Pre-Hellenic Greek Dress

Minoan Snake Goddess figurines c 1600 BCE. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum

By Ethel B. Abrahams

In seeking to conjure up a vivid picture of the life of an ancient people, it is the task of the archæologist to neglect no point that can in any way throw light on the manners and customs which that people practised from day to day, both in the exercise of their public duties and in the privacy of their own homes.

Just as the habits and dress of an individual frequently give a true impression of his character and type of mind, so the salient characteristics of a nation are reflected in the external details of their manners and their costume. In making a careful study of the Greeks, therefore, whose innate feeling for beauty was part of their very being, and whose sense of the fitness of things rarely if ever played them false, we shall expect to find our efforts amply repaid, both by the satisfaction given to the æsthetic sense and by the knowledge we shall have gained of the development of the national character. The study of costume has, moreover, an ethnological significance which in itself justifies a detailed investigation of the subject.

Professor Ridgeway, in The Early Age of Greece, has pointed out that the civilization reflected in the Homeric poems differs in many essential points from that which is revealed by the monuments found at Mycenæan sites on the mainland of Greece and in the Ægean islands. Confirmation has since been added to his convincing arguments by the discoveries of Mr Arthur Evans in Crete, which prove that the so-called Mycenæan remains were but the last efforts of a dying civilization which stretched back at least as far as the third millennium before our era. The culture revealed by the excavations at Knossos and other sites in Crete presents a striking contrast to that of the Greeks of the classic period; whereas the state of society described in the Homeric poems seems to contain analogies with both periods

The palace of Alcinous and the house of Odysseus, as described in the Odyssey, correspond in plan to the palace of Mycenæ excavated by the Greek Archæological Society in 1886, whicfh undoubtedly belongs to the older stratum of civilization;[1] on the other hand, the methods of disposing of the dead, and the underlying principles of costume, are utterly different in the two cases. The Homeric heroes burn their dead, whereas the remains found in Mycenæan graves prove that in the state of society to which they belong burial was the common method of disposing of the dead. The difference in costume is equally striking; the women’s dress, illustrated by the Mycenæan gems and the wall-paintings and faïence statuettes from Knossos, consists of elaborately made garments, with tight jackets fitting closely to the figures at the waist, and full and frequently flounced skirts; there is no indication of fastening by means of brooches or fibulæ. In Homer the brooch is almost invariably mentioned as an essential detail of female costume, and the garments described are of a simple character, and such that they can be spread out and used for other purposes. For example, Aphrodite, when protecting Æneas from his assailants, shields him from their weapons by drawing a fold of her peplos over him (Iliad, v., 315); and again, at the funeral rites of Hector, the body is covered, πορφυρέοις πέπλοισι μαλακοῖσιν (Iliad, xxiv., 796), “with soft purple robes.”

The contrast between the forms of dress represented in Mycenæan art and in the Homeric poems can only be explained by supposing that there is a difference in race between the two peoples, and that the older civilization was almost entirely swept away by a great series of invasions carried out by men of a different race. The Homeric dress is closely akin to that of the Greeks of the classic period, whereas that represented on Mycenæan rings and gems belongs, as will be shown later, to the stratum of civilization revealed by the Cretan excavations.[2] We must suppose, then, that the Homeric heroes belonged to the invading race, which was full of youthful vigour and succeeded in superimposing its manners and customs upon those of the older, decadent society, and in finally ousting the older inhabitants from their homes altogether. The process was one which must have lasted over some centuries, and it is probable that the Homeric poems were composed whilst it was still incomplete, and that the siege of Troy represents one incident in the long wars which were waged between the two peoples. This view accounts for the fact that the Homeric house belongs to the older civilization, while the costume is that of the later. The invaders, having conquered or driven out the inhabitants, finding their houses strongly built and luxuriously decorated, would refrain from destroying them and settle themselves peacefully and comfortably there, naturally retaining their own style of dress and customs of disposing of their dead. Any new houses built after their settlement would be constructed after their own plans, and so the Homeric house would gradually give place to the Hellenic. The absence of brooches and fibulæ from the graves on the Acropolis of Mycenæ, and their presence in those of the lower city, adds confirmation to this theory. The Acropolis graves are earlier than the others, which in all probability belong to the time when the invaders had already imposed some of their characteristic customs upon their predecessors at Mycenæ and elsewhere in Greece. The use of the fibula is common to the early peoples of Central Europe, from which region it must have been introduced by the Achæan invaders into Greece.[3]

The earliest remains found on Greek soil are those which have been unearthed by Mr A. J. Evans, in his series of excavations at Knossos, in Crete. They represent earlier stages of that civilization which has hitherto been known as Mycenæan. The costume revealed by the art of this pre-Hellenic age forms a study in itself, since it presents a striking contrast to that of the classic period in Greece, and also to that of contemporary Asiatic peoples. The costume of the men is simple; when not entirely nude, they wear sometimes a waist-cloth rolled round a girdle, with a loose end hanging down like an apron in front;[4] in a lead statuette of the same period found near Abbia, in Laconia, the waist-cloth appears to take the form of a triangular piece of material wrapped round the girdle, the apex of the triangle being drawn up between the legs and tucked into the belt in front. In some terra-cotta figurines from Petsofa,[5] a third garment appears, consisting of a rectangular piece of material with the long side tucked into the belt all round and the short sides hanging down perpendicularly in front. In the later Mycenæan period, the garment takes the form of short breeches reaching half-way down the thigh. These are probably a development from the earlier waist-cloth.[6]

Fig. 1 – The “cup bearer” fresco, from Knossos / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

In most cases the upper part of the body appears to be quite bare, but in some instances a line is drawn at the neck and wrists which may indicate the edges of a close-fitting, long-sleeved tunic. It is more probable, however, that these lines are meant to represent a necklace and bracelets, such as have been found in considerable numbers in Mycenæan graves. On a siege scene represented on a fragment of a silver vase from Mycenæ,[7] the majority of the fighting warriors are represented quite nude; but in one case (at the lower right-hand corner) a tunic and head-dress are worn; but in this instance the tunic has sleeves reaching only half-way to the elbow, as is also the case with the inhabitants, who are watching the progress of the battle from behind the city wall; two figures, which appear to be just leaving the city, wear square cloaks fastened on the right shoulder and leaving both arms free; they do not appear to be fighting, and probably represent heralds about to make some proposal to the enemy. The covering here described as a cloak has been regarded as representing an oblong shield (ἠΰτε πύργος); but in view of the fact that the men carry no weapons and that both arms are exposed, it seems more reasonable to suppose that a mantle is intended. The warriors in front are fighting without protection; and if any shield were represented, we should expect it to be of the usual Mycenæan shape, which appears as a decoration on the upper left-hand corner of the fragment. A fragment of a wall-painting from Mycenæ represents a warrior wearing a short-sleeved tunic and having a double bracelet at the wrist; it appears, then, that when the pre-Hellenic man wore a tunic, it was not furnished with long sleeves, and even when his clothing was of the scantiest possible nature, he was not far enough removed from primitive barbarism to prevent his adorning his person with bracelet and necklace.

The indication of some kind of footgear is frequent: it is represented on the Vaphio cups; and on a wall-painting from Tiryns depicting the capture of a bull, it takes the form of pointed shoes turned up at the toes and fastened by a series of bands above the ankles. Such pointed shoes were common to the Assyrians and the Hittites, and are worn to this day by Greeks and Turks, and frequently also in other rocky countries.[8]

In the wall-painting from Tiryns, and on a Mycenæan intaglio (Perrot and Chipiez, VI., 426. 21), a number of bands is indicated just below the knee. Possibly the boots were fastened by leather laces crossed round the legs and then passed two or three times round under the knees. At present these bands have only been found in cases where the wearer is engaged in some violent occupation, such as the bull-taming scene; it has been suggested that they represent a leather thong wound round the knees to act as a protection; on stony ground some such guard would be necessary.

The head-dress, of conical shape, finished by a button or flattened knob on the top, represents a helmet, made sometimes probably of metal, as was the case in Assyria, but in some cases certainly of felt or leather, covered with rows of overlapping boar’s tusks, turned alternately in opposite directions. A large number of boar’s tusks were found by Dr Schliemann[9] at Mycenæ, flattened on one side and with several holes in them, which obviously served to fasten them to some object; such a helmet is to be seen in an ivory fragment from Mycenæ,[10] and would exactly correspond to that described in Iliad, X., 261.

ἀμφὶ δ᾽ οἱ κυνέην κεφαλῆφιν ἔθηκεν ῥινοῦ ποιητήν· πολέσιν δ᾽ ἔντοσθεν ἱμᾶσιν ἐντέτατο στερεῶς, ἔκτοσθε δὲ λευκοὶ ὄδοντες ἀργιοδόντος ὑὸς. Θαμέες ἔχον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα εὖ καὶ ἐπισταμένως.

“And about his head he set a helmet made of leather; and inside it was stiffly wrought with many thongs, and outside the white teeth of a boar with shining tusks were set close together, this way and that, well and cunningly arranged.

In some cases the helmet presents a strikingly Egyptian appearance, and may quite possibly have been derived from Egypt; evidence of direct intercourse between the Cretans and Egyptians is not wanting; indeed the clearest representation of the costume of the pre-Hellenic inhabitants of the Ægean shores is to be found on an Egyptian tomb fresco,[11] where the Kefts are depicted bringing vases as tribute to the Egyptian monarch, their costume is identical with that of the cupbearer from the Knossian fresco, and they are carrying vessels of the same shapes as many which have been found in Crete and on other Mycenæan sites. It has been pointed out by Mr H. R. Hall[12] that the Keftiu were the people of the Ægean islands, including Crete, and that sometimes the name was applied exclusively to the Cretans. The Keftiu were formerly mistaken for Phœnicians; but their whole appearance and costume on the Egyptian fresco is utterly unlike anything Phœnician; so we are quite justified in considering that they represent the Cretans faithfully as they appeared to the Egyptians, especially in view of their similarity to the cupbearer of the fresco at Knossos, a native product of Cretan art.

A striking analogy to the pre-Hellenic male costume is to be observed in the Etruscan wall-paintings from the tombs at Corneto, now in the British Museum. The waist-cloth, shoes, and head-dress are there represented in a form almost identical with that found in Mycenæan art. So little is known of the origin of the Etruscans, that it is difficult to say whether this similarity of dress indicates any racial connection between the two peoples; it is interesting to note that among ancient authorities Hellanicus of Lesbos states that the Etruscans were of Pelasgian origin, and modern writers have claimed a Pelasgian origin for the Cretans; there is not sufficient evidence forthcoming at present to determine whether they are right or wrong; but in any case, it is not improbable that both the Etruscans and the Cretans were branches of a common civilization, which spread itself all round the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in pre-Hellenic times, and that the Etruscans maintained some of their early characteristics down to a later date than other peoples of the same race.[13]

Turning to the female costume of the pre-Hellenic age, we find we have something far more complicated to deal with. The same style of dress is found on the early faïence figures from Knossos and Petsofa, and extends right on until quite late Mycenæan times.

Figs. 2 and 3.—Snake Goddess and Votary. (British School Annual, IX., figs. 54 and 56.)

It consists of a short-sleeved jacket, fitting closely to the figure, and a full skirt, standing out round the feet in a manner suggestive of the hoops of the early Victorian age. The juncture of the two garments is hidden by a thick double girdle worn round the waist, which is pinched into the smallest possible compass.

The snake goddess and her votary[14] from Knossos have, in addition, a kind of apron reaching almost to the knees in front and behind, and rising to the hips at the sides. The costume is completed by the addition of a high hat or turban.

Looking at the snake goddess more in detail, we find that the jacket is cut away into a V-shape from the neck to the waist, leaving both the breasts quite bare; the two edges are laced across below the breast, the laces being fastened in a series of bows. The jacket is covered with an elaborate volute pattern, the apron with spots and bordered with a “guilloche.” The horizontal lines on the skirt probably represent stripes in the material, the edge being ornamented with a reticulated band. The girdle of the goddess is composed of two snakes intertwined. The head-dress here consists of a high turban, probably made of cloth or linen wound round some kind of framework. The principle of the costume is always the same, though the fashions vary considerably in detail: for example, the skirt of the votary is composed of a series of seven flounces, one above the other, the lower edge in each case just covering the upper edge of the flounce below, the whole being probably sewn on to a foundation. On a fresco[15] representing a lady dancing, the skirt seems to consist of three such flounces. On the same figure the breast is not left bare, but a chemisette seems to be worn under the jacket, possibly made of some fine linen material, the edge of which is distinctly indicated at the neck. In one of the statuettes from Petsofa[16] the jacket terminates at the back in a high “Medici” collar, and in another fresco, from Knossos, a high sash appears on the back, the loop reaching to the nape of the neck, and the fringed edge hanging down to the waist; at first sight this sash recalls the Japanese “Obi.”[17] The millinery of the Cretan ladies, as illustrated by the terra-cotta fragments from Petsofa, exhibits an abundant variety of styles. The hat seems to have consisted of a flat, circular, or oval piece of material pinched up into any shape to suit the taste of the wearer; sometimes it is fastened down towards the nape of the neck, and curves round the head, rising high up in front over the face; in one case[18] the brim has a wavy edge and is trimmed with rosettes underneath; frequently it is done up into a large “toque” shape, narrowing to a point in front; this form occurs also on late Mycenæan terra-cottas.

Fig. 4 – Fresco Fragment showing upper part of dancing girl / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

On none of the examples of costume quoted above is there any indication of fastening; the garments are obviously constructed by an elaborate system of sewing, but the means by which they were held in place on the figure is not represented, except in the case of the bodices of the goddess and her votary, which are laced across by cords. The use of fibulæ is nowhere indicated in art; and no fibulæ have been found, except in the later Mycenæan graves, which in all probability belong to the Achæan civilization introduced into Greece by the invasions from Central Europe.[19] A fragmentary hand from Petsofa has a bracelet represented in white paint, which is clearly fastened by means of a button and loop; since this method of fastening was known to the Cretans, it is probable that the ladies’ skirts were fastened at the waist by buttons and loops, the fastening being concealed by the belt, as is the case with the modern blouse and skirt costume.

Fig. 5.—Statuette from Petsofa / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

It has been pointed out by Mr J. L. Myres[20] that this jacket and apron type of dress is commonly worn at the present day by the peasants of the mountainous districts of Europe, chiefly in Italy, Switzerland, the Tyrol, Norway, and the Pyrenees. In Norway and Switzerland, moreover, we find the addition of a fan-like head-dress analogous to that represented in Minoan art. The appearance of the same kind of costume in Crete in the third millennium before our era merely serves to show that the type of dress need not necessarily be a modern development, but may possibly claim greater antiquity than has hitherto been supposed. The question of survival in the Ægean is interesting; as late as Tournefort’s[21] time, the inhabitants of some of the islands—for example, Mycone—appear to have worn a dress composed of a tight jacket and flounced skirt, with the addition of some Turkish elements; in the remoter islands there is a possibility—but it is little more than a possibility—that this may be a case of survival; in any case, the type seems to have disappeared in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century.[22]


[1] J. L. Myres, Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. xx. Cp. also, for general principles of ground plan, “The Palace at Knossos,” British School Annual, VIII.

[2] Cp. Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, vol. i., 2nd ed., chap. i.

[3] Ridgeway, Early Age of Greece, chap. viii.; S. Müller, Urgeschichte Europas, pp. 95, 96.

[4] Fig. 1, Cupbearer of Knossos. Cp. also, Vaphio Cup, gems, Perrot and Chipiez, VI., 426. 21.

[5] British School Annual, IX., pls. ix. and x.

[6] Dagger blade from Mycenæ. Perrot and Chipiez, VI., pl. xviii., 3.

[7] Perrot and Chipiez, VI., fig. 365.

[8] The characteristic Cretan boots may possibly be a direct survival.

[9] Schliemann, Mycenæ, pp. 272, 273.

[10] Perrot and Chipiez, VI., fig. 380; Ἐφημερίς Ἀρχαιολογική, 1888, pl. viii.

[11] Perrot and Chipiez, III., fig. 303.

[12] British School Annual, IX., “Keftiu and the Peoples of the Sea.”

[13] Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités, s.v. “Etrusci.”

[14] Figs. 2 and 3 from British School Annual, IX.

[15] Fig. 4, only a very small fragment of the skirt remains; but the painting has been restored. Reproduced from the British School Annual, VIII., fig. 28.

[16] Fig. 5 from British School Annual, IX., pl. viii.

[17] The large sash worn over the “Kimono” and tied rather high up at the back.

[18] British School Annual, IX., pls. xi. and xii.

[19] On “fibulæ,” see Sophus Müller, Urgeschichte Europas, p. 95. O. Montelius, Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times.

[20] British School Annual, IX.

[21] Tournefort, I., 109

[22] See also, Choiseul-Gouffier, Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce, Paris, 1809, where the women of the islands are represented wearing a tight corslet over a chemisette. A high head-dress, not unlike that of the Petsofa statuettes, was commonly worn by the island women as late as the eighteenth century.

From Greek Dress: A Study of the Costumes Worn in Ancient Greece, from Pre-Hellenic Times to the Hellenistic Age, by Ethel Abrahams (London: 1908)