Hairstyling Project: Ancient Coiffures: Messages from the Caryatids

New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias

The interpretive styling of the locks of those enduring beauties, the Caryatids, who century after century have so gracefully supported the South Porch of the Erechtheion in place of columns, and which can now be lingeringly admired — from all angles for the first time — in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, are Dr. Katherine A. Schwab’s unusual passion.

In 2009 Dr. Schwab spearheaded The Caryatid Hairstyling Project at Fairfield University, where she is Associate Professor of Visual and Performing Arts, to test the reality or fantasy of their hairstyles by engaging student volunteers as models and a professional hairstylist to recreate the individual hairstyles of the Caryatids.

Dr.Schwab’s lecture, Investigating the Surface: the Parthenon Metopes and Caryatid Hairstyles, was presented at the Embassy of Greece in Washington DC on April 7, in collaboration with the American School of Classical Studies, under whose auspices she was able to carry out her research in Athens.

Dr. Schwab answered some questions about the specific hairstyles of the Korai, and hair care and styling in ancient times and the conclusions of the project on the eve of her departure for Kyoto, Japan where she was to give a lecture and screening of the Caryatid Hairstyling Project at Doshisha University.


GN: You are carrying your knowledge eastward, to Japan, where women’s traditional hairstyles carry great significance.

KS: It is very nice to know that interest in the realm of Classical Art is alive and well in Japan.

GN: The hairstyles of the Korai have variations but also great similarities.

KS: At a glance the hairstyles of the six Caryatids share many common details, including a thick fish tail braid down the back, long corkscrew curls falling in front of the shoulders, and braids of hair wrapped around the head.  The variations become apparent when you look closely at each of the hairstyles.  I think these variations have everything to do with the texture of the model’s hair.

It is possible now to stand and see five of the Caryatids from all sides in the New Acropolis Museum, the first time anyone has had this experience.  The weathering and problems caused by air pollution affected the faces or exposed side of the head; in contrast, the protected sides retain a remarkable degree of sharply preserved detail in the carving of the hair and drapery.

GN: How did you research the hairstyles?

KS: In order to prepare the research and styling for this project I obtained photographs from two important archives in Athens—the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the German Archaeological Institute in Athens.  These photographs are primarily by Alison Frantz and Goesta Hellner.

GN: Who were the girls or women represented in the Caryatid sculptures?

KS: As a whole, the Caryatids represent a specific group of maidens of high status within Athenian society who had the honor of leading a procession for a religious ceremony or ritual.

GN: How do we know this, by the hairstyle or the costume?

KS: We know this because of the way they wear the peplos and back-pinned mantle.  This specific mantle is the key to understanding their lead role in the procession.  Now it is possible to add this elaborate hairstyle as a marker, if you will, to connote their importance.  Milexy Torres, the professional hairstylist who recreated the six hairstyles for our project at Fairfield, described these maidens as “divas” which makes sense because these girls were the first to be seen in a procession and their ornate hairstyle is spectacular.

GN: Would the subtle variations between the hairstyles have indicated age, rank and social status?

KS: In my research I found that an important step for maidens was to use their hairstyle as a way to connect very firmly to Athenian society.  It gave them their specific identity and place within the community, thus interweaving their existence to the larger society.

GN: The Caryatids all have very thick hair.  If these hairstyles were admired, it would seem that very thick hair was the ideal, was just a lucky attribute of that group of Mediterranean ancients, or, another possibility: that hair extensions were used even then.

KS: The Caryatids have amazingly thick hair.  I asked Milexy to what degree this was based on reality, and yes, she thought most of the females would have required extensions to boost the quantity and thickness of hair.  Nevertheless, it is possible for a young woman to have exceptional thick long hair.  The students whose hair was styled for the project had a great deal of hair, which was primarily why they were chosen.

We also have to remember that the Caryatid sculptures are doing the work of columns to support the porch roof.  I think this explains why the hair and necks are extra thick because they need to provide structural support.

GN: The structure of each hair determines its curliness or straightness.

I have had to learn a lot about the science of hair, meaning the shape of the cortex in the hair shaft.  This determines the straight to tightly twisted strand of hair.  The Caryatid hairstyle is especially suited to thick wavy and curly hair, although Kore D is atypical in that she has much straighter hair than the other maidens.  We don’t know exactly what kind of hair products they used.  Milexy thought perhaps wax, and I have found reference to men using an unguent, which would be similar to a styling gel today.

GN: Do you think that there were curling irons or other inventions for altering the texture of the hair?

KS: We have had many discussions about curling aids during and since the filming in 2009.  Each time I show the DVD members of the audience provide low-tech suggestions.  What I have discovered is that curly or wavy hair does not require much encouragement to become a long corkscrew curl.  Sometimes this can happen of its own accord.  I’ve learned that a simple way to create such a curl is by wrapping a lock of damp hair tightly around a smooth stick, then pulling away the stick.  Wrapping locks around your finger would be another solution.  We might have evidence for a curling iron, a metal rod placed in the fire to heat up, for later in the ancient Greek period.  In ancient Roman society we know with certainty that the high status women had curling irons.

GN: Did the ancients color their hair? Were there hairbrushes?

KS: They may have colored their hair, perhaps with a henna rinse, but I do not have much information about this. Ivory and wooden combs have been found in excavations throughout ancient Mediterranean societies, not just in Greece.  I am unaware of hairbrushes, but this does not mean they did not exist.

GN: Pins and other decorations?

KS: Sculptures and vase paintings show women with their hair controlled by bands or ribbons, often wrapped at least twice around the head to hold the hair in a particular position.  The variation in how the hair was worn has many affinities with what we see in contemporary styles, especially on extra-hot summer days. As for other hair accessories, I have not yet looked into this aspect.

For everyday hairstyles, maidens would have tied up their hair or pulled it back into a fish tail braid.  This particular braid works in two locks of hair on each side and it requires another person to create it.  For the big festival days, the elaborate hairstyles we see worn by the Caryatids would have been the choice.  An experienced person could have finished the styling in about 40 minutes to one hour, especially if the hair had a fair amount of texture.

GN: Running water makes it easy for women today to shampoo everyday if they wish; is anything known about hair hygiene of those times, preferences or practical restrictions?

KS: Hair hygiene is a good question.  The scalp is what needs to be thorough cleaned, and that is achieved through rubbing with water mixed with some kind of rinse… perhaps a certain flower, lemon, or similar product helped to do this then.  Even today, very fine olive oil mixed with egg yolk can serve as a deep conditioner.  Yes, it is messy, but the result can be amazing.

The big difference between today and in ancient Greece is the quantity of hair products we use and the nearly omnipresent blow dryer or iron to achieve a specific look.  These cause a lot of damage to the hair over time.  The ancient Athenian women did not have to deal with this amount of damage to the hair, through limited washing and styling.

GN:  What was the result of the Caryatid Project research?

KS: Confirmation that the marble Caryatids were closely modeled after real women of the day

Caryatid Hairstyling Project:

New Acropolis Museum:

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