What Not To Wear: A Short History Of Regulating Female Dress From Ancient Sparta To The Burkini

Over on the Forbes blog, I talk about the history of dress codes for women. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I think a lot about clothing, color, and historical dress. This post is reacting to the recent burkini bans in towns along the French Riviera by mentioning the fact that Sparta, Rome, the Church, and many others have tried to control female dress as a means of advertising a communal identity. In short? Women often serve as blank political canvases that others (usually elite men in antiquity) may paint upon in order to advertise social hierarchy, communal ideals, or attitudes towards luxury. Below, I have also offered some links to other posts I have written on clothing both here and elsewhere.

Previous Posts on Ancient Clothing, Color, and Historical Dress:

  1. Clothing and Cross-Dressing in Antiquity
  2. The Popular Gaze: Roman Underwear, Nudity, and Visual Display

  3. with Kristina Killgrove, Caesar Undressing: Ancient Romans Wore Leather Panties And Loincloths

  4. Unlocking the Dark Ages: A Short History of Chastity Belts

  5. Good Mourning: Roman Clothing, Courtrooms, and the Psychology of Color

Short Bibliography in Order Of How Much I Love The Book (Because it is my blog and I do not have to go alphabetically):

  1. Upson-Saia, Kristi, Carly Daniel-Hughes, Alicia J. Batten, and Callie Callon. 2014. Dressing Judeans and Christians in antiquity.

  2. Upson-Saia, Kristi. 2011. Early Christian dress: gender, virtue, and authority. New York: Routledge.

  3. Edmondson, J. C., and Alison Mary Keith. 2008. Roman dress and the fabrics of Roman culture. Toronto [Ont.]: University of Toronto Press.

  4. Parani, Maria G. 2003. Reconstructing the reality of images: Byzantine material culture and religious iconography (11th-15th centuries). Leiden: Brill.

  5. Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture (Met Museum Guide).

A more extensive bibliography on ancient clothing is available via Miko Flohr’s website. 

As these resources demonstrate: when we reimagine the ancient world, we have to do so in technicolor. This means both for statues and for daily life. It means we must read the subtexts provided to us by mentions of colors in particular. Although these  aspects of premodern societies can go unnoticed, clothing, color, and laws that controlled these aspects can tell us a great deal about the past and the present.

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The famed ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’ as it is today (left) and a reconstruction of the polychrome original, which would have been similarly painted (right). Screen cap from a video reconstruction you can find here.

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