Roman era: evidence of clothing today

September 25, 2009

For a better understanding of the extent of the Roman Empire and a comparison to other
empires you should visit The extent of
the Roman Empire was vast, especially considering the length of time it took to travel
three thousand years ago. What is amazine is that some of the roads and the aqueducts
the Romans built are still standing today.
The Romans are known as a nation of first agriculturists and then of lawmakers. The
roots of the Romans are from the Etruscans who farmed the Italian peninsula and built
cities. The mysterious Etruscans are thought to have migrated from Asia Minor towards
the end of the 9th century BCE. They brought with them the culture from Mesopotamia,
Egypt, and Crete. Etruria comprised the area between Rome and Florence that today is
called Tuscany. It was made up of loosely associated city-states. Her merchant marine
rivaled Greece and Carthage in the western Mediterranean by the 7th century BCE when
trade with the East caused a rapid cultural and economic expansion. The Etruscan
dynasty lasted in Rome until the southern Latins in 509 BCE conquered it.

The dress of the Etruscans was draped, loose, colorful, and comfortable. The Romans
adapted this concept into their own garments.
The Romans followed, basing their culture on farming, but developed into a nation of
lawmakers and conquerors. Through their conquests they accumulated many different
cultures and assimilated them into the Roman culture. Figure 1 shows the great extent of
the Roman Empire in 116 AD (or ACE).Their contribution to the history of law and order
was immense, but their role in the arts was more of a borrower and adapter than creator.
They were known to have central heating system, public baths, road maps, a calendar, the
coliseum, a democracy with a Senate, and a department store with 8 floors (the cheapest
items were on the top floor making it necessary for those wanting those items to walk up
seven flights.) While some of these items were known in other cultures, e.g., the
Egyptians had a calendar, note that it was the Romans that accumulated these and spread
them throughout their empire. It is interesting to note that when the Empire declined,
many of these developed innovations declined along with them. An example would be
the lavish baths for the Roman legions in Britian. When the Romans left, the Saxon
culture there did not use the baths and villas that the Romans left behind. Why might this
be the case?

The people themselves were grave, stern, steadfast, competitive, and ambitious. The men
seemed preoccupied with wealth and the conquest of new lands which may increase their
wealth. They were particularly fastidious about their dress. The women enjoyed
freedom, although they were not citizens. They were independent, clever, learned, and
generally had strong personalities. They could inherit property which seems to have lead
to extravagance in dress. The husband did not necessarily profit from the wife’s wealth
or inheritance. The women were proficient in the art of embroidery, a source of pride for
the Roman women. They used gold extensively in the Imperial period.
An important part of their culture was the public baths. The baths were places of
important social gatherings as well as cleaning, for the Romans were a very hygienic
people. Many important political and personal decisions took place at the baths. Almost
all Roman settlements from Egypt to England had a form of public bath. There is one
that still stands in Bath, England. It was buried over after the Romans left England an
only rediscovered in the past few centuries. See

There was a lot of entertainment in the Roman culture. As the Romans were competitive,
laws were passed to control the amount of lavishness that could take place during these
entertaining events. These were called sumptuary laws. These laws have been imposed
in many cultures (Chinese, Japanese, French, etc.) to curb or limit the amount of display
that a people of different social standings may exhibit. Some specific examples of the
Romans were: the amount of gold one could wear at any one time, the number of courses
one could serve at a dinner, the limitation of wearing the toga for only citizens, the width
of the clavi, the color of the clavi, etc. Sumptuary laws continued and were used in the
medieval periods to control the outward appearance of people of a lower status.

There is no doubt that the Romans saw themselves as the center of the world at that time.
The “Great Mother” was one of their ideals stemming from the tales of Romulus and
Remus. Slaves were common. Prior to the 2nd century BCE very few families had more
than one slave and did much of the manual labor themselves. However, by the time the
culture reached the first century ACE, very few families had less than one slave. Often
they didn’t even know their names. Slaves were basically treated well and many Romans
spurred them on to effort by giving them money so that they could buy their freedom.
Slavery was neither eternal nor intolerable and there were many laws for the humane
treatment of slaves.
Women’s Wear
The dress of the Roman women was more elaborate and dignified than that of the Greeks
even though the Romans borrowed heavily from the Greek aesthetics. The basic female
costume was the stolla (stola) and the palla. The stolla was a tunic covering the body
from the neck to the foot and was worn by the patricians only. (It was like the Greek
chiton.) See Figure 8, the reddish garment. The stolla could be pinned at the shoulders
with fibulae, it could be sewn, and it could have sleeves. Tortora and Eubank maintain
that a tunic was often worn under the stolla, called an undertunic. Some of the statues
seem to have a flounce showing at the bottom hem. This might be attached to the
undertunic, but there is no evidence of this.

The garment worn over the stolla is called the palla (see figure 6, the blue fabric), which
is like the Greek himation. It is a semi-circular piece of fabric giving an overall more
oval shape than the himation. The Roman women might wear a zona (band worn under
the breasts or at the hips) for support.

The stolla is
very sheer and full with sleeves. She has draped the palla around her, but the veil on her
head may be a pallidumentum, a sheer separate garment worn over the head. Note the
very tight hair curls. Also note the fuller hem, as if a flounce has been added. This could
be the institia.
Hair styles:
The women had simple hair in the Republic, however as time went on they became more
and more elaborate. Messalina had a variety of wigs to disguise her nocturnal
adventures, but she usually returned without them and someone would return the wig the
following day. Often statues were made so that the subject (if still alive) could change
the hair pieces. Yellow wigs were obligatory for prostitutes to wear, however, after this
law was passed, yellow became the fashion when luxury was the vogue. The Romans
actually purchased yellow hair from the northern Gauls. Forehead curls were popular
around 100 BCE.

The Empire favored elaborate
hair styles for women. Figure 10 shows highly curled hairdos often with a support or
ampex (diadem-like hairband). The fillet was often worn, but became very elaborate so
that we hardly recognize it as the fillet. The elaborate nature of their curls (made possible
by curling irons), reminds me of the tight curled Assyrian beards and hair. The style,
however, is quite different.
Men’s hairstyles were simple with a natural look to their short hair. See Figure 11.
Children, too, wore their hair natural but generally it was longer.

The lacerna was often colored and might have much
luxury displayed on it. Worn by the better classes, it is not a rigid as the sagum (see
military section in this lecture)..
Both the Roman men and women used a lot of make-up. They used crocodile excrement,
sometimes bread and the milk of asses for a fresh complexion. They had false hair, false
teeth, hairpins, padded coiffures, beauty patches, and perfumes. Their perfumes were
applied not only to the body, but to all possessions. Only patricians were allowed to wear
white make-up, but this law was soon ignored.
Men’s Costume
The most notorious of the Roman male garment is the toga. This very large (6 yards by
2.5 yards) was cut into an oval shape, folded in half and then draped around the body in
an intricate manner. It was the earliest distinctive racial garment, a necessary article in
the wardrobe and a badge of Roman citizenship. The privilege of wearing it, its color and
decoration were prescribed by law as well as by custom.
In the early times the toga was worn by both men and women, then, at the beginning of
Imperial Rome the women discarded it (except those of a disreputable sort).

In the Republic all togas were white, but later on they became quite colorful. The
plebeians were forbidden to wear white. Actually white was difficult to clean and had to
be bleached to get the pure whiteness which was a status for men and women.

The clavi (a band or woven stripe) sewn into the tunic or toga which indicated ones rank.
It developed from the Etruscan garments, see Figure 33. The use of clavi was
predominant during the Republic and tended to disappear during the Empire, however,
the Byzantines tended to revive the aesthetics of the clavi. There were rules governing
the clavi as all freeborn could wear a 3/8 inch side clavi, but those with money often
bribed officials for a wider clavi. The latus clavus was the widest (3-4 inches) and was a
symbol or the highest rank.

In reality the Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks and often used their statues as
their own. The oval appearance of this illustration makes it appear more Roman.
Not only was the width of the clavi important, but the color as well: green was for the
medical profession, purple for generals, emperors, blue for philosophy, etc. In addition,
the togas had many different names, see below. It is interesting to note that children
could wear the toga the rank and status of their parents, but when they turned of age they
had to put on the toga pura and gain their own status.
• toga virilis also called toga pura: unadorned toga in the off-white color of the undyed
wool that was worn by adult male citizens
• toga praetexta: off-white toga with a broad purple border shown in the right-hand
drawing. The only adults allowed to wear this toga were curule magistrates (curule aedile
and above).
• toga pulla: toga made of dark-colored wool worn during periods of mourning
• toga candida: artificially whitened toga worn by candidates for political office
• toga picta: purple toga embroidered with gold thread worn by a victorious general
during a triumphal parade and later adopted by emperors for state occasions. . A variant
of this costume was the toga purpura, an all-purple toga worn by the early kings and
possibly adopted by some emperors
(above from

You might note that the toga is a very inconvenient garment. It is heavier than the
himation, more complicated, and larger. There were many ways of draping it and each of
the created folds had a name and was weighted with pellets. Sinus is a pocket formed by
the draping of a toga.
Because of the complications associated with the toga many men wore a synthesis or
dinner garment. It was simpler and less cumbersome, but still was draped.

The synthesis is a garment worn less often than the toga and usually considered a dinner
dress. Ordinarily it was worn only in the house except during the 5 days of Saturnalia
(mid-winter celebration). It was for comfort since it utilized less material. Its shape
remains a mystery, but most likely it is rectangular. Generally it was worn by the
wealthy class for it was luxurious and often given as a gift. Nero violated the use of
wearing the synthesis for special occasions and wore one all the time.
They often just wore a tunic. Although this garment was generally worn under a toga, for
practical purposes the tunic by itself was most functional.

Even when wearing a simple garment, the Romans still cared about displaying their rank,
and did so through clavi on the tunic.
The women took great pride in the art of embroidery. The materials used were wool and
linen as the base fabric upon which some silk, wool, and linen embroidery threads were
used. They used gold embroidery threads extensively in the imperial periods. Mainly the
embroidery was done at the edges of the garment in much the same way as the Greeks.
Early tunics and togas were woolen. Women used linen, especially as a tunic or
undergarment. Even though the wool was very sheer, gradually silk was used when more
and more trading went on with the Eastern countries. It is difficult for us to know which
garments were made from silk, but the law books do give some hints. In 16 ACE it was
forbidden for the men to wear silk garments. We would assume that this was a short
lived law, but it does indicate that the Roman Empire did use silk.
Jewelry and accessories
Jewelry was really introduced by the captured Greek goldsmiths. You can expect to fine
fibulae the Roman jewelry as well as in Greek. However, the use of jewelry was
widespread in Roman culture and became excessive. Some decadent senators wore 6
rings on each finger, some for summer and some for winter. However, as in any society,
there were many senators who objected to this practice and set up sumptuary laws
forbidding such decadency. These laws were often ignored.
Women wore earrings, jewelry in their hair, precious and semi precious stones. Rings
were popular: key rings, poison rings (the bezel was made of soft yellow gold so that the
wearer could bite through this and drink the poison as did Hannibul), amber rings that
would cure a goiter (they were best if they held an imprisoned fly, but were more
expensive than a slave), coral rings were a remedy for skin diseases, insignia rings, and
an l engagement ring worn on the finger that held a special nerve leading directly to the
heart. Figure 25 shows some of the jewelry.

A small round box or amulet called a bulla was hung around young boys’ necks until
they reached the age of 15. It was an insignia of juvenility.
The Romans also used long beads, fans, umbrellas, jeweled sticks, carried glass and
amber balls.
They wore solea (sandals) on their feet. See Figure 15. These were generally made of
leather and worn inside the house. Bare feet were typical. The togati was a short boot
with straps over the instep and worn by both men and women. The Romans had
knowledge of construction, decoration of shoes and boots (buskins). The women wore
mostly sandals. A bootmaker and tailor had a most honorable profession.
The Equestrian Order was the moneyed class since soldiers were required to provide their
own horses, thus they wore the wide clavi. The soldiers were clean shaven (perhaps for
cleanliness), and wore corselets with kilts usually made of leather and metal.

Soldiers. If you look closely at the
soldier on the left side you will note he has a sagum, a military cloak, draped over one
shoulder. Often it was red. It was also warm and inexpensive. Note also that the
illustrator put a weight at the tip of the sagum indicating that they were concerned with
the drape of this garment. The soldier on the right is holding a standard which served as
a means to identify the different military divisions.

Rome did not fall, it gradually declined. For generations the Germanic peoples had
pressed on the northern frontiers. In the 3rd century ACE Roman had immense wealth
and degrading poverty, gross ignorance in high places, and little commitment to ideals.
By the 4th century there was staggering inflation which Diocletian and Constantine tried
to reform. The aristocracy returned to the land in order to get away from the crowd and
stench of the city. This isolation foreshadowed the rural life of feudal society.

The man on the left is wearing a long tunic, a garment which is not often seen, but
develops into the Byzantine dalmatica. The two men in the middle are farmers or
shepherds and wear commoner clothing. The man on the right is wearing a paenula
which is a traveling cloak shaped something like a poncho. It has a hole for the neck; this
one has a hood and could be made of cloth or light weight leather. Because it had a
curved shape over the shoulders it tended to restrict the arms.

Movies: Gladiator (not good for female clothing, but good for men’s wear)
I, Claudius


There is still evidence today of women wearing Roman dress. Such evidence like the Stola are being showcased on the red carpet. Jaslene Gonzalez, Megan Fox, Katie Holmes, and Kiera Knightly are some celebrities who have displayed the Roman clothing but have altering the clothing to give it a more modern day twist but leaving the some key elements to Roman fashion style. The altered Roman clothing has key elements like the smooth rhythm of the drapery, the asymetrical balance of the one shoulder toga, and the white color of the garment representing the importance of rank in Rome.

Another connection of of modern day Roman clothing would be the footwear. Though Romans sometimes did not wear sandalis or solea at all. Places like UrbanOutfitters sell the modern day Roman Sandal but again with a modern day twist. Mostly all are made of leather and display many straps and at different lengths reaching to as high as the knee.

Yes, the Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks. Some similarities between the two are Palla and the himation of womens garments. The difference is probably the type of fabric, but both pieces are worn over the main piece of garment. This particular garment is similar to the modern day shawl women use for a wrap along side the body as well except shorter and light weight fabric.

Men in today’s society do not wear togas, but a circle scarf in modern day times represents some kind of resemblance to the clavi that is usually sewed on a tunic or toga and would represent that rank a person is in society. Though it is unsure if the picture of a Roman man is accurate, I think the thinkness or thinness of the clavi is similar to the circle just by itself and not attatched to the tunc or toga.

I wonder if the clothing of the Statue of Liberty is inspired from the Romans or the Greek clothing?


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