BMCR 2021.10.42

Dress in Mediterranean antiquity: Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians

, , Dress in Mediterranean antiquity: Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2021. Pp. 424. ISBN 9780567684653. $175.00.

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

The present volume is a valuable contribution to the growing scholarship on dress and clothing in the ancient world, a vibrant field with much to offer our understanding of diverse elements of ancient life, from gender and social status to labour practices and trade. The volume follows several similar edited works that have appeared in recent years, in addition to monographs focusing on specific periods.[1] As the title suggests, the book’s twenty-six chapters cover a wide range of topics, regions, and time periods, making it one of the most ambitious edited works on the subject. The contributions cover the Ancient Near East and early Greece through the Greek and Roman periods and well into Late Antiquity. The broad scope of the volume is perhaps its main strength, as it also brings together articles which examine archaeological textiles, inscriptions, visual and material culture, as well as analyses of textual sources. The volume is therefore highly interdisciplinary and many of the individual articles also take approaches that explore the intersection of different sources of evidence and modes of analysis.

Following the introduction, the volume is divided into three sections – ‘Section A: Methods’, ‘Section B: Materials’, and ‘Section C: Meanings’. Section A is devoted to methodological approaches to the study of dress and comprises four articles, each discussing dress in the context of a particular scholarly field. Chapters on ‘Dress and Classical Studies’ and ‘Dress and Religious Studies’ were written by the editors, while those on ‘Dress and Anthropology’ and ‘Dress and Sociology’ were written by scholars outside the field of ancient studies and offer valuable introductions for those unfamiliar with approaches from the social sciences. The chapter ‘Dress and Sociology’ by Beth E. Graybill is particularly stimulating, offering both an overview of sociological methods and a more detailed exploration of the intersection of religious dress, gender, and agency in relation to the author’s research into modern Mennonite communities. Her discussion of anti-fashion and the clothing practices of sub-cultures could certainly be useful to those studying Christian ascetic dress, while her work with Mennonite women reminds us that even those living in conservative religious communities can have access to agency through clothing. The idea of including a section devoted to methodologies is an excellent one and would be particularly useful for undergraduate students. Some of the articles, however, could have related more closely to the theme of methodology. For example, much of the chapter ‘Dress in Classical Studies’ by Kelly Olson is devoted to an overview of scholarship on ancient dress (primarily in English) over the last 100 years. While a full bibliographic essay could certainly have been useful in such a volume, the methodological implications of this contribution are less clear than the chapter on sociology described above.

The lion’s share of the book is divided into ‘Section B: Materials’ (seven chapters) and ‘Section C: Meanings’ (fourteen chapters). In the introduction, the editors explain that the section ‘Materials’ examines “the realia of dress, as opposed to the social construction of appearance”, which is covered in the section ‘Meanings’ (p.3). ‘Materials’ provides an interesting collection of articles dealing with visual and material culture. As a group, they demonstrate the wide range of evidence for ancient dress at our disposal, including visual sources such as paintings and sculpture, excavated textiles and jewellery, and inscriptions. It is especially welcome to see contributions that deal with textile evidence, and even more so ones which look beyond the well-known and (at times) well-preserved ‘Coptic textiles’. Lise Bender Jørgensen’s article examines the many thousands of fragments of everyday clothing that have been discovered in the quarries, ports, and forts of the Eastern Desert of Egypt, mostly deriving from rubbish dumps. Even in these marginal settlements, people were concerned about what they wore. A tunic from Mons Claudianus was so heavily mended that patches almost entirely replaced the original material, however the purple clavi were meticulously preserved throughout the use-life of the garment. Jørgensen’s article and that by Cecilie Brøns, ‘The Colours of Ancient Greek Dress’, also provide useful information and diagrams regarding the technical processes behind clothing production.

While the topics of the articles in this section are diverse, a connecting thread between them is a preoccupation with colour. This is in relation to dyes and the production of fabric, the remains of colour on statuary and other media, and the significance of different colour clothing for social and religious status. There is a particular emphasis on white and purple, which reminds us that white was not an absence of colour, but a colour in its own right which was difficult to produce and to maintain. Lisa A. Hughes also points out how clothing colour could signal subtle associations within wider decorative programmes. A cloth seller depicted in the doorway of the ‘Workshop of Verecundus’ in Pompeii, probably the wife of the owner, is shown wearing an indigo blue mantle, the same colour as the tunic worn by Venus Pompeiana in a fresco on the shop front. The cloth merchant is thus associated with the goddess through her richly dyed clothes, which perhaps also advertised the imported dyes of the business.

The section ‘Meanings’ brings together an assortment of articles arranged broadly chronologically on topics which take us from the Ancient Near East to the Book of Revelation and beyond. Some contributions provide detailed analyses of single items of clothing or adornment, such as Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ examination of the importance of the *Gaunaka in the context of the Achaemenid court, revealing its significance as a marker of heritage and ethnic identity as well as its political uses. Another effective contribution in this vein is Andrew Gallia’s analysis of Roman crowns. The author gives an overview of different types of crowns and their uses as well as readings of their significance in two divergent contexts: Caesar’s refusal of the diadem presented to him at the Lupercalia and the refusal of a Christian soldier to crown himself with a laurel wreath described in Tertullian’s On the Crown. Other contributions are concerned with how clothing (or the lack of it) is employed in texts to construct ideas of morality, virtue, and gender. Alicia J. Batten’s article, for example, analyses references to dirty and clean dress in Christian texts as a way of expressing status and wealth as well as moral and ritual purity. Batten’s analysis is particularly effective because she considers both the day-to-day reality of laundering clothes and the implications of wearing soiled garments, alongside the more abstract realm of moral cleanliness and the potential of a person to ‘stain’ their clothes through sin.

Colour returns as a theme in several contributions, often linking white or bright clothing with goodness and virtue, and coloured clothing with sexual promiscuity. Harry O. Maier’s article demonstrates that clothing is used as a narrative device to communicate reward or punishment, good or evil. Most interesting is his discussion of Rome personified as the ‘Great Whore of Babylon’ in the Book of Revelation, described as a woman dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with jewellery. Maier asserts that when she is then humiliated and stripped of her clothing, the reader is invited to consider Rome in the position of the ‘defeated barbarian’ familiar from state reliefs, in what he describes as “a reversal of the iconographic celebration of imperial power and domination” (p.312). This argument speaks to another key theme of the volume: the importance of clothing in constructing gender norms as well as for creating and maintaining gender-based hierarchies. For the most part these issues are addressed with regard to women, their agency, religious responsibilities, or sexual status, but Llewellyn-Jones’ second article considers how the cultivation of head hair and facial hair were inextricably bound to masculinity.

While it is understandable that the editors should wish to find a way to divide up their volume thematically, the division into ‘Materials’ and ‘Meanings’ feels forced. Many of the articles in the section ‘Meanings’ examine visual and material evidence and for some it is their primary focus. For example, Neville McFerrin’s article analyses the implications of dress in the reading of two Pompeiian wall-paintings. Naturally, choices must be made when it comes to dividing up edited volumes and often articles have something to contribute to more than one theme. However, it is perhaps the choice of headings ‘Materials’ and ‘Meanings’ which is most unfortunate in this regard, as it implies (to put it bluntly) that materials do not have meanings. While this was doubtless unintentional, it creates the impression of a hierarchy in forms of evidence in which visual and material culture are secondary to textual sources. This is regrettable, given the multifaceted ways in which the volume’s authors employ visual and material culture to better understand the diverse ‘meanings’ behind ancient dress. Katie Turner’s carefully argued article specifically engages with the relationship between material and textual sources. She reminds us that texts as well as textiles have specific contexts of production and use and that we need to be critical of context before deploying sources in an indiscriminate manner. Many more of the contributions demonstrate that critical analysis of a wide range of source material is necessary for better understanding the nuances of ancient dress.

This reservation aside, the volume is a useful resource for students looking for an introduction to the main themes and topics current in ancient dress studies, and provides engaging and analytical articles of interest to scholars working in specific fields. The book is well produced with a good number of colour images and very few errors (p.286 ‘bis’ should be ‘is’). The editors should be congratulated for bringing together a wide range of authors both within and beyond ancient studies and for producing a volume of such impressive scope and quality.

Authors and titles

Introduction, A. J. Batten and K. Olson

Section A: Methods
Dress and Classical Studies, K. Olson
Dress and Religious Studies, A. J. Batten
Dress and Anthropology, L. Hume
Dress and Sociology, B. E. Graybill

Section B: Materials
Clothing in Marble and Bronze: The Representation of Dress in Greek and Roman Sculpture, G. Davies
Greek Dress from the Inscriptional Evidence, L. Gawlinski
The Colours of Ancient Greek Dress, C. Brøns
Ornamenta Muliebra: Jewellery and Identity in the Roman Period, C. Ward
Dress in the Desert: Archaeological Textiles as a Source for Work Clothes in Roman Egypt, L. B. Jørgensen
Roman Women Dressing the Part: The Visual Vocabulary from Paintings and Mosaics, L. A. Hughes
‘They Leave Behind Them Portraits of Their Wealth, Not Themselves’: Aspects of Self-Presentation in the Dress of the Deceased in Mummy Portraits and Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt, L. H. Corcoran

Section C: Meanings
Dress and Ceremony in Achaemenid Persia: The ‘*Gaunaka’, L. Llewellyn-Jones
Hair and Social Status in the Near East and Early Greece, c.900-300 BCE, L. Llewellyn-Jones
Stepping Over the Line: Shoes and Boundary-Crossing in Ancient Greece, S. Blundell
Dress and Religious Ritual in Roman Antiquity, K. Olson
Andromeda Unbound: Possession, Perception and Adornment in the House of the Dioscuri, N. McFerrin
On the Ambivalent Signification of Roman Crowns, A. Gallia
Clothes Make the Jew: Was there Distinctive Jewish Dress in the Greco-Roman Period? J. Schwartz
What did Mary Magdalene Look Like? Images from the West, the East, Dura and Judaea, J. E. Taylor
Robes of Transfiguration and Salvation in Early Christian Texts, J. Peters
Worn Stories: (Ad)dressing Wives in 1 Peter, K. Morrison-Atkins
Exposed! Nakedness and Clothing in the Book of Revelation, H. O. Maier
Dirty Laundry in the Christ Cult, A. J. Batten
‘He Must Buy Her New Clothes for Winter’: Women’s Attire in the Rabbinic Imagination of the Tannaitic Period, G. Labovitz
Textual Problems in Textile Research: The Use of the Talmud in Studies of Ancient Jewish Dress, K. Turner


[1] E.g. Cifarelli, M. ed. (2019). Fashioned Selves: Dress and Identity in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxbow; Cifarelli, M. and Gawlinski, L. eds. (2017). 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; Upson-Saia, K., Daniels-Hughes, C. and Batten, A. J. eds. (2014). Dressing Judaeans and Christians in Antiquity. Farnham: Ashgate.