FASHION HISTORYhistory

Canonical beauty: Ancient Greece

19.10.2017 — by Victoria Ventonni

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FASHION HISTORYhistory

Canonical beauty: Ancient Greece

19.10.2017 — by Victoria Ventonni

In Ancient Greece beauty was much more than just a pleasant appearance: it was a blessing, a gift given to a person by gods, a sign of beautiful mind. We could see the proof of it if we refer to the well-known phrase “καλὸς κἀγαθός”, which was highly used in classical period by Greek writers combines the attractive appearance with bright mind. All of that is true only if you are a man. Beautiful woman was synonym to evil woman. However, special beauty contests were held regularly in Olympics at Elis and on the islands of Tenedos and Lesbos.

So, what was a beauty canon upon which the women were judged?

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The first beauty for Ancient Greek was Aphrodite – chosen by Paris during his famous Judgement [1], which led to Trojan war. This goddess favored big-bottom girls, what made wide hips an essential component of beauty. Another important part of it were white arms. Moreover, often make-up was used to whiten them. The enchanting power of red hair combined with its rarity made this hair color considered as the most beautiful one among the women. When intense and extremely comforting Mediterranean sun is getting lost in red hair, the hair enlightens, seem to be golden.

Even more important than these criteria was the way the woman acted.

Referring to the Judgement of Paris, noted above, the most beautiful of all goddess was not Aphrodite but Hera (Athena was held as an asexual being, wise and talented in war as men were supposed to be). Nevertheless, Hera was the goddess of the marital order, according to the myths, quite shrewish, jealous and vengeful. She tried to look modest, standing naked in front of Paris, while Aphrodite was a goddess of sexuality and made no attempt hiding something (quite the opposite, actually).

Another well-known first beauty of Ancient Greece was Helen of Troy. She was considered so not only because of her biological features resulting in a pleasant appearance, but mostly because of the power she had on men, making them do whatever she wanted. Her beauty serves as a weapon of mass destruction as it drew men both to Helen’s bed and to their deaths.

All of written above refers to the Bronze era. As the Greek society evolved, so did the concepts of beauty.

What made a person beautiful was one of the questions widely discussed among Greek philosophers. So, Plato saw beauty as a result of symmetry and harmony, created the “golden proportion” in which, among other things, the ideal face width was considered as representing two-thirds of its length, and the face must be perfectly symmetrical. His idea has proven to be right by recent researches. Moreover, it was Plato who decided that beauty cannot be defined [2].

However, it’s a part of human psychology that we always want something we don’t have. In Ancient Greece, enlightened with intense sunlight, pale skin was a sign not only of prestige, but also of beauty as it meant that person came from a wealthy family and didn’t have to do hard work. In order to lighten the skin tone, women used white lead, which was toxic (but hardly had they known about that). To make it lay smooth, women first moisturized their skin using creams with honey and sometimes olive oil.

Bright makeup was not in favor among Greek women. First of all, intense pigments were quite expensive. Secondly, because of the heat they won’t last long. So, they used red pastels to bright only a little bit their lips and cheeks.

It may come as a surprise to us that one of the “parts” of beauty was a unibrow – a symbol of intelligence and beauty painted by both male and female using kohl or lampblack (a black pigment made from soot).

Greek women used the vinegar and sunlight to lighten their hair tone: whereas most of the women were born with a dark hair, golden hair tone was the most beautiful one. Free women had the long hair and the slaves had to cut their locks short. Only single women were allowed to wear their hair loose, married ones usually made buns.

However, all of these are just single details of the concept of beauty. We perceive each human in a whole, all his features mixed: appearance, personality, style, inner harmony. And the last one is probably the most important of them all.


[1] Judgement of Paris. If you are not good at Greek mythology, here’s the summary of this story, which was well-known in Ancient Greece even before Homer told his Iliad: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judgement_of_Paris

[2] Ironically, Greek portrayals of perfect bodies are the most copied and acknowledged ones in art history.

 

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