The peplos was a simple sleeveless outer garment worn by the women of ancient Greece up to the early part of the sixth century B.C.E. Like many Greek garments, the peplos was formed from one large rectangle of woven fabric, which was folded and pinned in specific ways to become a gracefully draped tunic-like cloak. Around 540 B.C.E. the peplos was replaced by the Ionic chiton, another type of tunic, as the most basic female garment, but the peplos continued to be represented in Greek art and literature as a symbol of the graceful simplicity of early Greek style.
The peplos was usually woven to order for each individual. Most peplos were made of wool, though some wealthy women had them made of fine linen or silk. Wealthier Greeks could afford to have their clothing dyed in bright colors and patterns; stripes and dot prints were popular for peplos. The garment was a long rectangle, from six to ten feet in width and usually one or two feet longer than the height of the wearer. When worn, the fabric was folded over at the top, so that about eighteen inches of fabric hung down, then the folded fabric was folded again lengthways to form a tube with one open side. The wearer stepped into the tube and secured the top at the shoulders with fibulae, fasteners that resemble safety pins, creating a garment with a sort of cape or overblouse.
When the Ionic chiton became a popular garment the peplos was worn as a cloak or overgarment over the chiton. It could be worn in different ways according to individual taste and style. The simplest method was to let the peplos hang loosely from the shoulders. However, it also became stylish to wear a belt or girdle, either under the folded fabric that hung down from the shoulders, or over it. Either way, the belt caused the fabric to fall in pleats and folds from the shoulder pins to the belt, then from the belt to the floor. Athenian women, from the ancient Greek city-state of Athens, usually sewed all or part of the open side of the peplos for the sake of modesty, but women from the ancient Greek city of Sparta wore their peplos open, shocking the rest of Greece by showing their thighs.
By the mid-sixth century B.C.E. the peplos lost favor. Artists began showing women and goddesses in other types of clothing, such as the elaborately draped Ionic chiton. The peplos was the forerunner to the Doric chiton, a wool tunic, of the fifth century B.C.E.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Greece. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
[ See also Volume 1, Ancient Greece: Doric Chiton ]