Friday, August 29, 2008 8/29/09-Fasion in Antiquity

In today's excerpt--fashion in antiquity. Whether discussing the shade of purple used in their clothes, or the makeup they applied to their faces, few societies have been more fashion conscious than ancient Greece and Rome:

"The different shades of purple [that] came in and out of vogue in Rome is recorded incidentally by Plutarch, who related that the determinedly conservative Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), when he saw that an exceedingly vivid scarlet purple was the current vogue, deliberately switched to wearing a darker shade. In discussing contemporary luxury, he related that the variety of purple dyes used for Roman garments had proliferated greatly and that newer, more expensive dyes, as well as processes such as 'double-dyeing', were constantly being developed in the hope of producing richer, more beautiful shades. ...

"Women's hairstyles also changed rapidly in antiquity, especially in Rome. The Augustan poet Ovid commented, 'It is impossible to enumerate all the different styles: each day adds more adornments.' During the Roman Empire, innovations in female coiffures occurred often enough that those who could afford to even had their portraits sculpted with separately-carved wigs, presumably in order to change the wigs when necessary to keep up with the latest styles.

"The Athenian Xenophon, writing in the fourth century BC, reported a conversation between a wealthy young householder and the philosopher Socrates:

" 'Ischomachus then said, 'One time, Socrates, I saw that my wife had covered her face with white lead, so that she would seem to have a paler complexion than she really had, and put on thick rouge, so that her cheeks would seem redder than in reality, and high boots, so that she would seem taller than she naturally was.'

"There are numerous additional references in the literature to women's use of cosmetics, including the white lead (lead carbonate) applied by Ischomachus's wife. Unfortunately, as Pliny reported of the substance, 'it is useful for giving women a fair complexion; but like scum of silver, it is deadly poison.' Many Greek women died unknowingly from lead poisoning after applying this noxious substance. Even more startling, however, is the fact that its use continued in Rome even after its poisonous effects were recognised, an indication of the extreme lengths to which women would go for the sake of beauty.

"Virtually all of today's beauty aids can be paralleled in antiquity: from 'night creams' and 'beauty masks' to depilatory lotions and skin softeners. Ovid provides sample recipes for such treatments, with ingredients ranging from barley and eggs, to more exotic components, including asses' milk, stag's horn, and a substance called halcyonea, made from sea-swallows' nests, that was said to remove facial blemishes. Measures against grey hair and baldness were also common. Suggestions for the former included massaging the scalp with either bear grease or ointments made from worms. Remedies for baldness were equally important for women and men because Roman hair dyes contained follicle-destroying ingredients. Wigs were frequently imported from both Gaul and Germany, as the Romans were particularly attracted to the blond and red hair of the Celts and Germans."

Jeri DeBrohun, "Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome," History Today, February 2001.


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