The Chiton and its Descendants

The chiton (pronounced KI-tun) and its allied garments are some of the simplest and yet most elegant forms of clothing. They are formed from rectangles of fabric with little or no shaping and they make use of the entire piece of fabric without cutting and fitting. They rely instead on tying, pinning and draping to form varied types of costume. They have the added advantage of "one-size-fits-all", allowing the same clothing to make due during changes in weight and figure up to and including pregnancy. Plus the lack of shaping allows for easy cleaning and maintenance of the clothing.

In its simplest form, the Greek chiton is a rectangle of material with an over fold at the top. It is pinned at the shoulders and belted or not. The open side is not sewn (Fig. l).

The early Greek (500 B.C.) chiton for women was a tight fitting garment with an over fold at the neck to create a flap. The fabric was just wide enough to wrap around the body and was seamed up one side to form a tube. It was highly decorated with embroidery, tapestry or painting, and fastened at the shoulders with long straight pins with decorated heads. (Fig. 2). Garments of the lower classes were probably fastened with thorns or simpler pin shapes. Just after this time, the women's chiton became much, much fuller. Herodotus tells us that the Athenian army suffered a great defeat and all but one of their forces was put to death. The survivor made his way back to Athens where, upon telling his story, the angry Athenian women stabbed him to death with the shoulder pins of their chitons. The rulers of Athens (probably fearing for their own lives) decreed that from this time onward the Athenian women would wear Ionic dress which does not require pins.

The ionic chiton (Fig. 3) shows the increased width and the fastenings at the shoulder. The fastenings would be small button-like ornaments, small brooches or the edges could be simply sewn at intervals. Another variation shows no fasteners and may have been the dress of the lower classes. The fabric was folded in half and seamed down the sides with room left for the arms. A neck opening was made in the folded edge and it is belted as usual (Fig. 4).

Materials used for Greek dress were mainly wool and linen. The weaves varied from coarse to fine and were rather loose 1n texture. Silk was not unknown, but was rare.

The Roman palla is very similar to the Ionic chiton, but was sometimes cut away at the sides to form small sleeves. It also fastened with small brooches or buttons (Fig. 5).

Many of the "barbaric" peoples wore clothing resembling the chiton. Whether it was developed during contact with the Greeks, or came about independently is unknown. The garment found at Huldremose (in modern Denmark) was tube shaped and by folding the top over and pinning the shoulders, a garment similar to the chiton was formed. Early Saxon women wore a tube shaped costume that was fastened with pins at the shoulders (Fig. 6). Roman statuary shows Germanic and Celtic women in similar garments (Fig.). An interesting variation is

the so called "Menimane" dress, named after the woman on whose funerary sculpture it appears (late Roman period upper modern Germany). It appears to be a sleeved under-tunic with two cylindrical overdresses, each of which is pinned at one shoulder but not to the under dress. One of them is allowed to fall off the shoulder and that piece is caught at the breast by being pinned to the garment underneath (Fig. 8). An Interesting point: the "dresses" of Irish females described in the cycles are said to be tight fitting. It is possible that the earlier style of chiton was picked up by the Celts during their contact with the Greeks in this period and preserved by them. Of course the Celts could have developed this garment independently -- either for style or economic reasons.


Decide how wide you want the garment to be. Sometimes this is dictated by the width of your material, although you can sew sections together to make wider pieces. If your material is wide enough, you can seam the edges together to form a tube, or leave the side open and protect your modesty by overlapping the edges slightly when wearing. You will want to finish all edges of the material with a hand stitched hem. If you are using two or more pieces of material, you will want to seam them up the sides, leaving room for the arm openings, if you want side arm openings. Again, hand finish the edges. Germanics trimmed the upper and lower edges with tablet woven trim (or perhaps this was a byproduct of the weaving process -- see "Warp Weighted loom, Part II"). If you are making the very full variety of chiton with lots of little brooches or buttons at the shoulders, gather the material slightly as you sew the buttons on to form pleasing folds (Fig. 9). Figure 10 shows several ways of tying the chiton to make it fit more closely. These are for the most part Greek. Germanics and Celts belted their garments at the waist with various forms of belts, as did the Romans. The hardest part is to get the garment to fold neatly at the waist to keep you from looking like a blimp. You can have a friend belt you in -- stand with your arms outstretched at the sides and have them gather the material and belt. Or you can cheat and put in a casing and add elastic or a drawstring.

Choose soft material that drapes well for the fuller versions. Wool challis, soft cotton or a thin imitation (or the real thing) silk.


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