Comparison of Ancient Greek and The 1920s

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Ancient Greece refers to the civilization in Greek history that thrived through the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th-9th centuries BC to the end of classical antiquity in the 6th century AD. This period was the forbearer to the Classical Greece era that started after the Greco-Persian wars and lasted from the 5th to 4th centuries BC, later having a profound effect on ancient Rome, and consequentially, Western culture (Ellyn and McGinnis, 2004, p.8).

Meanwhile, the 1920s denotes a brief period in Western society and Western culture, affectionately referred to in Western parlance as the Roaring Twenties, which saw continuous economic growth coupled with unique cultural developments in the United States and Western Europe in general. These changes were especially perceptible in the rapidly expanding urban centers, such as; Paris (Blake, 1999), Berlin (Gill, 1994), New York (Miller, 2015), London (Hall, 1996, p.54-70), and even Sydney, Australia (Lindsay, 1960). As new technology drove the quest for modernization, the Roaring Twenties was highlighted by the essence of originality and a detour from the established norms of the Victorian era. Consequently, the population was influenced by arising technologies like automobiles, moving pictures, and radio which significantly improved communication and travel. Additionally, it marked a shift towards practicality in terms of dressing and construction, while feeding off the youth’s desire for freedom and new experiences, through Jazz and dance, after the bleakness of the First World War period. It is for this particular reason that this period is also called the Jazz Age.

In light of the preceding historical perspective, a critical comparison of the ancient Greek civilization and the Roaring Twenties is useful when trying to understand the history of Western civilization. This thought is anchored on the opinion that classical Greek culture, particularly philosophy, was the foundation upon which modern Western culture was built (Thompson and Mullin, 1983, p.337). It is thought that ancient Greek culture was adopted by the Romans upon their conquest and passed on throughout their territories in the Mediterranean Basin and Europe. Furthermore, learning and the acquisition of knowledge was a central aspect of ancient Greek culture, with science and religion coexisting since mathematics was seen as a tool for achieving “divine” knowledge. This ensured that in a matter of a few short centuries, the relatively small population of the Greeks had explored and succeeded in many intellectual fields, far beyond the efforts of any contemporary civilization. Similarly, the 1920s was a period of upheaval and advancement following on from the First World War. Scientific, cultural, and technological progress fuelled the modernization of Western civilization with changes touching of every aspect of society.

To this effect, I posit that ancient Greece and The 1920s are emblematic of chapters of profound changes in the civilization that took place at those specific instances of human history. Accordingly, this paper compares and contrasts the predominant dress from the two periods respectively while drawing on a range of information regarding societal, economic, political, and environmental factors that might have influenced them. These factors rightly include the strict democracy in ancient Greece that placed an emphasis on voter equality in political affairs, which contrasts a little with the political dynamism of the 1920s that also sought to achieve equality, regardless of gender, on political and economic matters.

As posited earlier in this paper, the influential nature of Greek culture on modern Western culture cannot be understated, and this fact holds true from a fashion-analysis-perspective. Perhaps the key difference in the dress between the two eras is that clothes in ancient Greece were hand-made while those of the 1920s were machine processed courtesy of technological innovations of the industrial revolution. However, in terms of similarity, the dress-codes of both periods showcased the traits of functionality and unfussiness about clothing that was prevalent in the general psyche of both societies. Also, clothing from both periods betrays a similar appreciation for the human form as they included dress features that were relatively revealing.

Influential factors

It is crucial to analyze the political, social, economic, and cultural environment that dominated the respective eras in question to better understand how these factors influenced the dominant dress of the period.

The socio-political environment of ancient Greece consisted of a system that was fragmented due to the relative independence of the city-states that constituted it, and the political discourse was concentrated in the urban centers within these city-states. Furthermore, Athens recovered from the tyrannical rule of the 6th

century to set up the first ever recorded democracy as a way to avoid the rebirth of an aristocratic class. The democracy practiced by the Greeks was strict, but it liberated the dynamics of government into the hands of the people, and from there on all land-owning male citizens had equal rights in the citizens’ assembly, the Ecclesia. However, the system was restrictive on foreigners and slaves, who held no political privileges at all.

Additionally, the society in ancient Athens was stratified into four social classes based on wealth. Based on this, the full protection of the law in a city-state was afforded to only those who were native to the place, free men who owned land. Consequently, slavery was permitted and it flourished, to such an extent it is estimated that between forty and eighty percent of the population of Athens were slaves. However, conversely, to later Western culture, slavery was not a consequence of race as the Ancient Greeks did not consider such a concept (Nell, 2010, p.5).

The socio-political situation in ancient Greece is comparable to that of 1920s democratic America where President Warren G. Harding won one of the most heavily press-covered presidential election in 1920 on the back of nationalistic sentiments, a tough stance on immigration, and the benefit of the increased voter potential brought about by women voting. The right of women to vote was instrumental in challenging the prejudices about the role of women that had permeated Western society. It was brought about as a consequence of the suffrage movement that subsumed women and men with a wide array of opinions on the matter. Consequently, it has been opined that perhaps the remarkable feat achieved by the woman suffrage movement of the twentieth century was its appeal to a large support base (Dubois and Dumnell, 2012, p.474). It essentially laid the foundation for women to be held to the same moral standards as their male counterparts, that there is no “natural role” for women to adhere to (Kraidtor, 1965, Ch.3).

From an economic environment standpoint, both periods are marked with evidence of remarkable economic growth and widespread prosperity. Ancient Greece is thought to have been at its economic peak in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, making it the most developed of its time. Consequently, the citizens of the city-states demonstrated financial flexibility considering what is recorded as the average daily wage of a worker at the time. Schiedel posits that the wage stood at about 12kg in terms of wheat, which was far more than the 3.75kg (Schiedel, 2005) recorded for an Egyptian worker in the Roman era.

In the same mold, the “Roaring Twenties” saw a shift from the wartime mood of the 1910s that precipitated an economic recovery that was partly fuelled by a sharp increase in accessibility to consumer goods. This period saw the United States become the richest country in the world due to its mass-production industries, with relatively the richest population who gravitated unassumingly towards consumerism. The same was true for European economies, even though it did take longer to materialize (Soule, 1947). The economic upturn was translated into better and faster production mechanisms by manufacturers, thereby bridging the gap between the working class and respectable clothing.           

The aforementioned factors were influential in shaping the dress of either period in question. Moreover, the positive economic standpoint of either period ensured that fashion culture prospered. However, the fundamental similarity between the two is perhaps the understated dress sense of the people in the two separate periods, even though class differences were still evident in some aspects of the clothing from both eras.

Clothing in ancient Greece was made based on functionality and materials rather than to express identity. A single fabric could be restyled to fit a specific purpose or trend and the dress-code thus consisted of essentially the chiton, peplos, himation, and chlamys. These constitute variations of simple, draped, loose-fitting attire that were usually home-made and generally interchangeable between men and women (Adkins, L. and Adkins, R., 1997).

Meanwhile, the 1920s witnessed a modern revolution in fashion towards becoming a fully-fledged industry. As social norms and morals were loosened in the wake of an improving economy and the end of the First World War, the period established the women’s shift from the rigid attires that dominated the Victorian and Edwardian ages, towards freer dresses that showed more arms and legs. The same was true for men who started dressing less formally on a daily occasion as “sportswear” become ubiquitous. Essentially, fashion was not spared from the rapid evolution of human society that took place in the era. Fashion trends had to be more accessible, masculine, and functional to meet the changing expectations of the young women who were suddenly entering the workforce in large numbers and also afforded their universal right to vote.

Other factors which influenced the dress of the 1920s include the very popular jazz music of the time (Langley, 2005). The music and dance helped the youthful, modern society transition easily from the old norms, gaining popularity due to its alluring exoticness. Jazz music urged one to dance, and dance necessitated new changes to clothing to make them suitable for the task. The changes included; the shortening of hems of dresses and skirts to accommodate the vigorous dances such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, the glossy ornamentation of dresses to reflect light to the tempo of music and dance, and incorporation of jazz and dance patterns onto fabric (Hannel, 2002).

In the 1920s, the female figure was freed from the restrictions of corsets with undergarments edging towards a preference for flat chests and a boyish figure. Women’s feet were exposed for the first time in centuries with the rising hemlines of their dresses and skirts. Most youthful women tended to prefer the popular masculine look with shorter hairstyles. Peer pressure also played its part in establishing the fashion of the 1920s as middle-class Americans were absorbed by mass consumerism. Therefore keeping up with trends through amassing new stuff was perceived as an indicator of personal progress. Batchelor posits that most Americans of the time shirked at the thought of being seen as old-fashioned or poor (Batchelor, 2009, p.292-302).

The Dress

Ancient Greek clothing was constructed using silk, linen or wool as fabrics, with linen being the favourite due to the hot climate of the region. Ready-made clothes were also quite expensive as the production of materials was an arduous task and the responsibility mostly fell on women. Finely woven linen and very soft wool constitute the priciest materials. Furthermore, the linen was usually light and freely showed of the wearer’s form as the Greeks did not have much objection to nudity. However, the cheaper and more prevalent linen was the one woven from the flax plant and then soaked in olive oil, while the poor dressed in coarse wool. The completed item of clothing usually constituted a rectangular material draped around the body as desired without much sewing incorporated. Furthermore, some of the wealthy or those who would like to appear wealthy tended to use more fabric so it creases and folds. Others would dye their fabrics to set themselves apart.

Meanwhile, the technological advancements in the 20th century ensured that, unlike in ancient Greece, progress and experimentation in clothing attained new heights. The 1920s came with the discovery of new fabrics and new methods of securing clothes. Also, similarly to the ancient Greek period, wool was the most common fabric utilized in the decade, while silk was the most desired but seldom used due to its rarity. Consequentially, “Artificial silk” had first been invented from cellulose in France in the 19th century, and after being patented in the United States was released as a new fabric under the brand name rayon. The material was subsequently used to make stockings and other undergarments.

Personal Reflection

It is unmistakable that ancient Greek culture has come to influence modern fashion greatly. Presently, luxury brands have incorporated traits from Greek clothing into their products. Gianni Versace, for example, was an avowed ancient Greece enthusiast to the point where his entire branding for Versace was based on Greek mythology. The logo of Versace represents the snake-filled head of the mythical goddess Medusa encircled in the symbol representing eternity. The brand has also used motifs based on Greek culture in several of their collections.

Similarly, in 2018, Chanel

also released a collection dedicated to ancient Greece, with allusions to the era’s clothing, religious beliefs, and architecture. The collection by Chanel

was also juxtaposed with a fashion show event staged in some ruins from the period in Greece thereby creating an operatic and pure experience for the audience. In reiterating his adoration of the time period, Karl Lagerfeld even eulogized it as the “true criteria of beauty” (Vogue).       







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November 13, 2023



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