We, Aphrodite’s Minions

May 10, 2010 Updated: November 26, 2010

“She stood before him, the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, looking like an unwed maiden in size of length and appearance. She did not want him to notice her with his eyes and be frightened of her.

When Anchises saw her, he was filled with wonder as he took note of her appearance and size of length and splendid clothes. For she wore a robe that was more resplendent than the brightness of fire.

She had twisted brooches and shiny earrings in the shape of flowers. Around her tender throat were the most beautiful necklaces. It [her robe] was a thing of beauty, golden, decorated with every sort of design. Like the moon it glowed all around her tender breasts, a marvel to behold.” (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, translated by Gregory Nagy)

We all know how the story goes–girl meets boy or rather, handsome cattle herder Anchises meets goddess Aphrodite in disguise, you get the idea.

But Homer also gives us a vivid description of Aphrodite’s clothes, which does throw light on how ancient Greeks dressed and the aesthetics that appealed to them.

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
“We think of ancient Greek clothes as being all white, but that is historically a misconception; it seems that the richer and finer the fabric was, the more beautifully coloured it was, with natural and mineral dyes, especially crocus-yellow and brilliant blues and greens. Also, overall patterns did appear on fine and really beautiful fabrics,” said historian Dr Heather Sebo in a recent talk on the subject of drape–“What Aphrodite wore” at the National Gallery of Victoria.

The seminar “Dressing the Goddess” coincided with the current exhibition at the NGV called Drape—Classical mode to Contemporary Dress, which features classical dress and classical revival from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

According to exhibition curator Paola di Trocchio, there is a pronounced movement around the look of draped clothing. And although our modern culture and fashion design seems far removed historically from ancient Greece, we are closer than ever in spirit.

Ms di Trocchio explains: “Adherence to the Grecian ideals persist through the 20th century like they do in no other and one of the reasons is because it isn’t until the 20th century that the female body is freed from the corset. Previous to that, from the 13th to the 19th centuries, women are wearing corsets so that it isn’t possible to depict close clinging drape, which relies on the interaction between the body and cloth.”

Designers are constantly referring back to antiquity for inspiration. A case in point is the Kylie Minogue dress in the NGV exhibition that is very much like the clothing attributed to Artemis—Greek goddess of the hunt usually depicted in a short dress carrying a bow and arrows. Although, it must be said, the Kylie dress clearly serves a limited purpose worn by an unusually petite protagonist.

More often, the use of draping in modern design is more strategic and restrained than ever since centuries of appreciation of healthy voluptuousness has, in recent decades, given way to the size 0 woman as fashion template. This makes it especially hard to use elaborate draping in everyday wear.

But haute couture and evening wear offer more opportunities to woo the eye of the beholder.

According to Dr Sebo: “The drape gives dynamism to the form, the eye moves over it, you can’t help but follow; it takes you and the energy of the eye movement lends a kinetic energy that designers have really explored about draping.”

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The modern woman wants to de-emphasise the hips, but not at the cost of hiding her waist. Legs can never be long enough, but it’s hard to show them off under a draped dress. But then trousers tend to show too much hip and thigh. The complications only escalate going up towards the bust, the shoulders, upper arms … It’s all out of control. Aphrodite must be weeping in her lair.

The ancient Greek woman seems far less plagued by such trivial matters and was surprisingly more sophisticated than we give her credit for.

“Ancient Greek women could weave linen or wool into gossamer-fine flyaway fabric that could also be pressed into tiny pleats and folds. It also seems to be the case that the Greeks oiled their fabrics with luscious perfume oils—rose oil and mint for fragrance and shine, as well as to preserve them and act as insect repellant,” said Dr Sebo.

According to Dr Sebo, the ancients would have really responded well to shiny fabrics and would be more than happy to don metallic gowns and perhaps even sequins.

And as far as our slavish obsession with sport and optimal movement is concerned (often at the cost of elegance), Nike, the winged Goddess of Victory, would probably be quite happy looking down on us.

Drape – Classical mode to Contemporary Dress is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until June 27, 2010.
Visit www.ngv.vic.gov.au for further information and related events.

GIANNI VERSACE, Milan (fashion house)
est. 1978
Gianni VERSACE (designer)
born Italy 1946, died United States 1997
Evening dress 1996 autumn-winter
silk, glass beads
152.0 cm (centre back length) 32.5 cm (waist, flat)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through the NGV Foundation by the Versace Archives, Milan, Governor, 2001

BERGDORF GOODMAN, New York (fashion retailer)
est. 1909
Christian DIOR (designer)
France 1905–57
Gruau evening dress 1949 autumn-winter
silk satin, metal
(a) 26.0 cm (centre back) 30.0 cm (waist, flat) (bodice); (b) 105.5 cm (centre back) 31.0 cm (waist, flat) (skirt)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2005