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Who Are The South Italian "Ladies of Fashion"?

A Deep Dive Into The Significance of the Motif

Vase painters in South Italy began producing Red-Figure vessels in large numbers from Ca. 440 BC. The motif of an isolated female head, draped in jewellery and often with her hair pulled up into a headdress, or “saccos”, was the most common design on such pottery (Fig. 1).[1] These women, who appear on hundreds of South Italian vessels, form the primary decoration of small pottery and, from Ca. 340 BC onwards, feature as the main design scheme for larger shapes.[2] Here we will dive into the different theories on how, and more interestingly why, the "Ladies of Fashion" came about.

The Origins of the Design

What were the inspirations for such a widespread motif? Was it an influx of influence from the Greek mainland, or did it arise from the local material culture?

The motif of the isolated painted head had existed across Greece since the 8th Century BC. It was also popular in Attic vase painting, an artistic tradition that deeply influenced South Italian pottery production. For example, an Attic lip cup by the Epitimos painter (Ca. 550-540 BC) depicts the head of Athena. The goddess is painted with her characteristic helmet, spear, and shield, an individualised approach in comparison to the more generalised heads of South Italy.[3] Isolated female heads also occur in Athens in “anados” scenes, in which an often-female deity such as Pandora or Persephone is depicted rising from the underworld.

Athens, though an artistic powerhouse, was not the centre of the ancient world, and we can see that isolated female heads also appeared in a range of contexts across South Italy considerably before the introduction of Attic influence. For example, terracotta antefixes with female heads were very popular across the region, as this example from Tarentum in the 6th Century BC illustrates (Fig. 2).[4] In light of this, we can see that the “Ladies of Fashion” originate as native Italian creations, blossoming from a rich, preexisting artistic culture that used the techniques of Attic Red-Figure to facilitate their innovations.

Front-facing south italian terracotta antefix with female head
Figure 2. Terracotta Antefix from Tarentum. 6th Century BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 26.60.73. Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1926

The Significance of the "Ladies of Fashion"

The main problem that we have with the “Ladies of Fashion” is ascertaining their meaning. This is because it is almost impossible to identify the heads as specific people or characters. Only a single female head in the whole of the discovered corpus has been identified through an inscription as the goddess Aura, leaving scholars to speculate on the significance of the rest.[5] We shall outline a few possible theories here, along with their caveats:

Some scholars see the “Ladies of Fashion” as characters from Greek myth, perhaps painted to cater to the growing demand from Greece for South Italian vessels. However, there is also considerable evidence of strong local demand for the “Ladies of Fashion”. Also, "Ladies of Fashion" pottery mostly originates from non-Greek settlements in South Italy like Paestum, making a Greek-facing interpretation of every female head doubtful. Others associate the women with Greek divinities, such as Aphrodite. While this may be a strong argument for vases where the ladies are accompanied by Erotes, this theory runs into the same problem as the first, combined with the fact that features like a nimbus or expensive jewellery are paltry pieces of evidence for trying to separate the mortal from the divine (Fig. 3).

Another popular theory is to associate our female heads with the world of love and marriage. This is in part due to the curious spherical objects that often accompany the women as filling elements (Fig. 4). Similar spherical items, often interpreted as balls, fruits, and wreaths also appear on South Italian vases with scenes that allude to romance and weddings, denoted as such through the presence of Aphrodite, or perhaps a winged figure that symbolically links the couple together.[6] In Attic Red-Figure, young women are depicted holding similar spherical objects, and are often interpreted as girls of marriageable age preparing for prenuptial rites.[7] It is tempting to interpret the “Ladies of Fashion” in this light, especially given their idealistic features and the cultural importance of maidenhood in ancient thought. However, given our previous conclusions on the impact of Attic art on South Italy, it remains a possible but not conclusive interpretation.[8]

Heuer, a scholar keenly interested in the “Ladies of Fashion”, has put forward a brilliant argument for these isolated heads having a funerary function. This is because vases adorned with our “Ladies of Fashion” almost exclusively come from tombs. She also found that female heads are more frequently painted on vases with funerary-themed decorations, as opposed to other common subjects such as Attic drama. Female heads are also frequently depicted with funerary naiskoi from Ca. 340 BC, lending further weight to this theory (Fig. 5).[9] Heuer goes a step further and argues that the decision to depict many of these heads emerging from delicate vegetation symbolises the hope for life after death, a belief associated with many contemporary mystery cults (Fig. 6).[10]

Apulian volute krater with woman in naiskos, surrounded by two attendants. A woman sits among vegetation on the shoulder, and two female head protomes adorn the volutes.
Figure 5. Stunning Apulian Red-Figure Volute Krater. Ca. 400-350 BC

Female head protome in volute, attached to patterned vase neck and shoulder.
Stunning Apulian Red-Figure Volute Krater. Ca. 400-350 BC. Side View.

While Heuer's theory seems the most plausible, it may be the case that some, or all of these arguments are true to some extent. It may even be the case that the "Ladies of Fashion" are kept so ambiguous as a deliberate design choice. As Heuer puts it:

"The ambiguity was desirable, perhaps to allow for greater flexibility in interpretation and function dependent upon the user’s ethnic and religious background in the cultural melting pot of pre-Roman Italy and Sicily." [11]

The idea that similar designs can change and shift in meaning depending on the audience, context, or even the type of vessel is a useful one when considering this motif. It makes sense in light of what we have established about the different audiences for “Ladies of Fashion” vessels and the presence of the motif on vases large and small. Ultimately, it seems that the motif was kept deliberately general and mysterious, in order to appeal to the widest number of people and allow the patrons themselves to imbue the “Ladies of Fashion” with their own, subjective meaning.

Perhaps you can do the same! Click below to browse our South Italian pottery.

Written by Ella Wakefield


Attia. A., 2019, Play, game, gender and sociability on South Italian vase painting: a look at the Buccino nestoris. ERC Locus Ludi, University of Fribour.

Heuer, K., 2015, “Vases with Faces: Isolated Heads in South Italian Vase Painting.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 50, 62–91.

------ 2019, “Tenacious Tendrils: Replicating Nature in South Italian Vase Painting.” Arts, 8, 71.

Sabetai, V., 2009, "The Poetics of Maidenhood: Visual Constructs of Womanhood in Vase-Painting", in Schmidt, S., and Oakley, J. H., (eds.), "Hermeneutik der Bilder. Beiträge zur Ikonographie und Interpretation griechischer Vasenmalerei", CVA Deutschland Beiheft 4. 103-114.

[1] Heuer 2015, 62-3. [2] Heuer 2015, 65. Of available published vases, Isolated heads feature on all five of the South Italian wares: 5376 (Apulian), 1176 (Campanian), 447 (Paestum), 301 (Sicilian), 70 (Lucanian). [3] Heuer 2015, 66. [4] Heuer 2015, 71. [5] Vase by the Iliupersis painter, Ca. 370-350 BC (BM F277); Heuer 2015, 66; Attia 2019, 835. [6] Attia 2019, 836. [7] Attia 2019, 837. [8] Sabetai 2009, 104. [9] Heuer 2015, 72-3. [10] Heuer 2015, 78; Heuer 2019.

[11] Heuer 2019.

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