Classicism in Modern Dress

  • Statuette of Nike (personification of victory)
    07.286.23
  • Grave stele of a little girl
    27.45
  • Lekythos (oil flask) depicting Poseidon pursuing Amymone
    17.230.35
  • Bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
    28.57.23
  • Statue of a woman
    03.12.17
  • Statue of a young woman and a girl from a grave monument
    44.11.2,.3
  • Statuette of a veiled and masked dancer
    1972.118.95
  • Relief of a dancing maenad
    35.11.3
  • Fragment from the Eleusinian Relief
    14.130.9
  • Statue of Eirene (personification of peace)
    06.311
  • Statue of a wounded Amazon
    32.11.4
  • Madame Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, later Princesse de Bénévent (née Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835)
    2002.31
  • Dress
    1983.6.1
  • Dress
    07.146.5
  • Evening gown
    1995.28.6a
  • Dinner dress
    C.I.43.85.2a,b
  • Evening ensemble
    1979.344.11a,b
  • Venus dress
    C.I.53.40.7a-e
  • Evening gown
    C.I.56.60.6a,b
  • Evening gown with wrap
    1996.498.2a,b

Essay

History, whether manifested as embracing revival or smug repudiation, is especially evident in fashion. Although components of Hellenic attire have appeared throughout Western fashion’s 600-year history, it is only from the 1790s to the 1810s that classicized forms are embraced as the prevailing mode. For most of the period that followed, classical motifs and allusions were essentially superficial. Not until the first decade of the twentieth century, with the movement to an uncorseted body, did a classical sensibility return to fashion with any pronounced significance.

Hellenic dress, with its diversity of draped effects based on reductive, orthogonal components, established an apt paradigm for designers. While the modernists gravitated toward the elegant economy of the construction of dress provided by antique models, postmodernists preferred to cite classical iconography more explicitly. That such contradictory movements incorporated the concepts and imagery of classical dress suggests the protean nature of the style.

In the face of the fashion system’s cycle of novelty and obsolescence, the classical mode, with its evocation of an enduring and immutable ideal, is somewhat of a paradox. Ancient Hellenic attire continues to inspire designers two-and-a-half millennia later, testimony to the universal aspiration to transform woman into goddess through dress.

Harold Koda
The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003

Citation

Koda, Harold. “Classicism in Modern Dress.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/god1/hd_god1.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Koda, Harold. Goddess: The Classical Mode. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003. See on MetPublications

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