Flirting with uncertainty: mutability, metamorphosis, and fashionability in the Greco-Roman imagination
For many ancient Greek and Roman men, fashion was fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the other, but most importantly, fear of the uncontrollable. The distinctly female ability to adopt and maintain multiple identities- shifting from daughter to wife to mother- was essential to the success of the creation of stable familial units, ensuring that wives could effectively transfer their loyalties from their natal households to that of their husbands. Despite the fact that Greek and Roman societal structures obligated women to take on multiple guises, their ability to do so fostered deep anxieties in their male counterparts. These anxieties centred on the limits of female mutability. For if change continued unchecked, women who might once have made respectable brides could become literal shapeshifters, monsters such as Medusa and Scylla, existing on the borders of society, out of the boundaries of male control. While living women could not shift from woman to beast in the manner of their mythic counterparts, they had the ability to exert their agency through mimetic acts, deliberately altering their physical appearance using cosmetics, dress accessories, and clothing.
Such trappings of femininity loom large in both Greek and Latin textual sources and in visual representations of female dress. This article will explore the range of ways in which Greek and Roman audiences articulated connections between fashionable dress and both physical and mental alteration. By analysing sumptuary legislation and moral discourse on female dress, it will argue that the fear of semiotic confusion central to myths of female monsters was articulated in the real world through a distrust of fashionable women. But while textual sources give insight into the male viewpoint, to grapple with potential female conceptualizations of selfhood and its connection to selfpresentation, we must turn to the visual. Through a close visual analysis of the wall paintings of Room 5 in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, this article will conclude that while Greek and Roman men might have believed that fashion made women into monsters, in the hands of women, fashion was an instrument of transcendence. In the complex visual sphere of Room 5, the reduplication of depicted dress and adornment allowed women to exert the positive aspects of mutability, picturing a metamorphosis from woman to goddess, rather than from woman into beast.