Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome

Jeri DeBrohun looks at the meanings expressed in the style of clothes and personal adornment adopted by men and women in the ancient world.

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans have a sense of fashion? Historians of dress have traditionally claimed that fashion in the modern sense did not exist in Greece and Rome, but this assertion rests upon a misconception of rather sophisticated Greco-Roman attitudes toward physical appearance, as well as upon definitions of ‘dress’ and ‘fashion’ that are too limited.

As is abundantly clear from their art and literature, the ancients attached great importance to ideals of bodily perfection and to outward appearance in general. Both the Greeks and the Romans demonstrated, from their earliest history, an extraordinary awareness of the  potential of the body (and various modifications that could be made to it) as a means of marking social, political, religious, and even moral distinctions, aside from the opportunities dress and body decoration represent for self-expression or the pursuit of beauty. The ancients manipulated the expressive potential of clothing and adornments in a myriad of contexts: in their rituals, in theatre, and in the political arena, as well as in literature. There is also considerable evidence of innovation, experimentation, and the determined expression of personal style, even in Republican Rome where societal norms or expectations were ostensibly rigid in regard to clothing, correct grooming, or the use of adornments such as jewellery, perfume or cosmetics. 

The term ‘dress’ includes any modification of, or supplement to, the body that conveys meaning that can be ‘read’ by others. For the ancients it encompassed much more than clothes but also included beards, hairstyles, and wigs, perfumes and cosmetics, jewellery and accessories, and colour, whether of clothing, hair dye, or skin treatments (tattoos, for example).

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