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Textiles and the Figure

The textile tradition of ancient Greece and Rome is known to us today primarily through representations of clothing in other media and from fragments of late Roman textiles that survive from Coptic Egypt, where the arid climate and distinctive funerary customs protected the delicate fabrics from complete decay. Fragments of Coptic textiles reveal the skill of the weaver, an interest in intricate ornament and natural subjects, and a fascination with color, which is manifested in the use of up to seven colors, even in narrow borders. Although they date to the late Roman and early Christian period (ca. 350–750 CE), these textiles can provide some insight into the colors, patterns, and weaving traditions of earlier periods. This continuity can be surmised because the raw materials for textiles (primarily linen and wool), their dyes (typically derived from plant sources), and the technology of weaving remained fairly constant over time.  

Greek and Roman textiles are represented in many works of art. Paintings provide insight into the color of the textiles used for clothing, which were often white or off-white with colorful woven or embroidered borders.  Sculptures sometimes represent brightly colored garments—for instance, terracotta figurines from the Hellenistic period depict young women wearing dresses in vibrant shades of blue and pink, and the cloaks of marble statues of Roman emperors are known to have been painted purple. Greek vases from all periods represent richly patterned clothing, albeit in the more restricted color palette that characterizes that medium.  

Textiles highlight the interplay between color and pattern—which are closely aligned because pattern is created by the contrast between two or more different colors. Many of the patterns and motifs that characterize classical art—such as the meander (Greek key) pattern—are repeated in different materials, ranging from monumental marble architectural moldings to ceramic vessels made for personal use. These patterns continue uninterrupted from Geometric Greece to Coptic Egypt.