4Greek Statues Were Brightly Painted and Kind of Stupid Looking
Quick, what do you picture in your head when we say, "Ancient Greece"? If you're like most people you either picture lots of dudes standing around in togas, or white marble statues with no pupils in their eyes:
"Colorful clothes are for gangbangers and homosexuals."
Those ornate statues made of pure white marble, depicting the austere beauty and power of epic gods and heroes, have made quite an impression on history. Renaissance sculptors carved their own marble statues based on the belief that that's how the ever wise Greeks did things.
Ancient Greece looked more like someone crashed their LGBT pride parade into a Mardi Gras Festival.
Recent studies using the awesome powers of lasers and shit (no, seriously!) have found that once completing the iconic marble statues and buildings we know today, the Greeks covered them head to toe in bright primary colors. Greek sculptors worked together with painters to come up with psychedelic patterns and colors to make their statues and buildings pop.
So in the midst of all that theorizing and philosophizing, the Greeks were also really focused on making sure their day to day life looked like the album cover of Magical Mystery Tour. Oh, and you know the iconic Parthenon? Based on the way buildings were painted back then, it was most likely an eye-searing mash of bright yellow, red and blue.
Why We Picture it Wrong:
As years passed, like with the Pyramids, the primitive paint used on the statues chipped and wore off, so when they were rediscovered by later civilizations, they appeared in their all white form. And frankly people just liked the idea of the all white marble look.
Even so, archaeologists knew that the statues used to be painted, since there were ancient records showing people painting the damned things. However, people simply preferred to display the plain white statues, since they looked more like something made by the founders of Western civilization should look like, in the minds of many scholars. Pure, clean, capturing the shape and essence of scientific accuracy and artistic beauty--whereas the painted versions kinda looked like something you might have made during middle school art class.
3Nobody Dressed How You Think They Dressed
So already it's pretty clear that if we don't have photos laying around of the historical period in question, we're basically just guessing. And that's interesting considering how many figures from the distant past we think we have a perfectly clear image of. For instance, ninjas looked like this:
Vikings looked like this:
And as anyone who's ever attended a Thanksgiving event at an American grade school knows, pilgrims looked like this:
The ninja outfit is ridiculous, if you think about it. If you're an assassin and your job is to blend in, you don't do that by dressing in a black bodysuit that screams "ninja" from a mile away. So, they dressed like normal people--workers, monks, merchants, basically anything that looked as un-ninja as humanly possible was the perfect disguise. This way, they could sneak around unnoticed, day or night.
Hidden inside those bushels are like a million katanas.
On rare occasions when they needed to move through the dark undetected, they still didn't wear black. Dark blue is the color you want if you want to blend in at night; someone in all black would stand out like a silhouette.
As for the Vikings, the one single thing we know them for--wearing huge horns on their helmets--isn't true. They just wore regular helmets, not anything fancy. Here's some advice: If you want a career in something that requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat, don't wear anything that's easy for people to grab onto. This is why when cops wear ties, they wear clip-ons. It's also why you don't want something on your hat that is essentially a giant set of handlebars.
Viking helmets: built for sensible pillaging.
As for the pilgrims, they were simple, farming folk, and as such wore clothes that made sense for the job. Do you really think someone would toil in the field or chop wood for hours on end dressed in a heavy coat and shiny shoes? If you're gonna have a long, hard day of stealing Indian land, you gotta at least have a shirt that breathes.
Therefore, it was more common to see guys in baggy shirts and pants, and gals in simple dresses. Hats were floppy and buckle-free, and boots were made of beat up leather and tied with bows. On top of that, the image of the demure, black and white puritan is also a myth, as people owned clothes in a range of colors including bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Why We Picture it Wrong:
The ninjas can thank the theater. In Edo period theater (which came about one hundred years after ninjas were around), playwrights needed a trick to show how sneaky ninjas were on stage, as well as a way to make them into "invisible" assassins. The stage hands already dressed in all black, so the audience had long been used to ignoring them since they weren't "part of the play." So, actors playing ninjas started dressing up in all black, too. Then the whole audience would jump when one of them would leap out of nowhere and kill a dude. Also, it looks totally badass.
As for the Vikings, Greek and Roman historians wrote about warriors from the North with horned helmets, which in and of itself was just an exaggeration used to make them sound like scarier bad guys for their stories. Also, it looks totally badass.
And the pilgrims, with their black hats and brass buckles on everything? Well, in the early 1600s, there were people who dressed that way, but those were the urban puritans back in England --precisely the people who decided not to become pilgrims and instead stay home in the first place. The reason we have the image of pilgrims dressing the same is because all the existing portraits of people from the era come from England. Also, it looks totally badass.