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A discussion of clothing and dress in ancient Rome is interesting because through it we can gain insights into Roman society as a whole: If compared to other cultures of the time, Roman society, like the Etruscan or Greek was subdivided into relatively distinct social classes yet allowed for a good deal of personal identity and mobility between classes, perhaps more so than the other societies of that time.
Examples of this are to be seen in the profuse love of personal, individualized, portraiture showing pimples and all; There was extensive personal freedom and even slaves could achieve freedom and wealth (if their masters permitted them the necessary freedom to do so) so much so that even Pliny complained that mere slave girls aspired to owning their own mirror. People from the furthest reaches of the empire could participate, especially as citizenship was granted to increasing numbers of people and provinces.
A statement can be made to start us off thinking about Roman dress and clothing: In spite of the very long period of time through which the Roman empire developed and the high degree of personal freedom of individuals, there was surprisingly little variation in fashion and dress. The toga might be worn in one way or another, the cloak could be tied closely or loosely (Julius Caesar was a bit of a dandy type going for the loose option), yet by-and-large variation was limited. So too for women.
This lack of development in Roman dress and dresses wasn’t due to lack of demand on the part of Roman women, who socially were gathering increasing levels of personal freedom and access to the right of possession of personal wealth.
To further substantiate (upper class) matrons’ desire to distinguish themselves through their apparel we have a very particular event during the 2nd Punic war (the one against Hannibal): A law was passed called "lex Oppia" which on account of the heavy defeat the Romans had borne and the high costs of war against Carthage, limited the amount of jewelry and "showing off" which women could do. This law continued in force even after the threat of Hannibal had long passed, resulting in heavy protests from the female population until the law was repealed.
Personal "differentiation" if we might call it that, became evident through jewelry or hair style and possibly also through the materials and colours used for the clothing, but not in the cut and type of dress which essentially remained the same pattern throughout.
It can hence be seen that Roman dress was a symbol of the matron’s status and position, very much as the toga and stripes on the tunic were a sign of a man’s social position.
A number of different aspects of Rome dress are considered further below:
The "bra" as we know it nowadays didn’t exist, but a form of support for the breasts was regularly used, it was essentially a strip of cloth called a "fascia pectoralis" which was wrapped around the bust. Examples of this are frequent in numerous ancient Roman paintings in Pompeii and also in a variety of Roman mosaics.
Roman women wore a tunic as an undergarment which reached as far down as the ankles. Women of lower rank would wear this alone, or perhaps a further one on top for extra warmth. It was tied around the waist and possibly also tied under the breasts.
The stola was worn over the tunic. It was heavily draped but shorter than the tunic which lay underneath it: It reached as far down as the knees, possibly embellished by a stripe along the bottom. Over the Stola a cloak could be worn called a Palla, made of a rectangular piece of heavy woolen fabric which reached down to the ankles. This was also draped over the body in such a way that a fold could if necessary be pulled over the head for extra warmth and protection or simply to cover the head on solemn occasions.
As the imperial period progressed habits also relaxed and so it was not impossible for matrons to wear the palla cloak directly above the tunic.
Ancient Roman womens shoes can be subdivided into three main classes: boots ("caligae"), shoes ("calcei") and sandals ("sandalia" or "soleae"). The sandals were comfortable and particularly for the upper classes were used more as slippers for the home or banquets. The boots on the other hand were mostly worn by men who had heavy jobs to do, particularly the military. Emperor Caligula got his nickname from the military boots he often wore as a boy.
The shoes, "calcei", unlike sandals were closed over the foot and reached up to the ankle. They were made of leather and generally had the same shape for both men and women, except that the women's version was softer, white or coloured and according to Pliny (Natural History bk 9) were even embellished with precious stones or pearls - depending on your wealth clearly.
It is worth briefly mentioning socks - socks were not the norm in ancient Rome, and indeed were considered a thing for the ill and weak. However in times of extreme cold ancient Romans might wear strips of wool or linen, particularly farmers or soldiers in colder climates with their boots.
What the Roman matrons wore, at least officially, was very different to what they might wear if trying to blend in with the broader plebeian population (ie just a simple tunic which reached down to the ankles). The difference was particularly noticeable between matrons and women of ill-repute – whilst a matron of the early archaic period would have worn a toga similar to that of men, this was very much abandoned, and generally restricted to "working women". Furthermore, the clothing worn by a traditional matron was far more discrete in terms of showing off the body underneath, whilst women less concerned with social stigma allowed themselves a greater degree of freedom in showing off their bodies be it by way of more daring cuts of their clothing or through materials which allowed a degree of transparency.
This was not always a hard and fast rule of course, particularly as society and morality began to change and loosen – together with womens’ clothing. This doesn’t mean that the canon of what was morally acceptable had in any way changed, but simply that fewer and fewer people abided by it.
Here are a couple of examples of this ongoing change:
- Cicero’s disgusted description of the bawdy feasts held by Mark Anthony in Rome go straight to the point: feasts where it was difficult to tell the difference between free-born women and common prostitutes….
- Some years later during the reign of Nero we have an even more pungent description of changing morality (or upper class immorality) in some verses within Petronius’ famous Satyricon (chpt XXX): "quo carchedoneos…..matron tollat pedes….phalerae pelasgias
- Yet some centuries earlier during the second Punic war, when the threat against Rome itself was very different the Senate had gone as far as the Lex Oppia (against which women rebelled years later).
It is evident that the relationship between social position and womens’ dress became far more complex as the empire entered the period of the pax Romana: whilst dress was once a clear indicator of both moral behavious and social status it later became more of a symbol of social status + a supposed attitude towards tradition more so than a personal obeyance of specific moral conduct.
The famous example of this "divorce" is Emperor Claudius’ wife Messalina: Her love of nighttime escapades, Roman wigs (made with slaves’ hair for sure!) and other such clothing decoys are well recorded by Tacitus and Suetonius.
Colours and dyeing techniques did develop in line with the expansion of Roman dominions and Roman trade. Color was a very important means of conveying social position: brilliant colours were expensive to produce, particularly certain shades of purple which was therefore directly associated with the highest ranks of society and the Roman rulers themselves.
A variety of different clothing dyes existed in ancient Rome and many more were imported as Roman dominions expanded overseas. Many were based on vegetable dyes.
The writers Pliny (Natural History Bk 13) and Ovid give us some great insights into the sorts of strange practices that Roman women could get themselves into in order to reach greater heights of beauty. Around 1AD the poet Ovid actually wrote a book all about facial makeup for women titled "Medicamina faciei femineae" of which some fragments have survived. The name for makeup was "mundus".
Facial Masks: Ovid gives plenty of indications of facial masks based on readily available ingredients often of vegetable nature such as oats or farr (wheat) and honey. Pliny who wrote some 50 years later gives rather more adventurous suggestions such as washing your face 7 times per day in donkey's milk to remove wrinkles. One of my favourite suggestions is for looking after your fingernails (Natural Histroy bk 30 - Remedies derived from Living Creatures):
"....Agnails and hangnails upon the fingers are removed by using the ashes of a burnt dog's head, or the uterus of a bitch boiled in oil..." (NH bk30)
"A woman's fasting spittle is generally considered highly efficacious for bloodshot eyes..." (NH bk28)
But my favourite is his account about Emperor Nero (Pliny: NH Book 13,43 about the Thapsia plant):
"Nero Cæsar, at the beginning of his reign, conferred considerable celebrity on this plant. In his nocturnal skirmishes it so happened that he received several contusions on the face, upon which he anointed it with a mixture composed of thapsia, frankincense, and wax, and so contrived the next day effectually to give the lie to all rumours, by appearing with a whole skin."
Paints of various sorts often came from the orient, particularly Egypt which was famous for its eyeliners for example. Lipstick and facial colour powders were also frequent, particularly during the Empire: during the republican period excessive makeup and ostentation was considered negatively. Pliny suggests that by his age, Oriental imports of expensive unguents and ingredients for beauty care were costing as much as 100Milion sestertius per annum. The region of Campania to the south of Rome was also a strong production centre, although of lower quality product.
Makeup: colours were applied by means of a variety of different tools and instruments which were kept in a box or beauty case. Colours such as yellow, purple or blue would be applied over the eyes on top of a white or light coloured base made of plaster mixed with fat or honey as a binder. Eyeliner was made from smoke (carbon). Painting on a mole a-la-Marilyn could be quite fashionable and not restricted to women alone.
Perfumes (unguents): The great value which the Romans place on "unguents" (perfumes mixed into an oil base) can be understood from Pliny (bk 13, chpt1) who considered it: "....among the most prized and, indeed, the most elegant of all the enjoyments of life, and has begun even to be admitted in the list of honours paid to the dead...."
Also according to Pliny we know that there were 12 basic compositions. In Natural History Book 13 chapter 2 he goes into relatively good detail of the manner in which they were made and the exotic ingredients used.
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This page about Clothing and dress in Ancient Rome was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments