The Undies Homer Knew
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Swift to her bright apartment she repairs,
In a bathroom flagged with limestone stands a bath of polished stone. Here, by whatever name she may be known at this time, we again find Marjorie—now the Homeric lady.
Here first she bathes; and round her body pours Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial showers.
Homeric Marjorie bathes a good deal. She has now finished oiling herself after this bath. The first article she puts on is her apodesm, a woolen band which she uses as a bust supporter. It is her brassiere. This Marjorie's fragrant body is slim and sinuous—a "boyish figure." Even so, the Greek passion for athletics, which touches the maidens as well as the youths, necessitates something to hold the body in place. Though Marjorie at this time may be called Atalanta, she wears about her young breasts what, in a century far distant, she is to call her bandeau.
Next, she adjusts her zona or, as we'd say, girdle—a woolen band worn around her waist. The Professor reminds us that Homer, telling in the Iliad of Hera dressing, relates that she borrowed from Venus a girdle "trimmed with a hundred fringes" so that her husband, Zeus, would think her figure more beautiful. Although Homer is perhaps much better known for his battle than for his bathroom scenes, he could, as in this story of Hera's deception, do the latter job very well indeed.
The Marjorie before us, standing by the polished bath in her apodesm and zona, is a maiden. Thus, in accordance with the poetic custom among the Greeks, it behooves her to adjust a third band—in this case, a woolen sash. This, the symbolic girdle of virginity, said to have been made from the wool of a spotless sheep, she ties in that peculiar way termed the Herculean knot.
This is a "belt," put on the Grecian maiden at the nubile age, which the husband himself unties on his wedding night. The Professor quotes from Ovid, "And the chaste zone untied with artful hand." Certain historians have discerned in this Herculean knot the origin of the fabled "padlocks of chastity" attributed to the Middle Ages. Thus, it would seem, the invention of the ceinture de chastete was a barbarous travesty of this poetic custom of the Greeks.
Marjorie puts on her sandals with straps. With a band around the head, she binds her hair in place. This decorative fillet is set with stones and otherwise ornamented. From a large chest she takes her peplos, choosing one of shining white rather than one of purple. She casts about her erect and glinting figure this great woolen web, capable of much variety in the draping.
In the Iliad, when Aphrodite would shield her son Aeneas, she flings open her peplos and veils him in its shining folds as a protection against darts. A convenient style of dress for just such emergencies. This is the first of several legendary instances of women seeking to guard loved ones from peril by sheltering them with their garments.
This garment of Homeric Marjorie—her sole drapery for the house—is simply a large rectangular piece of stuff. Soft and fine, it suggests those importations that were to come into England in the nineteenth century and acquire much esteem as "Indian shawls." It is much too big for her, being considerably wider and longer than her body.
She folds it lengthwise through the middle so that, when she casts it about her, one side is left open. The top falls over in a hanging portion. Marjorie inserts long bronze pins with the points upward to secure the double edge at the shoulders. Now she encircles her waist with a girdle richly embroidered and clasped with gold, which holds the open side of the peplos in place. It being still too long, she draws a part of the cloth up through her girdle, blouse effect.
Next, Marjorie ornaments her stately person with a necklace, a frontlet, earrings of gold, and bracelets and rings. Her easy, sheltered life and personal elegance are manifest in her white arms, trailing drapery, and fragrant bosom.
The single garment of Marjorie's beau differs from her peplos in that it is closed on the sides and across the top, except for openings for the head and arms. It is a sewn garment put on like a shirt—historians commonly refer to it as a tunic. Out-of-doors, Marjorie and her beau customarily add a mantle, or cloak. Ulysses exclaims, in the Odyssey:
"I have no cloak; the fates have cheated me, And left alone my tunic."
We ask the Professor why he regards Marjorie's woolen web as underwear, for she would be seen merely in this drapery when without a cloak, or "wrap." Rather loftily, he tells us that next-to-the-skin garments are considered as underwear, whether or not they are under anything. This leaves us with the notion that Grecian women went around the house in their underwear.
At any rate, for some time Marjorie's apparel, peplos or chiton, was fastened together with the large pins aforesaid. In the Odyssey, the peplos presented by Antinoos to Penelope had as many as twelve such pins, or "brooches." The opening at one side may be observed in numerous representations of Dorian maidens. Phrases such as "showing the thigh," used of Laconian maidens, indicate that in their social set it was considered fashionable to leave their drapery open on one side. Iris, in the Parthenon pediment, among the Elgin marbles, wears her chiton jauntily open at one side. This feminine instinct for leaving loopholes for promiscuous observation we shall find echoed again and again throughout history.
Now for the story of The Birth of the Safety-Pin. The original pin for fastening garments appears to have been made from the small bone of an animal's leg, whence the Greek name perone, or the Latin term more generally employed by archeologists, fibula. Such pins were used among early races. A characteristic Greek type is of metal with a round head ornamented with bronze balls. Golden fibulae are mentioned in Homer. Bronze pins with their points bent backward have been discovered.
Had that been done simply to make them less likely to fall out of the garment? In the Hecuba of Euripides', Polymnestor is blinded by the pins the women pluck from their garments. There was considerable agitation about these dangerous weapons in the hands of infuriated women—the pins that were not safety-pins, and at last the law intervened.
Some say that the women, furious of disposition or otherwise, were compelled by law to change the fashion of their attire. At any rate, at a rather vague date, the Homeric peplos mysteriously disappears from the picture. No, that isn't it at all. The lady continues to show her perfect thigh, as a lady (with such a thigh) has a right to do . . . or ought to have a right to do. . . . Otherwise she remains draped, seemingly enough according to the aesthetic public sentiment of her time and place. Though, indeed, a new fashion note is introduced—the piquancy of transparency in feminine apparel.
The fact is that the term peplos disappears from the story. The enveloping garment worn by the Greek woman next to her body is now referred to as the chiton, which word derives from a Semitic root signifying "a linen garment." The chiton, befitting its smarter character, undoubtedly originated in Babylon, abode of idle luxury and snappy fashion. Making its way among devotees of Fashion along the Asiatic coast of the AEgean Sea, it received an enthusiastic welcome among the artistic people of the Ionian Isles.
Made of thin linen, the celebrated Ionian (or Ionic) chiton is a sewn garment, requiring no pins. Occasionally with a decorative band about the neck, it is finished off with a selvage. Loose sleeves are sometimes sewn in—we might call them raglan sleeves. Though sleeves are exceptional, a lady is reported to have been seen going along in a spotted chiton, with long, close-fitting sleeves. She probably belonged to that seductive society—the hetaerae.
The first model of this garment was long, extending to the ground. The himation, or cloak, was worn customarily not around the shoulders but cast about the figure slightly below the waist and falling about halfway below the knees. Thus the skirt of the chiton became more or less of an under-garment out-of-doors.
This model was followed by a fancier style—the ultra-fashionable crinkled Ionian chiton, which fell to the ankle. This, shaped like the original garment, was made of even thinner material which, contrary to the linens of our acquaintance, was crinkled and somewhat elastic. Though this costume did not reveal the lady's thigh, it had a new, gayer appeal. The material was sufficiently transparent for her classic limbs to be seen full-length through the garment.
As a result of constant intercourse with the rich and artistic Ionian cities of Asia Minor, the Ionic chiton came into fashion among the ladies of Athens in the first half of the sixth century B.C. About the same time a variation of the peplos was the mode among the Dorians under the name of the Dorian (or Doric) chiton—the typical classical dress of Greece. Of fine woolen material, it was woven complete in a single piece.
The two models of chiton continued to be worn simultaneously for a number of centuries. Sometimes either was the only enveloping garment worn. But the two types were often worn together, the luxurious Ionic serving as under-wear, with the Doric over it. Please note, however, this important point in the history of feminine fashions—the Doric, now a sleeveless gown, reveals the short sleeves of the lady's undergarment.
The Professor pauses. Then remarks that he hopes at some future date German learning will give the same deep-sea attention to the pantie of the fourth decade of the twentieth century that it has given to the chiton of antiquity.
Now, what is the simplest way of differentiating the two types of chiton, and of telling one woman from another when looking at antique statues and such? The Professor gives us the following hint. The great point to bear in mind is that the Grecian woman is a column. She is, in a manner of speaking, a Doric column, or an Ionic column, according to the fashion of her chiton. We look at the Doric column and see a pillar, stately, severe, and unadorned, save by wide, shallow channels. We look at the more delicate and charming Ionic column, Asiatic in influence, deeply fluted and with an ornamented capital. So with the Grecian woman, chiton clad.
The original Olympic games set fashions for sports wear. The short chiton, which shared the vogue with the long model, reached only to the knees. Not so full, it followed the longer style in sewing, pinning, and arranging. In this brief, knee-length chiton, the early slit on one side was especially conspicuous. Sometimes, too, the drapery passed over only one shoulder, leaving the other bare, and the figure was supported by a broad belt. This breezy garment was not used for formal wear, but by women and girls when they exercised or wanted speed. Iris the messenger, Artemis the huntress, girls in running contests, and warring Amazons all wore it. After the age of Homer, the short chiton becomes increasingly popular.
The swell story the Professor promised us is about murder by safety-pins. The tale, as told by Herodotus, is replete with colorful detail. Unfortunately, we have not time here to go into the matter of the oracles, whose trade was so brisk that they worked in shifts (though always supposed to be one and the same oracle) nor into that of the statues carved from sacred olive trees which, amid thunder and earth-quake, as Herodotus tells it, "relating what is not credible to me, but may be so to someone else . . . fell on their knees, and have ever since continued in that position."
All this had to do with the row the Athenians got into with a people inhabiting Aegina, a little spot of land about three-quarters of an inch west of Athens on the maps of ancient Greece, maybe fifty miles away. In brief, after a disastrous military expedition by the Athenian army only one man of the defeated forces returned alive to Athens. When he arrived and told his tale, how all the rest of the Athenian forces had been slain, the disconsolate widows were highly indignant at his safety. They milled around him demanding their lost husbands and finally, in their rage and contempt, took the huge pins or clasps (Greek) with which their Doric chitons were fastened at the shoulders and stabbed the man to death.
Thus the fascinating historian accounts for the introduction of the second type of chiton, the Ionic. At any rate, there is little doubt that around the beginning of the sixth century B.C. war was raging between the two chronically hostile peoples of Aegina and Athens, and also that about the same time a change occurred in the dress of Athenian women. The fame of the two things evidently became associated.