Research Western

Kelly Olson: Threads Woven Through Ancient History

When Classical Studies professor Kelly Olson studies vintage fashion, she’s not rummaging through a bin of tattered denim. Instead, she’s helping us understand how really vintage clothing – from ancient Rome and Greece – can teach us about how people lived and what was important to them.

Attire is an important indicator of how people identify with themselves and with others. As such, it can help us learn a lot about gender roles and traditions, cultural anxieties, class and even legal standing. “Clothing has an almost limitless potential for communication and encapsulated cultural anxieties and values,” she says. “In some cases, it was even legally prescribed in an attempt to solidify social order.”

Messages encoded in the clothing one wears can also depend on personal perspectives and on the social systems in which it’s worn. Views about the miniskirt and the veil, for example, vary greatly depending on the region of the world in which you live, Olson says. “Clothing doesn’t always mirror social change, but the effects of social change tend to trickle down eventually into garments.”

Despite the importance of attire to everyday life, it hasn’t always been subject to academic scrutiny. In recent years, this attitude has begun to shift as research about clothing has become increasingly common in a variety of fields, including history, sociology and anthropology. Olson noticed, however, that nothing had been done about classical clothing, which provided her with an opportunity to combine her passion for fashion with her academic work.

While many classics scholars rely heavily on texts, the relative absence of documentation related to clothing has led Olson to become a quasi-expert in the use of a variety of alternative sources. “It’s not like you can just open a catalogue to see what people were wearing at the time,” she says, “so I’ve had to do a lot of detective work, looking at literature, art, poetry, legal sources and historical inscriptions.”

It’s a challenge she welcomes. Olson calls her recently completed first book, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society, her biggest accomplishment in academia thus far.

She plans to take an in-depth look at male clothing in her next book, in which she will describe the details of male appearance in Roman antiquity using literary and artistic sources.

“I’m also going to look at how clothing fits into ritual and at certain sartorial conventions in ancient society, such as how one was supposed to show up to a trial wearing mourning clothing,” she says. As part of the book, she will also look at the clothing of the cinaedus, or the effeminate man, and of the ‘dandy’ figure, both of which types functioned as loci for social anxieties concerning wealth, class, gender, sexuality and political legitimacy.

For those trying to learn, the past doesn’t go out of style. “History is important for modern society because it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” Olson says.