Friday, April 10, 2015

The Minoans: Fashion

Left: Reproduction of the Ladies in Blue fresco from Knossos. Center: Priest King fresco restored. Right: reproduction of a woman carrying an ivory pyxis from Tiryns

Minoan male and female dress, from

The most spectacular scenes of the daily lives of Minoans is seen in their fresco art. Many frescoes are so vivid and full of energy that you can't help but feel an affinity for them. From these scenes we are given accurate and colorful depictions of how the Minoans viewed themselves. It is truly remarkable that such woven works of art survived, as any and all elaborate dresses seen in frescoes have long since disintegrated. One great example of fashion, class, and culture is the Theran Naval Fresco. Nobles are shown in robes, commoners in tunics, and rustics in sheepskin, alluding to three general occupation based groups in society. Whoever could afford bronze or copper razors used them, and tweezers were used as well. Minoan fashion was in a constant state of flux, constantly changing year to year through a localized version of our now global fashion industry. Long hair was common: men, woman, nobles, and bull keepers wore it, whereas those who kept short hair were either soldiers or those who needed it for practical reasons due to their work. Everyone wore jewelry, if they could afford it. Depictions of the lower classes are surprisingly common, and while details of their clothing are not seen so visibly in frescoes, metalworkers made statuettes of everyday worshipers to be left at religious sites. These metal depictions of commoners were a very frequent item found at such sites. Commoners are also seen in seals and in frescoes occasionally, and generally the most common clothing of the period for most people was wool.

Modern illustration of Minoan male and female dress

An example of a warp-weighted loom seen in Minoan frescoes

Leaf shaped bronze razor from funerary building 3 in Arkhanes Crete, made around 1,400 BCE

Bronze razor from Phylos, made around 1,200 BCE

Bronze tweezers from Crete, made between 3,000-1,000 BCE

A diagram of Minoan cosmetic tools

Frescoes unintentionally show the artist's ideal self-image through their own aesthetic lens. Because of this, other Minoans are seen with their attractive features elaborated: straight noses, almond eyes, popping eyebrows, long black hair, tan and athletic bodies, and slim waists and legs. Both men and women are portrayed as beautifully perfect, but of course the world is never so kind. Minoan art excludes those who do not adhere to this stereotype, and most people may not have had the money to wear colored cloth with exquisite and complex designs. While the majority of clothing are left out of the picture, the clothing which is seen was manufactured by master craftsmen. Some designs are too complex to be woven, and were probably block printed, embroidered, appliqueed, or put on using a mixture of methods.

The Queen's fresco, reminiscent of the ideal female aesthetic found in classical period art

Clothing then as now was gendered, and women's clothing was much more elaborate than men's. Women wore dress tops designed similarly to modern t-shirts, but with a long slit from the neck to the navel. This long opening left women two options, one was to have the breasts covered and the other to have them exposed. Women with their breasts exposed is commonly seen in ritual contexts, and presumably it had some uncommon significance. It is presumed that reciprocally then to have the flaps covering yourself was the normal practice, although it should be said that there is no hard evidence detailing the norms, religious customs, or if there was even a difference between the two styles. Women also wore wide belts and embroidered aprons but only in a ritual context, thus these pieces of clothing suffer too from a lack of any information on their actual usage. It was standard for women to wear hats, whereas men would not, and by 1,700 BCE it was fashionable for women to wear tall pointed hats. By this period, men would also wear such hats but only in a ritual context.

Woman from the Procession of Ladies fresco at Akrotiri

The Saffron Gatherer fresco

Detail of the Xeste 3 fresco at Akrotiri

A woman in a fresco from the House of the Ladies

“Le Parisienne” Minoan fresco from Sanctuary Hall at the Piano Nobile in the palace of Knossos, 1,450-1,350 BCE

Reconstruction of part of relief fresco of an elaborate dress from Pseira, Found in Yphantiki kai Yphantres sto Proistoriko Aigaio, Crete University Press, pg 229

Detail of the arm of that dress from the same source

Detail of the lower section of that dress from the same source

Pre-Temple (2,400-2,100 BCE) female Minoan fashion, by Tadarida

Old Temple (2,100-1,600 BCE) female Minoan fashion, by Tadarida

Late Minoan (1,600-1,000 BCE) female Minoan fashion, by Tadarida

Mycenaean (1,400-1,250 BCE) female fashion, by Tadarida

A diagram of women's hair styles from frescoes at Knossos, Thera, and Tiryntha

Male gendered clothing was intentionally skimpy, and during the MM and LM periods different variations of loincloths were all the rage. Presumably in the early MM period men would wear codpieces held up with a belt, which throughout the MM period slowly changed as people wrapped cloth around their upper thighs, turning their loincloths into a simple kilt. Eventually, certainly by the LM period, men would sew the middle of the kilt together to create shorts, and throughout the LM period men's shorts were elaborately patterned and included a decorated tassel hung from a sporran (a pouch tied around the waist used as a pocket). Also during the LM period men would forgo the kilt altogether and only wear a codpiece.

Detail from the Stiersprung fresco of a bull leaper, 1,600-1,450 BCE

Prince of the Lillies fresco

Painting of two male servants at Knossos

Servant with a blue vessel fresco at Knossos

EM (codpiece) and MM (kilt/shorts) male fashion, by Tadarida

A diagram of Minoan male loincloth styles

A man from Knossos wearing hat, made around 1,400 BCE or earlier, now at Herakion Museum, from pg 69 of The Arts in Prehistoric Greece by Sinclair Hood

The most brilliant example of male fashion from Crete is not actually from the island proper. It is a painting on the wall of a tomb in Egypt. It shows various Minoans bearing gifts for the Pharaoh in celebration of the recently departed Egyptian adviser Rekhmire. He had died around 1,450 BCE and was the Grand Vizier to multiple Pharaohs, he was well liked and respected among the local aristocracy. The fact that foreign Cretans felt obliged to celebrate the life of a Grand Vizier is testament to the connection between Egyptian aristocracy and Minoan aristocracy. The Egyptian artist or artists who were tasked with painting the procession scene were put in a serious bind: they had to paint those gift bearing Minoans presumably before they had even arrived, and the artist/s had not seen a Minoan in some time. The artist/s made a professional decision and painted Minoans as they had remembered them: wearing cod pieces with a particular hem line. When the Minoans actually arrived, their fashion had changed! Kilts had become all the rage and no one wore cod pieces anymore. The Egyptian artist/s were able to quickly fix this mistake before the tomb was sealed, simply painting kilts over top of the old cod piece.

Reconstruction of the frescoes from the tomb of User on the left, and Rekhmire on the right, depicting Cretan envoys and their clothing

Minoans bringing tribute to Egypt, in the tomb of Rekhmire. It is interesting to note their typical Cretan style done in an Egyptian manner. Also note the fantastically elaborate shoes

Detail of the shoes of the Cretan envoys, by the author. While the tomb was made in the late 1,400s BCE, Cretans were known for exporting elaborate shoes by at least the 19th century BCE. King Zimri-Lim of Mari gave King Hammurabi of Babylon a “pair of leather shoes in the Caphtorian [Cretan] style”, but Hammurabi returned them. The tablet which describes this event gives no reason for Hammurabi's ill manners, but only a few years later he conquered Mari and killed Zimri-Lim

Various styles of Minoan shoes, all of which are Minoan except for B which is Hittite

The procession from Keftiu at the tomb of Rekhmire, by A. R. Burns

The procession from Keftiu continued, at the tomb of Rekhmire, by A. R. Burns

The recording of gifts from Keftiu by the Egyptian officals, at the tomb of Rekhmire, by A. R. Burns

Another fascinating painting from the tomb of Rekhmire, an elephant being brought as tribute. It is unknown whether this was either a small Syrian or Asian elephant (which existed in Mesopotamia until around 700 BCE), or simply a miniaturized drawing of a normal sized elephant


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden


  1. Hi! This is an AWESOME page, made me grin from ear to ear. That said, I wanted to point out that the Priest King/Prince of the Lilies doesn't exist-- it's actually two frescoes that the 19th century reconstruction artist, Piet de Jong, mistakenly associated with each other. Sir Arthur Evans realized this, but too late, as the reconstruction was already completed. This is such a big deal because that "priest/king/prince" crown belongs on an elite female figure, and was not worn by men. An athletic scene between two males is also absorbed into this single-figure reconstruction; the "priest king" borrows the first male's right arm and torso, and the second male's leg. I just wanted to add this memo to make this excellent page even better! Also because that headpiece is fabulous and I'd love to see an image of it on a female Minoan. <3

  2. Ohohoh and the "Detail from the Stiersprung fresco of a bull leaper, 1,600-1,450 BCE" is another fun one, because it could actually depict a female mistakenly-reconstructed as a male. The white skin is a big signal. The golden codpiece is arguably not a codpiece at all (and that's just an anachronistic similarity). The perfect corroborating evidence would be the (so-called) "Lady of Sports" chryselephantine figurine, which depicts an ivory woman similarly posed wearing a gold outfit very similar to the one depicted in the fresco, including the so-called "codpiece". However, this figurine has it's own controversy, in that it might be a 19th century CE fake, albeit a very early one (ever-patriarchal Evans himself gave her the name "Lady of Sports", assuming her to be a female goddess dressed as a male, just because). I dunno, I want to believe she's authentic. If the frescoes showing female bull-leapers/athletes in-costume were well-known, then she could easily be a forgery. However, it'd have to be a forgery by someone who had not only studied the frescoes, but also the newly-found Minoan hammered-gold artifacts and ivory statuette fragments first-hand...which is entirely possible. Oh well! Who knows! [Super fun having a space to discuss Bronze-Age Greece with people who are interested too :)]

    1. Hey LaDeeDa, thanks for the kind words! In the spirit of transparency, I used most of my base facts for these series of posts from a book by Rodney Castleden which was slightly dated and was not entirely academic. Thanks for informing me about how the Price of the Lillies fresco is reconstructed. Another reconstruction featured in the above pictures is the piece I captioned "Woman from the Procession of Ladies fresco", strangely enough the reconstructed piece in that fresco is the face! My favorite is by far the image of Minoans in the tomb of Rekhmire, and it didn't need any reconstructing.

      I'll look into newer reconstructions using the Priest King fresco, that does sound fascinating that it was in fact an elite female figure, even then I'm not aware of any other finds of that style of headdress - so the figure is still pretty mysterious I'd assume. It makes sense that Arthur Evans and Piet de Jong wanted to make an elite male...considering they presumed it would exist and should be there then. I'm only aware of female priestess figures in an elite context, I think there's still no images of elite men.

      And too thank you for pointing out that redefinition of the Stiersprung fresco figure, I should've mentioned something considering the figure is obviously white which would be unusual for males.

      So, you raise an interesting point - the golden piece of clothing is not a codpiece but a kind of bodice? based on the Lady of Sports. Well, I've become more skeptical regarding figurines which seem too good to be true, certainly the Boston Goddess is fake but I think the Lady of Sports is also fake. The figure's face seems proportioned in a western way and too detailed and crisp compared to the rounder features of the Snake goddess figurines found by Evans in a cache. You have to do similar "visual tests" of ancient American art too, if it seems too similar to the western tradition then it likely is. The Lady of Sports also is wearing what looks like a corset, also very suspicious.

      Now, let's say it's a fake, even then it was possibly based on actual models which the forgers used as a reference. Andrea Salimbeti uses a few seals which are most certainly fake yet were also made by forgers who referenced other seals. So Andrea suggests that you can accept some of the basic items they're wearing/using but not their positions or the seal's "narrative". Perhaps the Lady of Sports has a similar history, and too perhaps we could say that the Stiersprung figure is wearing some unknown gold mid-section clothing which the Lady's was based on. The upper half of the Lady's clothing is the most suspicious, but its bottom half resembles the flap hanging off the waist of the female dresses.

      I'm deep in the middle of writing the next blog series for this, so maybe I'll read a few more books and come back to this Minoan series someday (as well as putting in inline citations!). Thanks so much for the imput and the nice words, glad that I could provide a space to discuss the LBA!

  3. Thank you for this fascinating post and the comments from others about reconstruction. I am studying the Minoan/Mycenaean Linear B Script writings so your info may come in useful. Great work !!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it, clothing in particular was more elaborate than many people would think in the bronze age. I am not familiar with the languages and scripts myself, send me a link when you've finished!

  4. I enjoyed looking at your compendium on Minoan clothing. I recently posted a depiction of a Keftiu aka Cretan (Minoan) prisoner on our Facebook page (Kommos Conservancy), who is dressed what seems to me rather unique but then it is from 1375 BC.

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  6. Superbe synthèse ; on apprend vraiment beaucoup de choses précises.Merci

  7. Loved it! I'm very interested in the history of fashion and currently in the middle of working on a presentation about ancient Greece. This was very helpfull and wonderful to read! Thank you!

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