How Grecian Drapery Has Changed over Classical and Hellenistic Ages

Grecian drapery has had a lasting impact on modern fashion. It has been used in anything from eveningwear to bridal gowns, and oftentimes give a garment a classic, elegant touch. The trend itself, however, is far from modern. Grecians first began depicting drapery in sculpture starting from the Archaic period. From there, drapery evolved to become more realistic and dramatic over time during the Classical and Hellenistic ages. The Archaic period is defined as the years between 650 to 500 BC; Classical from 500 to 323 BC, and Hellenistic from 323 to 27 BC. In this essay, a handful of sculptures from each period will be analyzed in order to show the procession of change that the depiction of Grecian drapery has undergone, which reflected the changing times in Greek civilization. 

During the Archaic age, Grecian women were regarded as lowly, the only exceptions being priestesses and prostitutes, as well as goddesses, who were depicted as very powerful in mythology. Women were confined to the home, cooking, spinning, weaving, and caring for the children. They also had limited rights — a daughter could not inherit her father’s money, they couldn’t vote, and they were not allowed to own property. Married off at a young age meant that the women of Archaic Greece were bound to the role of mother, their main duty being the raising of children. 

The Kore from the Cheramyes Group at the Heraion of Samos was created sometime between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, meaning it falls into the Archaic period of Grecian history. The statue itself was on offering to Hera by Cheramyes, a member of Ionian aristocracy. It is thought that the kore is part of a larger group of figures with a religious purpose, representing the female servants of the cult of Hera. The kore depicts a young robed girl in traditional Ionian clothing: a pleated tunic (chiton); a cloak (himation); and a veil (epiblema). Her pose is simple, with legs straight and arms at her sides. The drapery of the garments is simple; there is no movement in the folds, nor is there any dramatization. The skirt of the chiton resembles a cylinder, and overall, the sculpture is plain with little detail. The modest dress of the Kore from the Heraion of Samos reflects the restricted role of women in society and their inability to flaunt their femininity.

Similarly, the Peplos Kore from the Acropolis, made of marble in 530 BC, is a religious statue with a votive function. Though she is carved in the round, the statue is meant to be observed from the front. The statue is idealized and abstracted with soft facial features, lips curved in what is called the archaic smile. Traces of paint have also been found on the sculpture. Like the Kore from the Heraion of Samos, the figure is motionless, though the beginnings of contrapposto can be observed in the manner that her right hip and shoulder are lowered, and her left leg looks to be load-bearing. She is wearing a peplos robe with a tightened waist, and the drapery reveals the shape of the breasts. She is thought to be a goddess because one of the four garments she wears was one that only goddesses were depicted in. The carved drapery is simple and covers the entirety of the figure’s body, and has slight pleats in the skirt, though there are no folds in the fabric. Again, the skirt resembles that of a cylinder, showing the underdevelopment of the depiction of drapery in the Archaic period, as Greeks were just becoming accustomed to portraying fashion in art. Still, the sculptor focused more on this drapery and the statue’s drapery, rather than physical anatomy. The kore, in contrast to its male counterpart, the kouros figure, was seen as less important, thus reflective of a woman’s societal statue in Archaic Greece, and therefore, is more underdeveloped than a kouros figure would be. 

During the classical age, Hippocrates used his knowledge of the female body to supplement the idea that women were inherently weaker than men. They were treated as second class citizens and were confined to the home, and their roles did not change much from that of the Archaic age. Women were still expected to get married as soon as possible and fulfill their duty of raising children.

However, the drapery of the Classical period is different. Slightly more dynamic, the sculpted fabric begins to show more folds and movement, as seen in the Grave Stele of Hegeso. Attributed to Kallimachos, the stele was created around 410 BC, and is made of marble. In this relief, Hegeso is shown to be inside a home and is picking a necklace from a jewelry box held by a servant. She has her hair up in a fancy coiffure and is wearing a generously cut garment, with very detailed drapery pooling around her. It closely follows the curves of her body, the fabric seemingly dragging downwards at the neck, pooling at the stomach, and hanging down from the back of the knee. And although her servant’s garments are much simpler, denoting her status, the fabric still shows creases and folds where there is movement, such as where the bent knee is protruding. However, the most important aspect of this grave stele is that Hegeso is depicted inside the walls and frame of a house, as women of Classical Greece were still kept in secluded areas. During this era, drapery evolved to become more dramatic and intricate, but it was still modest in covering the entirety of Hegeso’s body, as Greece revolved around a patriarchy where women were considered to belong inside a home completing domestic duties.

Another Classical work, the Erechtheion caryatids, were created somewhere between 421-407 BC, and are displayed on the Acropolis. Image 4 depicts one of the six caryatids that support the roof of the Erechtheion, a building on the Acropolis. The contrapposto figure is shown wearing a peplos garment that is pinned at her shoulders and has a belt around her waist. The drapery bunches up over this belt, causing it to pour over. This drapery creates gathers that travel the whole length of the skirt. The bodice of the peplos also seems to cling to the caryatid, following the curves of her neck and chest. Curiously, the vertical folds of the caryatid’s dress mimic that of the fluting on a column. These folds give the appearance that it is the caryatid bearing the whole weight of the roof of the Erechtheion because of the “tension between the plumb-downward drag of the marble cloth and the absolutely straight posture of the body, relieved only by the slightly different positions of the legs.” Thus, the caryatids served a structural function, to which the drapery contributed to, thus giving the idea that women are only useful when they are needed. [

In contrast to the Grave Stele of Hegeso and the caryatids, there is finally some progress in the depiction of the female body in the relief known as Nike Adjusting her Sandal. Created around 410 BC, the goddess of victory is depicted with wings, and is lifting one foot to untie her sandal while leaning forward, her left arm used to maintain balance. She is off balance, which is quite unlike the rest of the artistic tradition of the time, when figures were relaxed, even, and balanced. This heightens the interest of the viewer and leads them to notice the relationship between the anatomy of Nike and the drapery folded around her. The drapery has been rendered in the style of Phidias, and the one-shouldered garment gives a transparent appearance and clings to the body, resulting in a revealing and erotic sculpture, a stark contrast to the covered modesty of previous sculptures. As Nike is shown in a dynamic pose, one where she is seemingly frozen in time, the fabric creases intricately, most obviously folding between the space between her legs and where it is draped across her left arm. This style of drapery is known as “wet-drapery,” which allowed for the sculptor to experiment with more revealing depictions of females in Grecian art. This relief of Nike can be seen as a sort of preparation for the great changes to come in Hellenistic art and sculpture where artists became more expressive and bolder in their artistic endeavors. 

Hellenistic Greece differed significantly from that of the previous eras. During this time, women gained more rights and were no longer so strictly confined to their homes. In Sparta, women were allowed to hold private property, and were also allowed to receive inheritances. Women were also no longer confined to marriage either, some pursued professions, and female education also became more common. Furthermore, queens and priestesses were often highly esteemed, thus proving that women were slowly given more freedoms in a patriarchal society.

Compared to the realism and comparative plainness of the drapery of the Classical era, the sculpture known as Nike of Samothrace depicts a nude female body revealed by the wet drapery of her garment. Created in 190 BC, the goddess of victory is seen standing on the prow of a ship as a religious act to honor the Cabeiri, who were gods of fertility. She is standing in a theatrical pose, wings arched behind her, the drapery billowing around her legs as it clings to the rest of her body. This clinging drapery is yet another depiction of the so-called “wet-drapery.” So, although Nike’s actual body is not on display, the clinging fabric reveals the contours of her upper body almost as if it were a nude sculpture. Beforehand, in the Classical or Archaic ages, no such thing would have ever been shown, as females were depicted modestly. This shows the progress women made in achieving new freedoms. 

Similarly, the sculpture of Aphrodite of Knidos depicts a more significant change in the depiction of drapery and sculpture in regard to the female body which occurred in the Hellenistic age. She is one of the first nude sculptures to be created in Grecian and is thought to have been made sometime around the 4th century BC by Praxiteles. Aphrodite stands in a contrapposto pose, her left leg bent, causing the right to appear load-bearing. Her right hand covers her lower-half in a seemingly modest manner, while her left hand grasps a draped piece of fabric, most likely the garment she is either about to put on or just took off. It drapes over a pot, creating folds as the fabric has all been bunched up. This sculpture, while it does depict drapery, is also revolutionary in that women had never been depicted as nude before. The only females to be shown nude were those regarded as lowly, such as prostitutes and war and abuse victims. Krista Buell, in her undergraduate thesis, asserts a feminist viewpoint about the statue in that Aphrodite seems to embrace her sexuality and would therefore be an important symbol to the restricted Grecian women who were confined to the role of homemaker in a patriarchal society and therefore could not express their own femininity and sexuality. Breaking barriers and initiating change, Aphrodite of Knidos reflected changing times and led to a new tradition in embracing the respectable depiction of the female nude in Grecian art. 

These comparisons of the sculptures of different eras in Grecian history show that the depiction of drapery and female bodies in Grecian sculpture of differing times reflected the roles of women in society. As discussed in the beginning of the essay, the lack of detail and modest dress that went into creating Archaic sculptures underscore the subordinate position of women in a patriarchal society. Similarly, my analysis of Classical sculpture revealed that women were still entrapped by the roles assigned to them by men, though some progress was made with the creation of wet drapery. Hellenistic sculpture reflected the most societal development with the introduction of the female nude and clingy garments. The use of drapery thus reflected these transitions in history, and women of ancient Greece were finally able to find empowerment in the unapologetic sexuality and sensuality of Grecian sculpture after eons of being relegated to the bottom of society.

Works Cited

  1. Buell, Krista, 'Aphrodite of Knidos, Trendsetter: Depictions of the Female Nude and Sexuality in Ancient Greek Sculpture' (2016). University Honors Theses. Paper 252.
  2. Collins, Neil. 'Greek Sculpture Made Simple.' Encyclopedia of Visual Art.
  3. Gardner, Helen, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History. Boston, MA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2009. pp. 108
  4. Gill, N. S. 'The Lives of Greek Women in the Archaic Age.' ThoughtCo. February 03, 2019.
  5. Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. 'Caryatid and Ionic Column from the Erechtheion.' Smarthistory.
  6. Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. 'Victory (Nike) Adjusting Her Sandal, Temple of Athena Nike (Acropolis).'
  7. Hodkinson, Stephen. Female Property Ownership and Status in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta. PDF. Harvard University.
  8. Hollander, Anne. “The Fabric of Vision: The Role of Drapery in Art.” The Georgia Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 1975. JSTOR, pp. 418.
  9. Marie-Bénédicte, Astier. 'The Winged Victory of Samothrace.' Louvre Museum.
  10. Marie-Bénédicte, Astier. 'Kore from the Cheramyes Group.' The Louvre Museum.
  11. Persson, Linda. Women and Their Bodies in Classical Greece: The Hippocratic Female. PDF. Uppsala University, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Spring 2016.
07 April 2022
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now