Clad in the Beauty of a Thousand Stars


Vision 13


Clad in the Beauty of a Thousand Stars

A brief look at clothing styles


 Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2003, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) -- Christopher Marlowe


Clothing fashions appear to change from week-to-week in our hectic world.  It is hard not to be anachronistic in styles for modern novels when they are apt to change between the final draft and printing.

However, there can be no such excuse for getting the clothing styles of past ages wrong.   Books abound on the subject, and a quick trip to the library will yield more material than a writer can use.

While it is fashionable to make fun of the constant change in women's fashion, a look at the history of clothing will show that men were often just as quick to take up the call to style.  Take, for instance,  a close friend of  the future King George IV -- Beau Brummell (George Bryan Brummell, 1778-1840) .  Beau set the style for men's wear in his day, and his name has now become pseudonymous with dandy.

Clothing styles are often named after a time period, such as Victorian in the latter half of the 19th century when Queen Victoria's tastes influenced more than just the politics of her day.  Women's style of that time included the wide hoop skirt, long sleeves, and luxurious fabrics.

But earlier in the same century, the clothing favored by empress Josephine during the rule of her husband, Napoleon, swept through Europe (circa 1804-1814).  Marked by a high waist (still known as empire waist today, two hundred years later), this style looks far less extravagant than what would appear before the end of the century in Victoria's reign.  The straight, loose skirt, puff or long sleeves, and a long train from the shoulders were decorated with fringe, embroidery and spangles.

Obviously, since the simpler Empire style comes before the Victorian, we can assume that clothing styles will become simpler as we look back in time, right?

Ah, but then we find the sumptuous Elizabethan style a full 200 years before Empress Josephine.  Named for Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), this late Renaissance style included wide skirts of rich material worn over farthingale (hook skirt or petticoat, used to extend the skirt), a corseted waistline and stiff stomacher, low neckline, wire-supported ruff, and with a variety of sleeve styles.

You should notice by now that influential people set clothing styles.  Imitation is not only flattery, but also a way of saying that the person doing the imitating is savvy in the ways of the world.  Dress codes have often been a sign of political station, and sometimes have been enforced as such.

While current day parents seem to find amusement in dressing their children up like miniature rock stars, there is usually a dichotomy between the styles worn by children and those worn by adults. In the late 1800's and early 1900's a proper young woman coming of age made a show of the transition by putting her hair up and lowering her dress hem, in opposition to how she had dressed before.

And while today's styles may seem to change with frightening rapidity to someone with a checkbook or trying to write a hip (or has that word changed as well?) novel set in modern times, there are ways to get away from generic terms.  One of the easiest methods is to pick up something like Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier, (Copyright 1992, ISBN 0-679-40030-3), which has lists upon lists of different clothing types, each with a nice, short description.  An overcoat or cloak might be anything from a parka to a duster, mackintosh, greatcoat, shawl or poncho.  Each of these coverings gives a different feel to the character stepping out to face the inclement weather.

But let us look farther back in time.  What is the difference between the clothing of the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans?  To the casual observer, both look like nothing more than some cloth wrapped around the body.  The writer can't afford this kind of generalization in their work, and even if you don't intend to write about that age, it doesn't hurt to know a little bit about it. 

The basic Greek mode of dress was the chiton (Ky ton), adapted from the earlier peplos, the chiton was a gown or tunic worn in ancient Greece.  They came in two styles (like much of Greek culture) the Doric and the Ionic.

The earlier Doric style, very much akin to the peplos, was a single oblong piece of clothe, usually wool, folded to form a double covering at the waist and fastened with a broach at the shoulders.  Sometimes the broach was replaced by a row of small buttons.  A male version of this style, called an exomis, was pinned on the left shoulder, leaving the right one bare.  (Now there is a bit of information that could be worked into a story -- a man trying to hide a scar, perhaps, on his right shoulder would be at a distinct disadvantage here...)

The Ionic style, however, had sleeves, was usually linen, and often sewn at the shoulders rather than pinned.  Both were held in place at the waist, usually by a girdle.

Women's chitons were longer than men's, and the two styles present an entirely different look.  The cloth itself was usually quite plain, although sometimes a decorative border was added.

Greek women also never left the house without a type of covering called a himation.  The term applies to cloaks worn by both men and women and appears to be a generic term for a number of styles, including a wrap of very fine wool called the khlanis.  The best of these came from Miletus and were called Khlanis Milesia.  The xystis was a longer robe of fine material and worn on special occasions.

Men's cloaks and wraps were also worn over the tunics or as a single garment.  The tribon was coarse, dark colored wool, and was the traditional dress of the men of Sparta.  The chlamys cloak was usually worn over the left shoulder and fastened at the right with a broach, leaving most of the right side open.  It could be fastened at the throat.  The chlaina was a winter cloak, made of thick wool.

Peasants often wore clothing made of animal skins like the diphthera (goatskin) or spolas (leather jerkin).  Cloaks of goatskin or sheepskin were cured with the wool on.

Shoes came in a number of styles as well, from simple sandals that were little more than a sole strapped to the foot, to shoes that ranged from light, slipper-like coverings to heavy nail-studded boots.

Hats, usually made of felt, were rarely worn except when traveling and in bad weather.  These petasos had a wide brim that could be turned up, and a strap that tied under the chin or at the nape of the neck.  Kynai, made of skin or leather, were also worn, and conical hats were also popular, such as (In Hellenistic times) the tholia, worn mainly by women, and probably made of straw.

A brief aside -- there is a big difference between Hellenistic and Hellenic times.

The Hellenic age is usually considered the history of Greece from the 8th century BCE to the death of Alexander The Great.

The Hellenistic age covers a wider landmass, encompassing all of the Greek civilization in the Mediterranean and parts of southwest Asia, from the death of Alexander  (June 10, 323 BCE) until about the first century BCE.  Hellenistic culture includes considerable fusion of foreign elements.


Okay, we have a brief description of the Greek's clothing -- far too little for real use to a historical novelist, but enough to make a point about the variety of materials available.  What then, did the Romans wear?

The toga is the ubiquitous Roman clothing best known to readers and writers.  This loose mantle of white wool was originally small and semi-circular, but later became elliptical and about 18.5 feet long and 7 feet wide.  Worn doubled lengthwise and draped around the body in loose folds, it had a weighted end that was thrown over the left shoulder or arm.

In early Roman history both men and women wore togas, but later only women of ill repute still adapted this clothing, while proper young ladies and matrons wore tunics.

Togas did come in slightly different styles, according to their embroidery.  The most famous was the purple edged toga praetexta worn by young boys and various officials in free towns and colonies.  Victorious emperors and generals wore the toga picta, with golden embroidery while the common toga virillis was worn by boys after the age of about fifteen.  The toga pulla, made of natural black wool, was worn at funerals.

Togas were difficult to drape properly as well as to keep clean, and at times the Emperors had to enforce the law that they be worn at special occasions.

While most women no longer wore togas, the tunic continued to be the basic garment of both men and women.  Short sleeved, and tied around the waist, it was the common indoor clothing, as well as the dress for slaves and children.  Married women wore a stola over their tunics -- a long, full dress with a high girdle and a colorful border around the neck. Extra tunics were worn in winter.

Purple stripes of varying size, running from the collar to the hem, marked senators from equestrians, while charioteers dyed their tunics the color of their faction.  A variation of the tunic was the long-sleeved dalmatica, which could be made of materials like wool, silk or linen.  It eventually became an ecclesiastical garment, reminding us again of the close ties between Rome and the nascent Christian Church.

Soldiers -- primarily the cavalry -- wore trousers but for the most part they were considered the clothing of barbarians.

Shoes came in a variety of styles, much like the Greek counterparts, but the most famous is probably the caliga -- a heavy sandal with a hobnailed sole and separate leather top, fastened by thongs.  One of the most infamous of the early Roman emperors, Gaius Caesar, was nicknamed for this boot -- Caligula -- because he grew up with soldiers in military camps.  For once the ruler was named for the style, not the other way around.

But let's leap forward in time again and look at one last bit of clothing addition that is often misused, and placed in times wholly inappropriate.  The first zipper -- called a slide fastener -- was shown by Whitcomb L. Judson at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.  It used hooks and eyes with a slide clamp for hooking and unhooking them.  It wasn't until 1917 that the U.S. Navy made windproof flying suits with slide fasteners.  Zippers did not start appearing on civilian clothing until the 1920's and 1930's.   B.F. Goodrich Company gave the name zipper to the slide fastener on their overshoes.  This was formerly a trademarked word.

Even someone creating a completely new science fiction world can do well by making a quick study of clothing styles, and how both politics and climate can affect them.   Clothing is a part of culture, and as important a part of worldbuilding and general research as deciding the natural climate in which your story takes place.  It need not -- in fact should not -- over power the story, but a quick study of styles can add a wonderful depth to written material.


List of helpful books:

A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion, Mary Brooks Picken, Copyright 1957 and 1985, ISBN 0-486-40294-0

This book lists over 10,000 terms related to fashion and gives not only styles, but also information on cloth, fashion terms, and a number of other helpful tidbits.

The Psychology of Dress, Frank Alvah Parsons, Copyright 1920.

An interesting look at what drives fashion from the then president of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art.

The Mode in Costume, R. Turner Wilcox, Copyright 1958, ISBN 0-684-13913-8

Lightweight in text, but great in line drawings, this book is a nice quick reference for seeing how something actually may have looked.

Costume and Fashion, James Laver, Copyright 1965, 1982, and 1985, ISBN 0-500-20266-4

An excellent history of dress, with a nicely readable text and great pictures and drawings.  Well worth picking up.

The Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins, Copyright 1997, ISBN 0-19-512491-X


The Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, copyright 1997, ISBN 0-19-512491-X

These two books cover far more than just clothing (which sections are actually a little light), but are very good general introductions to the civilizations and good quick reference works.