Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.25

Megan Cifarelli, Laura Gawlinski (ed.), What Shall I say of Clothes? Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to the Study of Dress in Antiquity. Selected Papers on Ancient Art and Architecture 3.   Boston:  Archaeological Institute of America, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 223.  ISBN 9781931909341.  $24.95.  


Reviewed by Kelly Olson, The University of Western Ontario (kolson2@uwo.ca)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume derives from panels held in 2016 and 2015 at the annual meeting of the AIA and the American Schools of Oriental Research respectively. The short introduction briefly mentions “the residues of practices relating to dress and adornment” (x) present in the visual, textual, and archaeological records of the ancient world, and gives an outline of the book. The papers explore the dynamic, transformative nature of dress, focusing variously on art objects worn as accessories (Castor, Verduci, Castor, Beckman, Whitmore, Bursali et al., and Cifarelli) and on the representations of dress in various media (Heyn, Wueste, Neumann, McFerrin). This second category is complex, as artistic renderings are not a snapshot of life in the ancient world, but a constructed, highly particularized view of how one wants to appear.

The first section of the book (‘Getting Dressed’) begins with Kiersten Neumann’s essay, a study of first-millennium Assyria. The gods’ dress and the performance of their dressing conferred divine identity and social status during the Neo-Assyrian period, and contributed to the establishment of hierarchies that were fundamental to the ideology of the royal court. Statues of gods were also dressed and washed (11-12). Josephine Verduci’s paper explores the deposition of bodily adornment in the form of jewelry and clothing attachments in the southern Levantine region, and asks in what ways these embody agency and identity. Rather than viewing the adorned body as a static social display, her perspective focuses on how normative acts construct identity, and how jewelry and other items of adornment articulate the interaction of death and lived experience.

The second section, ‘Being Dressed,’ begins with Alissa Whitmore’s contribution. In it she examines fascina : and phallic pendants, widely interpreted as apotropaic with the support of ancient literary sources. Phallic pendants are not found in artistic representations (50), and thus burials offer the most relevant data. In her sample (just 17 instances, from the Roman west), she finds such pendants are strongly associated with children; other sites yield phallic jewelry in adult female burials. She notes however that evidently (due to the scarcity of phallic amulets in children’s graves generally), such amulets were not held to be a necessary part of the ritual. She details an experiment with a replica amulet worn by a colleague in which the phallus, suspended from different lengths and thickness of cord/chain “was in a near-constant state of motion” (57). Perhaps this was essential to its apotropaic properties, as its darting in and out of clothing folds would attract and hold the gaze of the invidious viewer.

The next essay (Eric Beckmann) looks at the link between imagery and color in ancient amuletic and medicinal gemstones, meant to provide the bearer with protection or relief from illness (67). For example, yellow gemstone amulets often display a carving of a scorpion and were used to ward off scorpion stings; the gemstone crushed into powder and made into a salve or ingested is recommended as a remedy for a sting (73). Amulets are often found as rings or pendants, but there is some indication they may have been tied into garments as well, or carried in a pouch (72). Yellow gemstones may also have a connection to yellow bile, heat, dryness, and fire (75), an overabundance of which carries symptoms similar to scorpion stings. The scorpion was also connected to Mars, himself connected with fire, yellow bile, and Orion (77ff).

Alexis Castor’s contribution begins by rightly lamenting the absence of any typology for ancient jewelry. She focuses on the dense, minute surface decoration on some pieces of Greek and Etruscan jewelry, which was often invisible to the viewer while it muted the gleam of the gold piece as well. Castor also examines the “technology of enchantment” inherent in jewelry (that is, the psycho-social effects), and searches for its social context as it was experienced in a sensory way (84). “[T]he combination of plain and rough surfaces on an object requires the brain to sort out its patterns, thus focus on the object lasts longer.”(85). She also contends that this type of jewelry had audiences: those at a distance and those invited to view the object close up.

Megan Cifarelli’s chapter examines dress-related artifacts from burials of the early first millennium BCE in Hasanlu in relation to theories of embodiment (102). Rather than viewing burial goods as “relatively straightforward representations of the fixed social identity of the deceased” (103), dress has “haptic impact” (ibid). Items of dress were “active elements in the construction of identity, social reproduction, and embodied personhood” (104), and she urges dress historians to avoid reading dress “like a text,” and instead examine how social identity is negotiated and re-negotiated through dress. One framework for understanding change in dress is ‘costly signaling theory,’ a theory originating in the field of evolutionary biology, that accounts for traits assumed which are a handicap to their owners (like a peacock’s tail, 104). Examples in dress history include restrictive garments and the burial of expensive ornaments with the deceased (106). Cifarelli examines here the large sharp pins found with female burials in Hasanlu, used to hold garments in place with discomfort and danger to the wearer (112-13). Interestingly, skeletal remains of women buried with these pins show a lesser degree of injuries relating to external and “local routine violence,” perhaps because such pins “served as visual amplification of… the unassailability of their persons” (115).

Section three is ‘Dress and Identity,’ and begins with a chapter on Neolithic blue beads (Ayşe Bursalı, Rana Özbal, Emma Baysal, Hadi Özbal, Barış Yağcı). Here the authors examine imitation turquoise beads recovered from the seventh millennium BCE Neolithic levels of Barcın Höyük in northwest Anatolia, as well as beads from other Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites in Turkey and northern Mesopotamia. Beads were indicators of age, affiliation, power, or social status (124), and the imitation beads were manufactured using bone, tooth, or ivory (with the application of manganese and possibly heat: 132-4). The desire to own and wear simulated precious stone perhaps hints that social inequality in Anatolia (conventionally held to have appeared in the fourth or even the third millennium BCE) may have be in place as early as the seventh (126).

Neville McFerrin’s important chapter in this section begins by noting the tendency of dress scholars in the past to emphasize “identification and classifications, generally of ethnic groups, dictated the interpretational endeavor, while multiplicities of purpose and viewership—and of individual agency—tended to be overlooked entirely” (148). She finds clear variations in dress of the figures in the friezes here (though not variations in physical forms), and that there are carefully delineated differences even between groups (149-50). Most interesting is the architectural decoration on the reliefs that actually parallel dress ornaments: the medallions with rosettes, which appear in art on high-status persons; and the crenellations which mark the upper edge of the Apadana reliefs, which resemble the turreted crown worn by Darius on the Bisitun monument (153).

Laura Gawlinski’s excellent chapter also begins with section on past theories of dress: how scholarship on dress in living religions has mostly focused on physical religious identity (161). Greek religion, on the other hand, may be counted an “embedded” religion, inasmuch as there was no definitive separation between civic and religious life, and the question therefore is what we should expect to constitute “religious” dress in such a context. She does note examples of reliefs in which items (a knife or keys) indicate a male or female religious: but intriguingly, she says, such dress elements are related to actions: religion is what someone does (sacrificing, opening the temple), rather than what someone is. Gawlinski also cautions about placing “too much scholarly focus on the reception of the communication that dress sends” (169) and reiterates that dress does not merely reflect social forces, but is “a participant in their creation and recreations” (172).

In Elizabeth Wueste’s chapter, the author has examined late antique statues dating 284 – 550 CE using Last Statues of Antiquity and finds 52% of the honorands had themselves depicted in the toga. Statues wearing high imperial and contabulate togas are examples of reuse (i.e., new portrait heads placed on old bodies); there is no example in late antiquity of a new statue being carved with either toga style. Wueste posits therefore that the appeal was not the specific garment, but “the archaizing visual effect and perhaps the traditional Roman values it represented” (189). Second in popularity to the toga was the Greek himation, often associated with intellectuals, Christians, and philosophers. Wueste finds fewer than 2%-3% of the people depicted so are identified as such, yet 20% wear it. She states this is because in the Greek east, the himation (worn along with the chiton) was the garment of civic engagement (190). Late antique statues also wear the chlamys (191-2), a garment “oriented toward the court culture of the new capital” (192).

Lastly is Maura Heyn’s chapter, which focuses on the clothing worn by women in the funerary sculpture from Palmyra. The women wear the Greco-Roman tunic and cloak, but intriguingly unlike provincial males pair them with more locally specific items: turbans, diadems across their foreheads, and eventually elaborate jewelry (203). This is not unusual in provincial communities and is usually attributed to public, more civically oriented activities of men versus the private, domestic activities of women. However Heyn cautions against a direct and simplistic equation of dress styles with identity. The iconography changes significantly over two centuries of production in Palmyra, moving from “displaying cultural identity to focus attention on a woman’s family” (205).

Each chapter in this volume is a valuable contribution to ancient dress (especially those concerning the Near East and Turkey, subjects not often found in books on "ancient" dress) and a helpful compendium on fascinating new directions in studies on ancient clothing and adornment. Emphasis is particularly laid on the lived experience of dress: that is, not as a costume or text signifying social rank, status, etc., but rather on the haptic experience of clothing: the act of wearing. I would count it essential reading for every scholar of costume in antiquity.

Authors and titles

Section One: Getting Dressed
Gods Among Men: Fashioning the Divine Image in Assyria, Kiersten Neumann
Early Iron Age Adornment within Southern Levantine Mortuary Contexts: An Argument for Existential Significance in Understanding Material Culture, Josephine A. Verduci
Section Two: Being Dressed
Fascinating Fascina : Apotropaic Magic and How to Wear a Penis, Alissa M. Whitmore
Color-Coded: The Relationship between Color, Iconography, and Theory in Hellenistic and Roman Gemstones, Eric Beckman
Surface Tensions on Etruscan and Greek Jewelry, Alexis Q. Castor
Costly Choices: Signaling Theory and Dress in Period IVb Hasanlu, Iran, Megan Cifarelli
Section Three: Dress and Identity
Neolithic Blue Beads in Northwest Turkey: The Social Significance of Skeuomorphism, Ayşe Bursalı, Rana Özbal, Emma Baysal, Hadi Özbal, Barış Yağcı
Fabrics of Inclusion: Deep Wearing and the Potentials of Materiality on the Apadana Reliefs, Neville McFerrin
Theorizing Religious Dress, Laura Gawlinski
The Costumes and Attributes of Late Antique Honorific Monuments: Conformity and Divergence within the Public and Political Sphere, Elizabeth Wueste
Western Men, Eastern Women? Dress and Cultural Identity in Roman Palmyra, Maura K. Heyn
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