Because I love Greco-Roman antiquity, I needed to make myself a chiton. Because I’ve performed Lady Emma Hamilton’s famous, classically-inspired tableaux vivants twice in the last twelve years, I needed to make myself a chiton. Because chitons are awesome and I like them, I needed a chiton.
By this point in the blog post, you might be asking yourself, “What the heck is a chiton? Who is Lady Hamilton? And those “tableaux” thingies?” I know it sounds like a strange combination of ideas, but it’s honestly not as complicated as it seems. In fact, the chiton – a very simple women’s (and men’s!) garment originating in ancient Greece and widely used as a basic dress or underdress for women in Roman eras – is extremely easy to make and wear. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Emma, My Inspiration
First, the Lady Emma part of the explanation. Our English Regency society puts on various events dealing with events and culture from the late Georgian period of British history. In the course of preparations for a ball honoring the great naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson, I somehow got roped into playing a role. And not just any role; I would be recreating Lady Emma Hamilton’s famous “attitudes.” Lady Emma performed these silent tableaux from 1787 through the 1790s and into the early 19th century, sparking several high-profile imitations and influencing modern dance and other forms of performance art over a hundred years later. Now, this was 1999 and I was crazy busy trying to finish my last year of law school. The last thing I probably needed on my plate was a performance of some sort, but for Emma Hamilton I made an exception.
Not only was Lady Emma one of the most celebrated women of the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries, she was also among the most scandalous. With humble beginnings and a sordid past, Lady Emma – born Amy, or Emy, Lyon in 1765 – is infamous for both her affairs with notable British men (not the least of which being Lord Nelson himself) and her often-seedy early career as a performer and artists’ model.
Painter George Romney’s sensational portraits of Emma – usually posed as a personification of a classical virtue, or as an historical figure, pagan deity, saint, or fictional character from antiquity – garnered her quite a bit of male attention. In fact, her growing reputation as a beauty and neoclassical muse, thanks largely to the circulation of engravings based on her portraits, paved the way for her relationship with (and eventual marriage to) the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, Sir William Hamilton.
Art history professor John Wilton-Ely proposes that Sir William, an obsessive collector of classical antiquities, considered Emma “a personification of the beauty of classic art.” Wilton-Ely indicates that Hamilton essentially “collected” Emma as he might collect a beautiful Greek vase, eagerly “inheriting” her from her previous paramour and his nephew, Charles Francis Greville. Fittingly enough, Emma’s “attitudes” – which she developed in partnership with Hamilton – essentially allowed her to become the sculptures and vase-figures that her husband so adored. As Wilton-Ely puts it, it becomes a Pygmalion story in reverse.
Lady Hamilton’s classically-inspired sittings for Romney were the background for her delightful tableaux vivants, but it was Sir William’s interest in Greco-Roman art and Lady Emma’s growing role as social fixture and unofficial diplomat at the Neapolitan court that presented her with this opportunity to strike out beyond mere model’s poses. In Sir William, she had an encouraging mentor and knowledgeable advisor on artistic matters. He was also a source of social legitimacy, as their marriage in 1791 transformed her from a mistress of dubious reputation to wife of a British ambassardor. As such, Emma found ready audiences in the Neapolitan court circle and a new kind of popularity. In addition to her relationships with Sir William and Lord Nelson, two respected allies of the Neapolitan royal family, her friendship with Queen Maria Carolina provided her with a unique kind of political capital at court.
Evolving from her earlier static poses as an artists’ model, Emma’s “attitudes” can be described as a fluid, rhythmic series of brief poses evoking famous women and events from antiquity. Wilton-Ely suggests that in coaching Emma’s tableaux, Sir William was attempting to recreate Roman pantomime, a dramatic art that combined silent acting with elements of dance. Usually, the poses and minimal props that Lady Hamilton engaged were direct allusions to specific pieces of art (everything from Roman wall paintings recently excavated at Herculaneum near their home in Naples to Roman sculpture, Greek vases, and Old Master paintings), authenticated by Sir William’s knowledge of classical antiquities.
Bringing Back the “Attitudes”
When I first portrayed Emma, I used Drawings faithfully copied from nature at Naples by Friedrich Rehberg – a collection of classical tableaux featuring several of Lady Emma’s most famous “attitudes” – as a source for my poses and a rough guide as to how I might dress. Paintings by Romney, Elizabeth VigÃ©e-Lebrun, and others also contributed to the look and feel of the ensemble. We also had period comments from visitors to the Hamiltons’ home in Naples as to the nature of her tableaux and costume:
She wears a Greek garb becoming her to perfection. She then merely loosens her locks, takes a pair of shawls, and effects changes of postures, moods, gestures, mien, and appearance that make one really feel as if one were in some dream. Here is visible complete and bodied forth in movements of surprising variety, all that so many artists have sought in vain to fix and render. Successively standing, kneeling, seated, reclining, grave, sad, sportive, teasing, abandoned, penitent, alluring, threatening, agonised. One follows the other and grows out of it. She knows how to choose and shift the simple folds of her single kerchief for every expression, and to adjust it into a hundred kinds of headgear.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet
In opposition to Goethe’s rememberances of Emma’s originals, my attitudes weren’t at all fluid; in fact, we decided to play them strictly frozen – like a more traditional tableaux, as if I were a piece of Greco-Roman statuary – with a curtain to mask each transition. We felt it would be easier for me to replicate the poses this way. If I ever manage a third performance as Lady Emma, maybe I’ll revamp my scheme to incorporate a more fluid routine and lose the curtain.
When I made my first Lady Emma costume, I figured I should go with something flowy and at least vaguely Grecian, to keep with Goethe’s description and some of Emma’s various period images. The chiton is easy to make, and it moves dramatically without being uncomfortable or overly draggy, so it seemed an obvious choice.
I made my first chiton out of a drapey cotton; I should have used linen or silk, but it was the best I could do at the time. While Emma’s costumes were usually simple Grecian-style or Neapolitan peasant-inspired gowns (long, sleeved chemises, essentially) worn without underpinnings, I needed some sort of security against slippage. I wore it over a late-Georgian (Regency) corset and chemise and used an Indian shawl as a stand-in for a himation (cloak or overwrap).
My second incarnation, pictured on this page, was an opportunity to improve on the deficiences of the first costume. I wanted to make it as period correct as possible so I could wear it on occasions requiring ancient Greek or Roman dress. By the sixth century B.C., the Ionic chiton joined the traditional Doric peplos as a primary women’s garment in ancient Athens (Abrahams 57-60), worn as an outer layer or under an himation. In imperial Rome, women often wore a similarly-constructed tunica as a dress or underdress; it was almost always worn with the himation-like palla (a type of draped overcloak), and matrons had the option of wearing it under the stola, a sleeveless overdress pinned or sewn into straps at the shoulder.
From the Greek Archaic period through Roman times, the chiton (along with its tunic cousins, the mens’ Doric chiton and womens’ peplos) was constructed, decorated, and worn in a variety of ways, a reality which sometimes creates confusion as to the defining features of the garment. At the beginning of the Archaic era, the chiton (probably a version of the Ionic style) was described by the epic poet Homer as a sewn, rectangular linen tunic for men. According to the historian Herodotus, by the sixth century B.C. Athenian women were wearing sewn linen chitons, too (Abrahams 41). As Athens progressed into the Classical era, women’s chitons were being made of silk in addition to the traditional linen (for Ionic chitons) and wool (for Peploi, or Doric women’s dress) of the previous eras.
Depending on style, period, terminology of choice, and the gender of the wearer, chitons could have long sleeves or none at all, a consideration determined by the overall width of the garment and the fastening method used on the shoulders. The shoulders could be pinned, stitched, buttoned, or tied once per shoulder, fastened in several places at intervals down the shoulders and arms, or sewn along the top edge to create more conventional, tunic-style shoulders and sleeves. To make the sleeves more pronounced, and ostensibly to promote ease of movement, some chitons appeared to be tied under the arms and around the shoulders (See the Charioteer at Delphi). Sometimes, chitons were created with additional sleeve sections that were woven or sewn onto the armholes of the chiton.
- It’s long and wide with sleeves (not all Ionic chitons had pronounced sleeves, but all had seaming of some sort at the shoulders), as differentiated from the Doric chitons and peploi worn by most mainland Greeks of the Archaic age, which were less broad, didn’t have sleeves or proper seaming at the shoulder, and could be short, in the case of the men (Abrahams 60).
- It’s composed of two large rectangles of linen fabric. Doric chitons – worn by men – and their feminine counterparts,women’s peploi, were traditonally made of wool (Abrahams 59-60). Further, Doric chitons and peploi are associated with single-fabric-rectangle construction, rather than two pieces of fabric sewn together.
- The rectangles of fabric are stitched and buttoned at intervals along the top edge to create seamed shoulders and sleeves, leaving room for a neck opening. Ionic chiton shoulders and sleeves could be fastened by sewn seams, stitches at intervals, buttons at intervals, or pins at intervals.
- The chiton is sewn down the long sides of the fabric as well, creating a basic tunic shape that is pulled in at the waist by a belt.
Chitons are in many ways similar to the aforementioned peplos, an older style of Doric dress worn exclusively by mainland Greek women before they started wearing Ionic chitons (and by the sixth century B.C., the peplos was apparently worn by Athenian women over chitons of varying styles, as the peplos transitioned into the role of cloak, or himation). Unlike the Ionic chiton, which was sewn up both sides, the traditional peplos was constructed from a single, unsewn piece of woolen fabric that was folded in half to create the basic tubular tunic shape. Circa 800 B.C., the beginning of the Greek Archaic age, the epic poet Homer used the term peplos for women’s dresses as well as other large, rectangular pieces of cloth, which bears out the characteristic (Abrahams 17).
When worn, the peplos was folded over at the neckline to make an apoptygma, or as fashion historian Harold Koda calls it, a “capelet-like overfold.” The dress would be fastened at the front of the shoulders with two fibulae, or brooches, to which Koda refers as the “single defining detail” of the peplos, and to an extent, the Doric stye of dress for both sexes (though men’s clothing in the Doric style – AKA the Doric chiton – could be fastened on one shoulder only, and did not have the apoptygma).
That said, the apoptygma overfolds are an example of a peplos characteristic that is sometimes shared with the Ionic chiton as worn by women (Abrahams 64). Conversely, and as Athenian art moved into the fifth century B.C., the volume (and in some cases, the diaphanous quality) usually associated with the Ionic style appear to have been blended into Doric-style clothing of figures such as the karyatids of the Erechtheum:
Most chitons and peploi would be girded in some way at the waistline, sometimes double-belted to create the look of a shorter overdress, furthering the similarity between the two. Sometimes peploi wouldn’t be girded at all, particularly if worn over another tunic of some sort. Open-sided peploi not worn over another tunic of some sort would practically require a belt, given the fact that it wouldn’t stay closed at the side without one. Some scholars indicate the early use of brooches to keep the open side of the peplos closed.
To make matters more confusing, by the sixth century B.C. the term peplos could apply to virtually any Doric-style women’s dress, whether it was sewn up the side or not (Abrahams 46). This contradicts the frequent assumption that chitons were the sewn garment, while peploi were specifically not:
“…the word ‘peplos’ is usually reserved for the Doric [feminine] dress whether open or closed [at the side], the word ‘chiton’ for the Ionic, though the latter is frequently applied to the Doric, and is invariably used of the under-dress when the two styles became confused” (46).
Ethel Abrahams seems to suggest that “chiton” is most properly used to describe
- an Ionic chiton (long, full, fluidly pleated, sewn down the sides, usually with sleeves),
- Doric-style tunics worn by men, or
- a tunic dress (whatever its style) worn under a peplos (maybe).
I chose an off-white linen as my chiton fabric (yes, Joann has 100% linen, suitable for ancient, medieval, and renaissance pieces), purchasing enough to create two head-to-foot lengths of wide fabric. Even then, it isn’t quite as long as I would like; Ionic chitons were supposed to nearly touch the floor on a female wearer. The fabric wasn’t as thin as I would have liked for a diaphanous Ionic chiton, either, but it does drape nicely. Chitons could have been embroidered or colored, but I was working with limited color resources and went for the white. While ancient Greek sculpture would have been vibrantly painted, I like the idea of a chiton that resembles the light, Pentelic tones of the Parthenon sculpture from the mid-fifth century B.C.
I created a neckline and sleeves by tacking the top edges of the fabric together at intervals and finishing each stitch off with a burnished brass-tone button. I left enough room at the end of the sleeves for my hands and forearms to emerge, sewing together the side-seams and hemming the bottom of the chiton. I created a zone or “girdle” belt out of a piece of decorative cord and some ready-made upholstery tassels. For underpinnings, I made a concession to practicality and wore my Regency chemise; it provided enough support in the boob area to keep things reasonably modest (and hey, Roman women wore mamillare to keep the chesticles in check). For shoes, I chose a modern version of a medieval “bog shoe.” They’re a boot-like, closed-toe, lace-up sandal that resembles Roman calcei.
For props, I made a grapevine wreath inspired by Romney’s Bacchante (see images above) and borrowed an urn, a plinth/column, a libation bowl, and a tambourine from my mom. The Rehberg engravings show Emma using a very wide, long shawl – very much like a Greek himation or Roman palla – as a prop. I substituted my cream wool rectangle shawl from India, which had the right look but isn’t nearly large enough to be a real wrap from antiquity.
I performed my attitudes a second time this past October, at a ball as might have been hosted by the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina. That’s where the photographs – kindly taken by my friend Yvette Keller – originate.
Sources – Lady Emma Hamilton
- Drawings faithfully copied from nature at Naples by Friedrich Rehberg, engraved by Tommaso Piroli – 1794 – Contains engravings of several of Lady Emma’s “attitudes.” This was the source I used to create my series of tableaux.
- Emma at Home: Lady Hamilton and her “Attitudes” – John Wilton-Ely’s Lecture on Lady Emma’s “attitudes” as a manifestation of neoclassical artistic values. His discussion includes the various visual and historical allusions in Emma’s work.
- Notes from the curators of the “German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe” Exhibit at the British Museum
- Sichel, Walter Sydney. Memoirs of Emma, Lady Hamilton: The friend of Lord Nelson and the Court of Naples. New York: P.F. Collier and Son,1910.
- Vic’s Lady Emma article
- The Chiton and Its Descendants
- Roman Clothing: Women – Professor Barbara F. McManus’ Roman clothing site
- The Chiton, Peplos, and Himation in Modern dress – Essay by fashion historian Harold Koda
- Abrahams, Ethel Beatrice. Greek Dress: A Study of the Costumes Worn in Ancient Greece From Pre-Hellenic Times to the Hellenistic Age. London: John Murray, 1908.
- Smith, William et al., eds. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1890. Peplos and Palla | Chiton and Tunica
- Whetstone Johnston, Harold. The Private Life of the Romans. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1903.