Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2018
Mireille M. Lee Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 382 pp.; 110 b/w ills. Hardcover $99.00 (9781107055360)


The study of the role of dress in ancient societies has seen a boom in recent years, absorbing new techniques in archaeology and approaches from “new dress history,” cultural studies, and theories of the body. Mireille Lee’s previous work has already been influential in putting Greek dress on the agenda, and this current volume offers new insights into dress as a communicative medium as well as synthesizing scholarship across a number of related subfields (gender, identity, ethnicity, sexuality, status, class, etc.). By taking Greek conceptions of the body as her starting point, Lee structures the volume by applying the layers of modification, decoration, and dress, all with their concomitant cultural, social, political, and ritual meanings, mirroring the way an individual applies a public persona when dressing. The volume covers the archaic and classical periods and acknowledges the Attic-centered issue of the time frame and the provenance of the evidence. It is written, very successfully in my opinion, to reach a far wider audience than traditional classicists and ancient historians.

Lee is rightly reticent about how far the seductive visual evidence can be used to reconstruct the ancient wardrobe, but aware that it, in a range of media, provides the evidence at least for the social context of Greek dress. Written evidence, all presented in translation here, is key to understanding the fundamental gender differences the ancient world accepted as part of the natural order. Ancient commentators on the clothed body shared their own cultural perceptions of the differences between male and female and this is reflected in the way dress is used to express gender difference and transgression. The archaeology of Greek textiles is, as Lee acknowledges, one of the most important tools in the dress historian kit, but finds are rare and the field is still relatively limited—although a recent volume by Stella Spantidaki, Textile Production in Classical Athens (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016), will provide a good complement to Lee’s work. Lee does address the material culture of adornment but again notes that the funerary or ritual context of finds, or indeed the lack of known context, makes them difficult to interpret.

Lee provides an excellent survey of the historiography of Greek dress since the Renaissance, stressing the different approaches taken by scholars in Europe, and more recently the United States. Across the world, the recognition that an interdisciplinary approach is essential is moving the study of dress and the body forward. Applying approaches borrowed from anthropology, cultural and gender studies, etc., together with contemporary dress theory has proved a fruitful way of examining the past. By defining terms and being careful of the language used when talking of dress (not costume, not fashion, not appearance), approaches to the past are already being redefined and current research, particularly in this volume, is consciously aware of value-laden vocabulary. Past histories have, however, left their mark, especially in the terminology of Greek dress.

The study of the body is central to Lee’s book and this gives it the edge over other volumes, which are more focused on clothing and accessories, although these elements feature strongly in this book. Chapter 2 looks at attitudes toward bodies in ancient Greece and is careful to add nuance to the way the body is variously defined according to context. The ideal male body is a dominant concept in all studies of the body in antiquity, but Lee is very aware of the many other bodies that make up ancient societies. The chapter, like other chapters, is divided into several subsections. Here, for instance: the body in mythology, in philosophy, and medicine; the ideal—boys, ephebes, adults. Cleverly, the ideal body is contrasted with “indeterminate bodies” under which girls, parthenoi (virgins), and gynai (women) feature. Finally, under non-ideal bodies, there are sections on the elderly and disabled, hetairai (prostitutes), slaves, and barbarians. There is a concluding, very short section on modern perspectives on the body, which is rather too brief to enjoy but again will point the reader in new directions. This division of the book into short sections is a useful guideline for readers less au fait with thinking about Greek culture. Chapter 3 examines body modification first, through a study of exercise and bathing. It follows with a section on  “Aromata.” The inclusion of the sense of smell here is another demonstration of Lee’s holistic approach to her subject. The presence of body odor and perfumes would have been ubiquitous in ancient society but they are often forgotten by historians. Hair also forms a central part of this chapter, another topic that is often only examined in passing in other volumes. There is little modern scholarship on hair in ancient Greek society (in comparison to ancient Rome) and it is often subsumed into discussions on veiling. Producing a compact survey, Lee’s succinct approach is excellent on hair styles, on facial, body, and pubic hair, and on depilation. The grimmer aspects of body treatments, if the techniques used to depilate are not enough, are examined at the end of the chapter (scars, scarification, tattoos, prosthetics).

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss garments and accessories respectively. In both cases, Lee offers far more than the catalogue subtitles seem to suggest. She is aware of the dangers of traditional terminology and the fact that we still simply cannot securely identify some items of dress. Short sections on textile production and value frame the wardrobe items listed in chapter 4, starting with swaddling bands and underwear, layering up the body, through to outerwear. Each item is identified visually using sculpture or vase painting and by its use in literary material. The social context of clothing is further developed in chapter 7 but these early chapters lay the foundation for the subsequent discussion. Accessories are considered in a wide-ranging manner, from hair pins to belts, crowns, amulets, and jewelry. Again, all are essential items in creating identity, and they are key to understanding the dressed body in ancient Greek culture. Veiling and footwear also form part of this chapter. This top-to-toe accessorizing of the body reminds the reader again of the multifaceted nature of dress and the multiple ways it is manipulated to create identity. This is a volume full of information.

The role and status of the undressed body is the subject of chapter 6, which begins with a reprise of the naked or nude argument current in classical research. Lee surveys modern attitudes toward nudity as costume from art historical and sociological perspectives, providing a good addition to the section on modern attitudes toward the body in chapter 2. Males are considered under themes of athletic and civic nudity, but the naked female body is given more extensive attention. There is a relatively long section on Aphrodite of Knidos, but a more interesting examination of partial undress, “divestment as a result of violence” (192). Lee concludes that “the dichotomy of nakedness versus nudity proves false” (196). Her study demonstrates that the simplistic notion of heroic nudity cannot be sustained, but that context is the more defining factor. Like other aspects of dress, and undress, definitions and meanings are fluid.

The final chapter looks at dress and the body in particular situations/occasions, such as life transitions (coming of age, marriage and childbirth, the military) and religious and ritual contexts. This latter section includes the dress of a priest and the ritual proscriptions that surround the body and clothing during festivals and in sanctuaries. Rather appropriately, mourning dress comes at the end of the chapter.

In conclusion—this is delightful book, full of information and discussion of current debates. The structure of the volume allows those new to the subject to gain enough technical knowledge to understand the wider debates which surround the body and dress studies. Lee intertwines description and debate in a sophisticated way. The engagement and discussion of current scholarship (classical and modern) provides new insights into the culture of ancient Greece and ways in which it might be read. It is full of ancient and modern references, which will encourage readers to engage in their own research, and it is fully and clearly illustrated.

Mary Harlow
Associate Professor of Ancient History, University of Leicester

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