29 August 2014

Everyday Fashions: Dressing a Trojan or Hittite Queen

By Judith Starkston

One of the appeals of historical fiction to many readers is the depiction of elaborate clothes. This put me in a bit of a jam when I worked on my novel, Hand of Fire (out Sept 10, 2014), set in the Trojan War, and now as I develop my historical mystery about Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites (cultural cousins and near neighbors to Troy). I am dressing women in the Late Bronze Age, about 1200 BCE, in what is now Turkey, but I have no lovely oil portraits or written accounts of what these women wore. I have to be a fashion designer on a shoestring of evidence.

So what do I have to work with?

Fabrics were woven of wool or linen. We know that noble women, who could afford to spend extravagant amounts of time weaving fine fabrics as opposed to survival-wear, created both elaborate pictorial/geometric patterns and super fine weaves. Homer shows Helen depicting whole mythological scenes on her loom and spinning a golden spindle with precious purple wool (dyed by laboriously milking single drops of ink from each sea snail). We have evidence from Egypt that translucent fabric almost like silk could be woven if a single thickness of twisted linen fiber was used, producing two hundred threads per inch, finer than you typically find modern fabrics. No need to imagine the Trojan and Hittite princesses looking primitive or dowdy.

But what did they do with those fabrics? From rock carvings, pictorial vases and seal impressions we have a rough idea of the shape of the dresses and that part isn’t so sexy.

Here’s Queen Puduhepa herself on the Fraktin rock carving on the Old Hittite Road in south central Turkey. 
Shown are two female figures. The seated one is a goddess and the standing one is Puduhepa pouring a libation to the goddess. They are similarly dressed, which is interesting. They both wear long dresses with what appear to be fairly loose sleeves. They have conical hats that look like they are covered with a veil or mantle that flows down the back and around the shoulders. The standing woman’s garment seems pulled in at the waist but not dramatically so. This is modest garb. The conical hat, by the way, is a feature shared by most gods and kings. Apparently a clear sign of importance either royal or divine was a cone-head. We do have many gorgeous gold diadems from the period, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine that a crown-like diadem could also act as a signifier of wealth or status.

Here's Queen Puduhepa on her own personal seal.
She has the same hat with veil. Her skirt is definitely belted at the waist and her skirt has a diagonal design or fold to it.

Her son, by the way, is on the opposite side of her seal under the protective arm of a god. They both wear short kilts with edging and conical hats. Their hats have horns on them.

Can we add more detail to these depictions?

There’s an intriguing find at Troy that helps. Around the remains of a warp-weighted loom scattered in the dirt, archaeologists discovered hundreds of tiny gold beads. These beads must have been already woven into a partially done piece and fell to the ground when the fabric burned, as we know this layer of Troy did. So you can imagine shimmering gold finely worked into a queen’s dress.
Interestingly, the only significant part of that wooden loom that would survive to show us that a loom had been there would be the stone weights fallen in a tell-tale row. The loom style of ancient Anatolia and Greece is upright and looks quite different from what you’re expecting if you’ve got in your mind one of the modern sit-down looms with foot pedals to change the sheds. Here’s a somewhat rough version of a loom but the line drawing makes the mechanisms clear.

Another detail we can add is that we know there were also special band looms that made brightly colored edgings or braiding. Such edgings are hinted at on some Hittite vases. Here are some musicians and dancers on a vase in the Corum Museum. The lines on their skirts may also indicate pleating. 

Such fancy trims and pleating are much more visible on the Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes, but it’s best to remember these ladies are from a somewhat different period and place than my Trojans and Hittites. They do provide the only color vision, so it’s worth comparing. Here is a Minoan fresco from Akrotiri, island of  Thera, with a beautifully dressed lady of the court:

 We also know they polished fabrics with smooth stones to make them shine.

So what did I do in Hand of Fire to dress my young lady, the future queen of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy? Briseis doesn’t always find herself in dress-up circumstances, to say the least, but here are two examples when she does.

Briseis is betrothed to the king’s son. In his first formal courting visit, Briseis wears “her best russet skirt, the pleats picked out with multicolored braid and a cream linen veil to cover her bright hair.” Her future groom gives her, among other things a necklace of amber beads.

Here is an excerpt from her wedding day, the grandest occasion I had to dress her up for:
Briseis put on her linen tunic and swirling skirt, bleached a brilliant white and rubbed with an oiled stone until the fabric glistened. Eurome reached underneath the pleated skirt to pull the tunic snugly over her breasts so that the fabric curved and swelled around her body. Briseis ran her hand over the smoothness of the tunic and then spun in a circle to feel the heavy skirt fly out. Eurome laughed and then made her hold still while she tied on a linen belt decorated with gold sun discs. Briseis slid on the matched bracelets that Antiope had received from Glaukos for her wedding day—two wide bands of gold set with cornelian.
            Eurome brushed Briseis’s hair until it glowed, a long red-gold cascade. She wove the front strands into a crown and attached the diadem Milos had fashioned of golden sprays of lilies intertwined with tiny pomegranates. Traceries of flowers and leaves wound down from it, gleaming against the deeper gold of Briseis’s hair. Eurome clasped a matching necklace around Briseis’s neck.
            As Eurome lifted the saffron-colored veil out of its chest, they heard the king, queen and Mynes announced and her father’s greeting.
            “Your husband is here to claim you. Lucky we’re almost ready,” said Eurome. The breath caught in Briseis’s chest.
            Eurome covered her from head to toe in the translucent veil, holding it in place with a golden pin shaped like Kamrusepa’s bee and arranging it so the delicate fabric clung to Briseis’s form and suggested the beauty that it only partially concealed. Her hair, the jewels, and shimmering fabrics glinted through the golden cloud surrounding her.