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| General background | Fabrics | Fashion | Toga Parties | Children & Men | The Tunic, Toga, Cloaks | Women: The stola and Palla | Shoes | Hats | Hair | Weddings | Priesthood |

roman clothing

Ancient Roman Clothing - the lady's PallaRoman clothing has always struck a particular chord with people throughout history wanting to re-live this or the other aspect of those ancient times. Dressing up in a toga has recurred over and over again from the times of Shakespeare's plays through to the antics of Toga parties and Cinema productions such as Cleopatra, Ben Hur and The Gladiator. The consequence is that numerous items of Roman clothing and apparel are easily available in commerce and can be easily purchased online. All this has led to a popular albeit superficial understanding of what Roman clothing was all about.

The earliest Romans wore animal hides and skins tied around the waist. It is unclear exactly when these were exchanged for the more evolved dress code and fashions we generally think of as "Roman clothing". One thing is certain however: by-and-large, the clothing worn from the time of Romulus and Remus through to the end of the Empire was originally inspired by their Etruscan neighbors. For example the Etruscan round cloak is a good candidate for the Roman toga.

A further defining element would have been Rome's earliest of trades: sheep farming; suggesting that wool fabrics would have been regarded as being both traditional and fit-for-purpose.

When we compare Roman with Greek clothing of the time we note two or three defining factors in design: weather, taste and morality (tradition).

The weather in Rome is not quite as hot as that in Greece, resulting in generally heavier fabrics, cloaks and hats. Roman clothes were generally made of relatively heavier woolly fabric than the Greek.

toga_servusIn terms of morality, the Romans were a little more prudish than their Greek counterparts, resulting in loin cloths being worn in the fields or on military exercise. The Greek habit of going about these duties as well as athletics naked was quite immoral as far as the Romans were concerned. This of course doesn't mean that people weren't as keen on fashion and personal beauty as they are today, giving rise to a strong fashion, apparel and cosmetics industry.

Plenty more information may be found in this source:  Roman Clothing and Fashion.

Alternatively you could post a comment/read other's comments in the Ancient Roman Clothing and Fashion Forum.

The fabric of Roman clothing

Roman woman wearing a woollen pallaThe weight and texture of Roman fabrics ensured the characteristic folds would form into graceful curves and stay put without slipping over each other. This of course doesn't mean that the toga was made like a thick woolly jumper!

The fabric itself was hand woven on looms and would have been relatively soft to the touch. Stripes and other adornment would have been woven into the fabric itself.

Undergarments such as loin cloths, tunics and so on could be made of a variety of fabrics. A number of artworks suggest undergarments such as bikinis & bras were not unknown and I can hardly imagine that itchy woolen underclothes can be the most comfortable of inventions. Linen, cotton or flannel were rather more likely.

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Fashion and Taste of Roman Clothing

etruscan fresco of a dancerThe Etruscan influence on Roman dress codes remained particularly noticeable in the roman priesthood which being generally conservative in habits (no pun meant) left its fashions unchanged since the earliest times.

Social rank and Tradition were important elements of Roman fashion and taste for both men and women. Persons who had important positions of state or religion would be allowed variations in order to signify their standing. For example, men of high rank could wear the Toga Praetexta.

However this doesn't mean that fashion and individual taste were blotted out, especially as the well-being of the Empire made the austerity of the early Kingdom and Republican periods a distant memory.

As for women we imagine things being a little harder on them because of their relative lack of freedom, but again, riches and well-being brought a strong degree of emancipation. Hairdos and jewelry were the freest and greatest expression of fashion for women and as such reached a great deal of evolution and complexity. The cosmetics industry also flourished as can be seen from the number of richly decorated beauty cases which have been found.

Any woman who has attended a Toga party and tried to imitate ancient Roman clothing will have experienced the difficulty of appearing anything less than a veritable sack of potatoes. This attests to the skill and detail required to wear such clothing and render oneself "beautiful" and attractive.

That said, Greek and later art of classical inspiration is a constant reminder of the degree of aesthetic power which can be gained through the use of flowing folds and varying degrees of transparency to convey shape, physical form and movement.

To this, it wouldn't be uncommon for Roman women to use a variety of bands and belts to break the straight pull of gravity. For example a simple hair band could be woven around the body, causing the fabric to cling to one's curves with great effect.

Plenty more information may be found in this source:  Roman Clothing and Fashion.

Roman Children and Men

toga_palliatusChildren and adults would wear different types of toga: boys under the age of fourteen or fifteen were still regarded as under age and as such wore togas with a purple stripe round the edge called a Toga Praetexta. Once they became of age they were allowed to wear the manly toga of plain white called the Toga Virilis. Roman citizens' daughters were also admitted to wear a sort of Praetexta until their wedding day.

Roman boy wearing a Toga PraetextaHorace in his Ode against Canidia the Sorceress  refers to the youthful garment, the Praetexta: "I beseech you, by this vain Ornament of Purple, by Jupiter, who will severely punish this Wickedness, tell me why you thus frown upon me like a cruel Stepmother." - The Complete Odes and Epodes (Oxford World's Classics) - This passage is interesting because it also refers to the fact that the ancient Romans held the Toga Praetexta sacred and that it was worn by them in order to guard them from evil. It seems that the Praetexta was held sacred ever since the days of Rome's first kings.

The origins of this custom. Some ascribe it to Romulus himself who bestowed it as a sign of honor to the children born of the Sabine women fathered by a Roman. Others ascribe the custom to Tarquinius Priscus who awarded it to his own son as a military honor for valor in battle.

Quintilian makes reference to the Praetexta as "the sacred habit of the Praetexta, the robe of priests and magistrates by which we derive a holy reverence and veneration to the helpless condition of childhood."

Children also wore a golden ball around the neck, called the "Bulla Aurea". This custom also seems to stem from origins similar to those of the Toga Praetexta. Juvenal tells us that in time free children of non Roman descent also came to wear a similar amulet although it was made of leather rather than gold. 

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Under the Togas - The Tunic

Romans would wear a sleeveless tunic made of heavy wool under the toga. More than one tunic would be worn when the weather was cold. All social classes wore tunics, including the slaves. Those who were less affluent could not afford Togas and so would wear their Tunics visible in all occasions.

The colour of the tunic was generally that of the natural wool although further colouring could be applied according to decorative requirement and status.

At first the tunic had no sleeves. Sleeves were added later and extended down as far as the elbow, making the tunic into something like a heavy woolen T-shirt. Suetonius (Jul.55) tells us that Julius Caesar was relatively unusual, possibly effeminate, in his use of a long sleeved tunic called the Laticlavian Tunic with gatherings around the wrists. Suetonius: Divus Julius (Bristol Latin Classical Series)

Fashion progressed with time so that well into the empire we find the tunic having grown longer and reaching down to the ankles making these tunics into "talares" and the sleeves reaching down to the hands "chirodotae". The sleeveless tunic became a symbol of dishonor.

Like the toga the tunic also had a variety of types of which the Palmata was probably the most prestigious, worn under the triumphant general's toga. It possibly had one or two "clavi" (stripes of purple) embroidered onto it or palmettes decorating the neck.

The tunic could be decorated by "clavi" meaning nails. It is unclear whether these were stripes down the middle acting as military ranks or indeed gem stones embroidered into the fabric. Stripes in vertical or horizontal direction or in different colours could distinguish to tunic as that of public officers, musicians or even used by women.

The tunic worn by those of Equestrian rank (knights) was called Augusticlave whilst that of the Senators was called Laticlave although different accounts suggest that only the senators had a distinguishing tunic and all others had pretty much the same common design.

The Roman Toga

Ancient Roman clothing - the TogaRoman toga Praetexta with purple stripeTogas were reserved for Roman citizens and generally used when appearing in public, a little like putting on a suit and tie. The toga itself was a long oval or semi-circular sheet approximately three meters in width although its size would vary in accordance with the wearer's physical size, social importance and wealth. It had no pockets nor sleeves.

The toga's colour is generally accepted as having been white although it is likely that it could vary from brilliant white through to a more crude white akin to that of the natural colour of the wool. This would allow for the historical references to the "Toga Candida" (candid toga) worn by those competing for office (Candidates) also worn on public feasts and render it sufficiently different from the everyday "Toga Alba" (white toga). It is likely that those who were less affluent could render their Toga Alba sufficiently white by chalking it over.

There were several different types of Toga according to one's social rank and position in society. By and large the manner of wearing the toga involved folding it along its length and then draping round the wearer.

Just like men's ties nowadays there were a handful of ways in which the toga might be worn. Interestingly enough none of them actually allowed much freedom of use with one's left hand - a good reason to have slaves do your menial work!

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Over the Toga

The toga or other clothing could be covered by a gown or cloak called the Lacerna or Penula according to their length. At first this was used in the military camp or for travelling but it's usefulness against the weather gradually brought it into the city also. There might also have been a slight difference in colour between the two types of cloak.

Roman Women - The "Stola" and "Palla"

roman_clothing_stolaLike everybody else Roman women wore tunics and in the earlier days of Rome they might also wear togas. In fact even in later years of Rome young girls tended to wear a sort of Toga Praetexta like their brothers.

toga_stolataSoon the female toga was replaced by the Stola which was a sort of tunic long enough to touch the floor. It was placed above vest and tunic and would be held in place by a girdle. The importance and significance placed on clothing as a symbol of women's social rank can be discerned from the fact that prostitutes and courtesans, although legal as a profession, were prohibited from wearing the Stola and had to wear a humble gown instead which was more similar to a toga.

The Stolae were generally white, possibly trimmed with pearls as a sign of purity.

Ancient Roman Clothing: a Roman woman wearing a PallaIn order to go out of doors Roman women would wear a form of cloak or shawl called a "Palla". Like the Toga this was made of white woolen fabric and would be draped round the body like a scarf but unlike the toga it could be passed over the head also. In this antique image the artist has bizarrely chosen to have his model wear a Palla whilst she goes out picking grapes....

Should you wish to know about hats, head covers and hairdos in ancient Rome please go to the page on Hair Styles in Ancient Rome.

More is written about Roman women and Roman women's clothing, their makeup and jewelry in separate sections.

Ancient Roman Shoes

Ancient Roman Clothing of MercuryRomans had different types of shoes for different situations: in the house they would wear sandals called "soleae" whilst in the street they would resort to square toed shoes rather more similar to those we wear today called "calcei" which had leather bands which tied up the ankle. The Etruscan equivalent had pointed toes similar to those of the East.

The shoes of the common soldier were called Caligae. Caligula often walked around his father's military camp as a child and wore these shoes. The name we know him by is only a nickname referring to the small sized soldier's shoes he used to wear as a child.

Although the Calcei and Caligae are the most commonly remembered forms of Roman footwear we should not forget a more complete list of Roman shoes, including:

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Hats and other Head Covers

Picture of a Roman Triumph paradeThe Romans didn't tend to wear any form of hat except in particular circumstances such as traveling, fighting at war or on religious feasts and processions or indeed at the public games at the Circus Maximus or Colosseum (which were in many ways religious feasts).

We mention a few favorites:

Roman Wedding Dress

See the section on religion and marriage.

Clothing of the Ancient Roman Priesthood

The clothing of the roman priesthood remained relatively unchanged through time. Being of sacred origin their garments were generally linked with the color purple. The head would often be covered also.

It is likely that the priesthood wore something like the Trabea also and that it would be either purple or scarlet in color. Cicero tells us that the Augurs wore the "Dibaphus" on account of it being dyed twice over. The Flamens wore the Laena which was like a Chlamys: a double toga inter-woven with gold and fastened about the neck and at the shoulder with a clasp. The Pontifs wore the sacred Praetexta which was also worn by children.

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