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by Archaeology Newsroom

Resistance with Style: Clothes, Culture and Counter-Ideology in Classical Athens

Apart from the odd moment of naturist bliss, most of us, most of the time, wear clothes. Yet we rarely pause to consider the social conventions and cultural values that influence us -and that we later silently advertise -as we go about the daily business of choosing appropriate things to wear. In late fifth-century democratic Athens this intersection of clothing and ideology was frequently explored by artists, orators and playwriters. In the public rhetoric of ancient Athens, late fifth-century styles of dress reproduced a complex scheme of cultural categories and the relations between them, providing a unique repertoire of symbols, through which democratic society represented itself to itself.

This article focuses on the converse aspect of the ideological significance of clothing in late fifth-century Athens, initially glimpsed through the comic filter of Aristophanes: the use of dress by those critical of the values of democratic society to articulate profoundly anti-democratic sentiments. It examines the evidence for the existence of the so-called Laconizers -young aristocrats who signaled their discontent with Athenian democracy by copying the austerity of Spartan dress codes- in Athens during the late fifth century.

Contrary to the conventional view which would have such individuals as a characteristic feature of the fifth-century political landscape, close reading of Aristophanes in fact reveals a rich diversity of subversive clothing practices hitherto obscured by the deceptively simple rubric of «Laconism», i.e. the accusation of harbouring political sympathies with Sparta. Most striking of all is the appropriation of exotic foreign styles of dress by an aristocratic minority, eager to re-articulate the status of the aristocrat. Close examination of this trend, as it is reflected in Athenian art, seeks to highlight just how effective a political tool clothing could be during the last decades of the fifth century.