Depicting Sappho: the Creation of the Original Lesbian Look

Sappho – the original lesbian. At least, this is how we within the LGBTQ community think of her today, with the words sapphic and lesbian originating from her name and home island of Lesbos. Yet, her identity and the desires expressed in her poems have been debated for thousands of years. Homophobia, and more specifically lesbophobia, have been rife since well before they were named concepts. Sappho has always been an icon for her poetry, her talent leading to her reputation as the “Tenth Muse” or “The Poetess”. As such, her legacy has prevailed through millennia. The love that she professed for women in her poetry could not be erased, despite the efforts of multiple generations; no matter what, she remains the lesbian icon. In this post, I am going to discuss how her icon status informed the image of Sappho that we now associate with ancient lesbianism today. This is the story of the creation of the original lesbian look. 

A quick note: I am not writing this post to debate if Sappho was really a lesbian, or if she was bisexual, or even engage with her writing at all. I am a lesbian fashion historian and this is an analysis of how Sappho has become a figurehead of lesbian iconography. Her fashion (or what is thought to be her fashion) is lesbian because it has been claimed as such. To quote Laura Darling’s fantastic article about Sappho on Making Queer History, “she is a symbol. Despite the efforts of biased academics, she will remain that for many years to come.”1

Fig. 1: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ‘Sappho and Alcaeus’, oil on panel, 1881. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA. 

Sappho is thought to have been born around 630 BC… 2,650 years ago. Most iconography that we recognise of her today is from far more recently, mostly the 18th and 19th centuries. However, her image was already being shaped only a few hundred years after her lifetime. The earliest source that acknowledges rumours of Sappho’s homosexuality but then dismisses it as slanderous is a biography of her from the Hellenistic period (323-30 BC). It states that “she has been accused by a few of being undisciplined and sexually involved with women.”2 If sources like these are the start of Sappho’s heterosexualisation, there is a direct line that links them to paintings like the one above. 

The above painting is ‘Sappho and Alcaeus’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema from 1881. It represents Sappho with Alcaeus, another poet from her time period, in a heterosexual romance that has been invented for Sappho after her death. Flora Doble, in her article ‘Sapphic Sexuality: lesbian myth and reality in art and sculpture,’ describes how “in ancient scholarship, Sappho was […] portrayed as a promiscuous heterosexual woman, with her contemporary male poet Alcaeus of Mytilene portrayed as a possible lover.”3 There is evidence that the two interacted, but nothing inferring a romantic relationship. There are similarities in their writing styles, but all too often this is attributed to a relationship rather than, for example, Sappho leading poetic trends.4 Other men have been suggested as Sappho’s lovers: her supposed husband was Kerikles from the island of Andros, which translates to “Penis from the island of Men” and was definitely a joke, probably one mocking her lesbian reputation. Another “lover” is Phaon, a ferryman blessed with good looks by the goddess Aprodite. Considering that Sappho was real and Phaon the stuff of legends, this is also hard to believe – particularly since the first mentions of this love story occur hundreds of years after Sappho’s lifetime.5 

Fig. 2: Simeon Solomon, ‘Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene’, 1864. The Tate, London, UK.

Despite these efforts, Sappho’s lesbian image prevails. The majority of paintings that aim to depict her do not include men. Some of them, like the above example by Simeon Solomon from 1864, even picture her in a romantic position with other women. It is an image of Sappho that you may be familiar with, and if not, it has all the benchmarks of Sappho’s look

Sappho is easily identifiable as the figure on the right, the woman who is kissing the other. She wears a crown of laurels in her hair, a symbol of triumph. Perhaps it is suggesting her triumph over poetry and her reputation as “The Poetess.” Perhaps, instead, it represents her triumphs with love – with women, like the one sat next to her. On her other side rests a scroll and a lyre, her writing and her instrument. They are the tools of her trade and again signify her position as a poet. They are secondary, though, to the relationship between the two women, sat together in matching tunics with fabric that appears almost liquid. Their kiss is intentional, replicated by the birds above them. This painting represents all of the symbols associated with Sappho, the famous poet, and intertwines them with her lesbian love. Simeon Solomon, the painter, was a gay man. He consistently painted images of same-sex desire throughout his career, which was cut short after he was arrested on two occasions for sodomy. He recognised queer love that has been continuously erased. 

Fig. 3: John William Godward, ‘Reverie (in the days of Sappho)’ 1904. The Getty Museum, LA, USA. 

The iconography seen in Solomon’s painting is continued time and time again in representations of Sappho. An example is in the paintings of John William Godward which, although they never feature Sappho explicitly, have the sapphic aesthetic of ancient greek women in togas, sat on marble benches with dark hair framing their faces and nature framing their figures. The above image is not of Sappho, but it references her in its title ‘Reverie (in the days of Sappho).’ The influential image of the Poetess clearly stretches past the bounds of her poems or even her own life. 

The words “lesbian,” “sapphic” and “sapphist” began to be popularised as descriptions for homosexual and queer women in the 1890s. From here, Sappho’s lesbian representation took off; for centuries, her name had clung to same-sex associations, despite the efforts of those who seeked to erase them. At the turn of the 20th century, her name was spread as lesbian. Her image had been captured by lesbians, her story retold and reclaimed. 

Sappho’s renaissance was in Paris. The French capital was the go-to destination for modernist lesbians in the first decades of the 20th century, so much so that their community became known as “Paris Lesbos.” Sappho was their absent leader – in Diana Souhami’s No Modernism Without Lesbians she discusses how “role models for lesbians were few. Sappho was evidence that such desires were time-honoured, that there were always women who felt as they did, whose emotions were pure and lifestyles self-willed, not prescribed or dictated by men.”6 Sappho’s right-hand woman, her representative in the realm of the living, was Natalie Barney: writer, poet, heiress and loud, proud lesbian. 

Fig. 4: Natalie Barney with dancers in togas, c. 1902-1907, Neuilly. Archives Charmet.

When Natalie’s father died in 1902, she acquired her inheritance – with it, she bought a house in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. This house became the centre of the Paris Lesbos, which Souhami describes: 

In homage to Sappho, [Natalie] staged tableaux vivants in the garden. In Cinq petits dialogues grecs (‘Five short Greek dialogues’), she sketched her rules for Sapphic love: women were to relinquish ties to family, – husbands, children and country – and instead write, dance, compose and act on their love and desire for each other. 7

This Sapphic love was not merely theoretical. The photograph above is from one of Natalie and co.’s celebrations of Sappho, where they dressed in togas, danced, and engaged in acts of love with one another. Souhami also writes about these events:

[Natalie] and Eva Palmer wrote and produced Equivoque, which extolled Sappho’s life and incorporated her writing. […] Eva, Renée [Vivien] and Colette – who was light-hearted about her lesbian affairs – and others danced in gauze togas around an incense-burning alter. In one tableau, the dancer Mata Hari rode, naked except for a crown, into the garden on a white horse with a bejewelled harness.8

Sappho had been well and truly reclaimed by the lesbians, her image performed for the lesbian gaze. The iconography of women in togas, established in multitudes of paintings of Sappho from previous centuries, here existed primarily in relation to lesbian love. The Sapphic look was a visual manifesto of lesbianism. The women of Paris Lesbos refused to allow Sappho to fade into the heterosexual canon, and their efforts were not in vain: to quote from Laura Darling’s article on Making Queer History once more, Sappho “is a recognised part of queer culture.”9

Fig. 5: A woman dressed as Sappho is part of Lesbian Nation group at the Equal Rights Amendment March, Washing D.C., 9th July 1978. Photograph by Anne E. Zelle via Getty Images. 

Sappho, the toga-wearing ancient lesbian with a crown of laurels in her hair, is an image that prevails through the ages. Above is a photograph from the July 1978 Equal Rights Amendment March in Washington, D.C., where one of the demonstrators with Lesbian Nation is dressed as Sappho. Like Natalie Barney and her circle of lesbians seventy years prior, she replicates the Sapphic aesthetic in order to claim lesbian history and attempt to forge a better future. 

The clothing associated with Sappho is shorthand for so much more. Aesthetics are what we see and recognise, and if we know what lesbian history looks like – how it dressed – then we are able to picture it in our minds. We can even recreate it by wearing it on our own bodies, like the toga-clad lesbian demonstrator in 1978. The history of lesbian fashion allows us to connect to our histories, because no matter the decade, century or millennium, we dress and present ourselves in specific, considered ways. There is a thread that stitches our lesbian lives together, and it can be powerful to gaze back to where it started.

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or support me on Patreon.

Endnotes

1: Laura Darling, ‘Sappho: The Poetess,’ Making Queer History, 4th March 2016, makingqueerhistory.com 

2: Quoted in Judith P. Hallett, ‘Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality,’ Signs 4.3 (1979): 448.

3: Flora Doble, ‘Sapphic Sexuality: lesbian myth and reality in art and sculpture,’ Art UK, 27th July 2020. artuk.org

4: Aaron Poochigan, ‘Introduction,’ in Sappho, Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments, (UK: Penguin, [2009] 2015) xii-xiii. 

5: Poochigan, ‘Introduction,’ in Sappho, Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments, xiii.

6: Diana Souhami, No Modernism Without Lesbians, (UK: Head of Zeus, 2020) 223-224.

7: Souhami, No Modernism Without Lesbians, 238.

8: Souhami, No Modernism Without Lesbians, 239.

9: Darling, ‘Sappho: The Poetess.’

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