Europeana Fashion
Referencing Classicism in Fashion
31 August, 2017

Although its most famous expression is the Empire style that became popular in French fashion after the Revolution, the references to Classicism recurred in fashion in many forms and periods throughout Western history. Since the Renaissance, men started to look back at the Classical period as a depository of knowledge and taste to rediscover; Classicism and its motifs become popular not only in the arts, but also in dress and textiles.

Evening dress and belt of embroidered tulle, designed by Jean Patou, 1932-1934. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY.

Classical fashion and costume refer in particular to two kinds of ancient Greek attires, the chiton and the peplum. The first, for both sexes, and the second for women, were tunics worn and folded over the body. While the chiton was sewn and fixed on the body trough pins - fibulae - or buttons, the second consisted of an orthogonal piece of fabric draped on the body and held by a belt. The ancient statuary and the Greek antiquities conserved in museums and private collections became the main source for inspiration for Classicism in fashion.

Evening dress designed by Grès, 1946. Courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs, all rights reserved.

It was in fact due to the renewed interest this period when the Neoclassical movement invested all humanistic disciplines in the Eighteenth century that costumes inspired by the chiton and peplum became popular in women's fashion. In particular, this happened in France in the period between the 1790s and 1810s. The rich and voluminous mantua worn before the French Revolution were abandoned, and women started to adopt light mousseline gowns in white and other delicate, bright colours cut in with the so called Empire line, which consisted in a fitted bodice with the waist placed high up to bust and linear, pleated skirts. It is said that, to make the dress cling to the body just like those on the statues, women even used to wear them wet.

Chloé fashion show, s/s 1994, photo by Paul van Riel. Photo © Paul van Riel / HH.

However, although classical motifs were recurrent as ornaments, dresses inspired by classicism came back in fashion only one century later, after women got freed from their corsets. Then, the soft volumes and straight lines got adopted by modernists, as it is in the most popular case with the Delphos dress of Mariano Fortuny, but also with the linear silhouettes of the 1920s or later, where the reference can be found in the sculptural creations of Madame Grès. As pointed out by curator Harold Koda, the Classical continues to inspire designer as a testimony of the universal ambition of transforming women into goddesses through dress.