In this article:
- Minoan fashion, with its bright colors and breast-bearing attire, may not be what we usually think of when we imagine Greek history, but it’s the style worn by people who lived in the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete, Greece.
- Ancient Minoan fashion emphasized feminine beauty by cinching the waist to create a more hourglass-like shape and braiding long hair into large sections that resulted in thick, chunky braids.
- Minoan men’s fashion usually left them underdressed by today’s standards but they wore jewelry that emphasized their powerful muscles.
- The style later developed into the ancient Greek clothing we think of today — loose, white, and modest.
- Like modern fashion trends, certain elements of Minoan fashion made a comeback at different points in fashion history.
Fashion has a pretty bad reputation. Many of us think of it as frivolous, pointless, and something that the better, stronger people before us never bothered themselves with.
This couldn’t be further from the truth because for nearly as long as we’ve been wearing clothes, we’ve also been expressing ourselves and the values of our cultures through the way we dress. The Minoan Greeks were no exception.
Like many of their contemporaries during the Bronze Age (3,300 BC to 1,200 BC), the Minoan Greeks liked to wear golden jewelry, colored beads, and brightly dyed clothes. What set them apart was how fabulous they were. Unlike their contemporaries, who preferred browner and more modest clothing, Minoan fashion wouldn’t exactly be a bad theme for a RuPaul’s Drag Race episode.
The Minoan Civilization in Minoan Fashion
If you dig into fashion history, you might be surprised to find that these seemingly superfluous features of a culture are vessels for the history and values of that culture. The cheongsam/qi pao, a type of Chinese dress, is an example of this. Just like it, Minoan fashion tells us something about Minoan civilization.
One key feature of Minoan clothing is its widespread use of bright primary colors, two of which are very expensive and difficult to come by.
The Minoans wore reds, yellows, and blues. While red is a cheap and easily found color in nature, yellow had to come from saffron, a historically expensive spice. Imagine gold plating your Air Force 1s because that’s what it would have been like at the time.
Blue was an even rarer color. Aside from bodies of water, it’s very hard to find blue in nature let alone blue that you can use as a dye. But purple is close enough so the Minoans used murex snails to dye their clothes blue. This is the same snail behind Tyrian purple, a type of reddish purple dye later worn by Roman emperors.
Point is, the Minoans were rich.
The Minoan civilization of Crete was the hub for culture and trade in the Aegean Sea. Wealth flowed into Crete and allowed them to build massive palaces, among them the legendary Palace of King Minos in Knossos, Crete. As gold passed through Cretan hands, it turned into status symbols like really cool pottery, elaborate frescos, and stylish clothes.
This wealth of cultural artifacts is why we have so many sources today for what Minoan fashion looked like. The Minoans didn’t leave Instagram photos of their OOTDs. They decorated the walls of their palaces with it.
So, what do the frescoes tell us about Minoan fashion?
Minoan Fashion Was Very Sumptuous for Women and Men Alike
Minoan fashion emphasized the femininity of women and the masculinity of men. In the Minoan mind, femininity was associated with curvaceous figures and domestic activities while masculinity was associated with men’s role as a warrior. This divide in how the Minoans thought of men and women’s roles in their society shows in the ways they dressed.
Ancient Minoan Women’s Fashion
Modern fashion and beauty standards get a lot of hate for being unrealistic about women’s bodies in the sense that it expects women to have tiny waists and large busts and behinds — a look that’s difficult to achieve without a bit of cheating (using padding or plastic surgery).
Minoan fashion was exactly the same. Women’s clothes featured cinched waists and large hips with scalloped necklines that flaunted the woman’s breasts. The illusion of an hourglass figure was achieved by dressing women in flouncy layered skirts and corsets or tight belts. When used together, they created the illusion of a tiny waist.
A woman’s hair was also especially prized as a feature of feminine beauty. Hair was worn long and in braids that flowed around the neck and down the shoulders, framing a woman’s face together with large golden accessories like earrings. Oh, and her breasts. Minoan women often walked around with their breasts bare.
Pale skin was also prized among women since it was a sign that the woman spent most of her time indoors and performing feminine duties a.k.a housekeeping. In many cultures, pale skin was also valued as being a sign of high economic status (a.k.a not having to work a manual labor job) so that might have been a factor too.
Ancient Minoan Men’s Fashion
While women’s fashion emphasized their role in the home and their sexual appeal, men’s Minoan fashion was centered on highlighting their physical abilities as warriors and athletes.
It was common for men to participate in sports like boxing and bull-leaping so clothing was typically practical. Men wore loincloths and kilts which offered a wide range of movement and didn’t get in the way of their active lifestyles.
Men, like women, wore jewelry such as gold signet rings for sealing important documents and gold bands that would be worn on the arm to accentuate the bicep.
Because men were expected to be active, they were allowed to be darker than their female counterparts. Many men shown in Minoan frescos have tanned skin and are depicted participating in outdoor activities like processions, hunting, and athletics.
A Trend Cycle as Old as Time
Eventually, for one reason or another, the Minoan Greeks disappeared and their Minoan fashion went with them.
The sudden disappearance of major Bronze Age civilizations has been dubbed the Bronze Age collapse, but no one’s really sure what caused it, only that it happened. This is beside the point. The point is that Minoan fashion eventually went on to inform ancient Greek fashion.
By that, we mean ancient Greek fashion as we typically think of it. White togas, chitons, and braided women’s updos. However, these fashions were a lot more toned down compared to the earlier Minoan fashion and you’d be hard pressed to find someone sporting a bright yellow skirt and a bare breast.
Elements of Minoan fashion, especially those for women, can be easily found in different periods of fashion history.
Gold jewelry has certainly never fallen out of favor and even today we’ll wear fake gold jewelry just because we think it’s pretty and classy. For women, the hourglass figure is one of the most enduring fashion standards. Victorian women wore whalebone corsets for it and women today remove their rib bones for it.
And while guys rarely wear signet rings now, they’re still hitting the gym to create an athletic appearance.
Fashion, folks. It’s history and it’s timeless.