finished garment (as modest as you care to be, that is…)


1) Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Vol. I P.71
2) as evidenced by several ARF vases; the best example is fig. 194 in Athenian Red Figure Vases–The Classical Period by John Boardman
3) Buttons and their use in Greek Garments by Kate Elderkin, in The American Journal of Archaeology Vol.2 No. 3 p.333-345
4) Il.5.194
5) Il. 24.796
6) Od.7.96
7) E.Tr.627
8) Il.5.734
9) Batr.182
10) Od.18.292
11) Xenephon Cyr.5.1.6.
12) IG12.80.11
13) Stratt.30
14) Pl.Euthphr.6c
15) E.Hec.468
16) Ar.Eq.566
17) Arist.Ath.49.3
womens_clothing.txt · Last modified: 2009/03/29 15:59 by thais