European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Fashion & History

Classical Mode in Fashion


From one dress au rebours in the history of western fashion through its references to Classicism

This dress comes from Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 1999 collection. The collection directly referenced Classicism, with copies of statues presented on the catwalk and even on the clothes themselves, as shown by this dress, named “love” probably after the writings on the statue printed on it.

References to Classicism recurred in many forms and periods throughout Western fashion history. Since the Renaissance, men started to look back at the Classical period as a depository of knowledge and taste to rediscover; Classicism and its motifs become popular not only in the arts, but also in dress and textiles.
Classical fashion and costume refer in particular to two kinds of ancient Greek attires, the chiton and the peplum. The first, for both sexes, and the second for women, were tunics worn and folded over the body. While the chiton was sewn and fixed on the body trough pins – fibulae – or buttons, the second consisted of an orthogonal piece of fabric draped on the body and held by a belt. The ancient statuary and the Greek antiquities conserved in museums and private collections became the main source for inspiration for Classicism in fashion.
It was in fact due to the renewed interest this period when the Neoclassical movement invested all humanistic disciplines in the Eighteenth century that costumes inspired by the chiton and peplum became popular in women’s fashion. In particular, this happened in France in the period between the 1790s and 1810s. The rich and voluminous mantua worn before the French Revolution were abandoned, and women started to adopt light mousseline gowns in white and other delicate, bright colours cut in with the so called Empire line, which consisted in a fitted bodice with the waist placed high up to bust and linear, pleated skirts. It is said that, to make the dress cling to the body just like those on the statues, women even used to wear them wet.

Although classical motifs were recurrent as ornaments, dresses inspired by classicism came back in fashion only one century later, after women got freed from their corsets. Then, the soft volumes and straight lines got adopted by modernists, as it is in the most popular case with the Delphos dress of Mariano Fortuny, but also with the linear silhouettes of the 1920s and 1930s, when references could be found in the sculptural creations of Jean Patou, Madame Grès and Madeleine Vionnet, and even later.

The fascination Classicism holds for Jean Paul Gaultier and many other designers demonstrates the universal ambition of transforming women into goddesses through dress, as curator Harold Moda pointed out in 2003 MET exhibition catalogue of Goddesses: The classical mode.