Travel Without Clothes!

Fashion and its victims.
Sept. 17 1998 3:30 AM

Travel Without Clothes!

A Homeric proposal.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

I've just been reading Homer on the plane back from Paris. Arriving with many bags that required anxious waiting, lugging, and shoving, I found myself wishing that modern clothing habits were a bit more Homeric.

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Since the Odyssey recounts a journey in many stages, with several other trips contained in it, Homer describes many arrivals and departures, often at princely houses. In Homeric times as now, a luxurious welcome involved a bath, food and drink, entertainment, and a comfortable bed for the night. Unlike now, however, it involved new clothes, too. At the time Homer wrote about, clothing was a household supply, like a wine cellar full of casks or many herds of cattle and coops of chickens. Guests would use the clothes the way they used the food, wine, water, fuel, and service.

Reading about Telemachus' trip to Sparta to visit Queen Helen and King Menelaus, for example, you realize that he brought no luggage at all, except gifts for his hosts. When he arrived, he was stripped, washed, oiled, and freshly dressed from head to foot in garments woven by the lady of the house and her servants. His own were presumably cleaned and absorbed into the household--no word from Homer on this. The same thing happened every evening throughout his stay, and he left for the next stage of his trip, also carrying only gifts, dressed in whatever his hosts had last given him to wear. He could expect to be reclothed by whomever he visited next.

Homeric clothes were often elegant. Elaborate patterns, some of them with narrative scenes, might be woven into fabrics of great finesse, their finely spun fibers dyed in strong and subtle colors. Women did all this work, and they did it unceasingly for their households, which could become famous because of it, if the mistress of the house was a talented fabric designer and had skilled help. For clothes, they wove the cloth in person-sized widths and lengths--no cutting off the bolt--and garments were created by draping, pinning, or wrapping them onto the body. Sometimes two pieces were sewn up the sides and across the shoulders, with slits left for head and arms, to be slid on and belted or sashed--very basic, a few sizes would drape to fit all.

The most famous clothing drama in the Odyssey begins with Odysseus washed up on a beach, naked and half-dead, on the island of Aeaea. The goddess Athena, his watchful patroness, soon arranges to get him saved and sent onward. She prompts the island's Princess Nausicaa to cajole her father into letting her drive a year's worth of dirty clothes all the way down to the water's edge in a big ox-drawn wagon, to spend the day with her maids washing and drying them on the beach, right where Athena knew she would find the shipwrecked Odysseus.

Reading about this, you realize that laundry could be so large and rare a project only because the palace was supplied with hundreds and hundreds of available garments, along with hundreds and hundreds of sheets and blankets, and kept on making more. The princess wanted the laundry done right now, though, because she hoped to find a husband soon, and the family would need clean clothes and bedding for possible marriage feasts. A handsome, stranded stranger would be certain to capture her interest, too. Those gods left nothing to chance.

All goes as planned, and the princess gives Odysseus a suit of the family clothes, now clean and dry. Then she tells him how to find the palace and how to approach her royal parents to ask their help, not liking to present him as somebody she had picked up on the beach. But when Odysseus appears alone as a needy traveler before them, the queen narrows her eyes: And just where did you get those clothes you have on? The queen recognizes garments she had designed and woven herself. Nausicaa had forgotten to allow for the artist's long-term proprietary knowledge of her own work.

That sounds familiar enough, since we're used to the distinctiveness of designers' ideas and craftsmen's pieces. What seems alien is a particular garment being always linked with its maker but not with a particular wearer. In a world without textile or clothing markets, each piece of weaving was like a family meal or a home performance of music, available to anyone present but the property of no one person, never bought or sold, always identified with the one who had created it inside that house. Except in times of war or pillage, it changed hands only as a gift.

Since most garments were plain rectangular pieces, being well dressed meant having an attractive personal style--draping your cloak in a novel fashion, sashing your waist with particular flair. When Homer wants to dwell on the perfections of dressed persons, he mentions the dash with which their clothes are worn, unless the point is the beauty of the fabric and who had woven it. Often the poet has a guardian deity adding more dash after the person is fully dressed--refining the coiffure, improving the facial expression, and sprinkling extra grace over the frame.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

Ordinary clothes in the modern world are even now approaching a certain Homeric sameness in their basic shapes, with individual appeal added by the wearer's own style. You can see the ideal in the Gap ads: A T-shirt and denim pants just sit there, until a supple person slides into them and strikes a cool pose. The more fantastic grow the evening gowns on the runway, the more uniform grows the garb of the crowds on the subway. Mass-market pants and shirts and jackets are everywhere much the same, and suggest interchangeability; outstanding effects arise from interesting fabric or a terrific-looking wearer.

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