Ancient History & Civilisation

Koan Silk:
See-through is sexy

Although thousands of Greek vases and statues depicting naked gods, goddesses, men, women, and satyrs in varying states of excitement would seem to indicate otherwise, the Greeks were also fond of clothed ambiguity.

Ambiguity—as in first you see it, now you don’t—could be highly erotic.

For over a thousand years, however, every stitch worn by the Greeks and Romans was made at home on looms that produced rectangular pieces of wool or linen. A shorter chunk became a Greek chiton or a Roman tunic. A longer piece of cloth, pinned or stitched at the shoulders and cinched with one or more belts, became a nice drapey gown, usually more demure than daring.

Another large piece of fabric, called a peplum or palla, served as a shawl or head covering when women went outdoors. The whole ensemble looked great on statues of shapely goddesses. On the average Greek or Roman gal, we’d call it the muffled look.

For ceremonial activities, however, such as religious processions, girls and unmarried women sometimes got to wear shorter chitons or tunics. During athletic competitions from the first century A.D. on, in which Greek and Roman girls and women around the Mediterranean took part, a female participant wore a short tunic with one shoulder strap, leaving one breast bare. Several statues still survive of female athletes in such garb, including a Roman copy in the Vatican Museum.

Only among Spartans young and old did women get to let it all hang out. Skimpy tunics were the norm. So was nudity during sports events.

So did any other Greek or Roman gals ever get to emulate Spartan sartorial freedom? Yes, indeed.

The Greeks called it the “Amorgian chiton”; the Romans, the “Koan vest.” We’d call it “very sexy.” It was a clingy, flattering gossamer gown that covered everything from neck to ankles yet revealed it at the same time. Its fabric: a feather-light, see-through silk.

Why do we know so little about it? Until recently, silk was thought to be a jealously guarded secret, exclusive to ancient China. And indeed it was—until clever traders from Persia and the Middle East hijacked a few silkworm eggs and the contraband eventually got to ancient Greece.

Another reason for our lack of knowledge: it was very tough to depict transparent cloth on a painting or carved in stone. So there are few traces of this garment in Greco-Roman art. One superb example does exist—the stone artwork called the Ludovisi Throne, which depicts the love goddess being lifted from the sea. On it, the sculptor has managed to show her body through this breathtaking fabric that clings to her.

By Aristotle’s time or possibly earlier, wild silkworms were stealthily brought to the small Greek islands of Amorgos and Kos (not far from present-day Turkey), where their output was made into cloth. The insects were housed in mulberry trees. To make silk, the Chinese preferred to kill the butterfly inside the cocoon, whereas the Greeks allowed it to work its way out, breaking the threads as it went. Greek women on Amorgos, accustomed to making linen from flax, used the same technique, called hackling, to make their silk. The fabric soon got dubbed amorgina after the island, as well as metaxa and a confusion of other names.

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Spartan women bared more flesh than other Greeks. Their athletic females wore mini-tunics that covered just one breast.

Naturally the stuff cost a fortune, but Greek women from housewives to heterae soon got their husbands, families, and lovers to cough up. By 411 B.C., when playwright Aristophanes first put on Lysistrata, the satirical play where women carry out a sex strike to keep their men from going to war, the fashion was red-hot among the Athenians. In the play, Aristophanes included lines about the women sexually teasing the men by coming forward “naked in their Amorgian chitons.” These lines were understood, and roared at, by everyone in the audience.

When wealthy philosopher Plato wanted to send a thank-you gift to the daughters of the household where he’d enjoyed hospitality on Sicily, he specified in a letter: “Give the daughters of Kebes three tunics seven cubits long, not those expensive Amorgian ones, but the more ordinary kind made of Sicilian linen.” Was that familial diplomacy? Or was Plato an aristocratic cheapskate?

After the Greek city-states fell into decline and were swallowed up by the Romans in 146 B.C., the victors saw the silky spoils as great gifts to bring home to their wives and lovers. In no time, Roman women were sashaying about in diaphanous splendor. (By this era, Rome already imported Chinese silk and highly prized it, although it lacked the sheer quality.)

Male writers, however, while busy ogling its female wearers, fumed over the alluring new trend. Pliny called Koan silks “the vestments that cover a woman while at the same time revealing her naked charms.” He and others obsessed even more over the fact that men began dressing in Koan. Guys pointed to its lightweight fabric, claiming it was ideal to beat Rome’s summer heat. But conventional Roman males stoutly, sweatily stuck to the well-swathed, head-to-foot woolen toga. Anything lighter or looser spelled decadence. Or the E word: effeminate.

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