THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT ROMAN DRESS
A tribe occupying the hills near the present city of Rome, the Romans gradually came to dominate not only the Italian peninsula, but a vast region including present-day western Europe and large parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Because much of the Mediterranean region had been under the domination of Greece, Greek influences permeated much of Roman life. Dress was no exception. As with the Etruscans, it is often difficult to distinguish between Greek and Roman styles. However, Roman dress is far more likely than Greek to include elements that identify some aspect of the status of the wearer.
Not only are there ample works of art remaining from the Roman era, but also literary works and inscriptions in Latin that can be read and understood. Even so, some aspects of Roman dress are not clearly understood. The precise meaning of certain Latin words referring to clothing may not be clear. One example is a man’s garment called the synthesis.
The synthesis was a special occasion garment, worn by men for dinner parties. The traditional Roman man’s garment, the toga, was cumbersome. Romans reclined to eat, and apparently it was difficult to stretch out in a toga, so the synthesis was the solution to this awkwardness. Based on what Roman texts say about the garment, scholars have concluded that it was probably a tunic worn with a shoulder wrap. But there does not appear to be any depiction of the style in Roman art.
Wool, linen, and silk were used in Rome and apparently cotton was imported from India around 190 B.C.E. or before. Silk was available only to the wealthy; cotton might be blended with wool or linen. Textiles were not produced in the family home, as in Greece. Instead they were woven by women workers on large estates or by men and women in businesses located throughout the empire. While some clothing was made in the home, ready-towear clothing was also available in shops.
The Roman version of the chiton was called tunica, from which the word tunic derives. Roman men’s tunics ended at about the knee and were worn by all classes of society. Bands of purple that extended vertically from one hem to the other across the shoulder designated rank. Tunics of the Emperor and senators had wider bands; those of knights had narrower bands. Precise placement and width of these bands, called clavi, changed somewhat at different time periods, and after the first century C.E. all male nobles wore these bands. At this time ordinary citizens and slaves had no such insignia, but later they became more common. All male citizens were expected to wear the toga over a tunic.
The toga was the symbol of Roman citizenship. It was draped from a semicircle of white wool and placed across the shoulder, around the back, under the right arm, and pulled across the chest and over the shoulder. As previously noted it probably derived from the Etruscan tebenna. Some officials wore special togas and throughout the history of Rome the size, shape, and details of draping did change somewhat.
Various types of cloaks and capes, with or without hoods, served to provide cover outdoors. Those worn by the military often identified their rank. The sagum was a red wool cape worn by ordinary soldiers. This term entered into the lexicon of symbols, and when people talked about “putting on the sagum” they meant “going to war.”
Women’s dress in Rome differed only a little from that of Greek women of the Hellenic period. They wore an under tunic, not seen in public, and an over tunic very much like a Greek chiton. A palla, rather similar to a Greek himation, was draped over this. The colors of these layers varied. Opinions differ as to just what the stola with the instita was. Many costume histories use the word stola interchangeably with outer tunic. However, literary works clearly indicate that the garment was associated only with free, married women. Some sources describe the instita as a ruffle at the bottom of the stola or outer tunic. But a careful analysis by Judith Sebesta (1994) leads her to conclude that it is a special type of outer tunic suspended from sewed-on straps.
Hairstyles show marked differences from one time period to another. Men are generally bearded during the years of the Republic, clean-shaven during the Empire until the time of the Emperor Hadrian who wore a beard. Each family celebrated the occasion of the first shave for a young boy with a festival at which they placed the hairs in a special container and sacrificed them to the gods.
Women’s hairstyles were relatively simple during the first century C.E., but later grew so very complicated that they required the addition of artificial hair and special curls and braids arranged into towering structures.
Literary sources speak of extensive use of makeup by both men and women. Cleanliness was valued and public baths available to all levels of society.
The children of Roman citizens dressed like adults. Both boys and girls wore a toga with a purple band around the edge (toga praetexta). Boys wore it until age fourteen to sixteen, after which they wore the citizen’s toga (toga pura), and girls gave it up after puberty. Initially this garment was only for the children of noble families, but eventually became part of the dress of all children of Roman citizens. Roman male children also wore a bulla, a ball-shaped neck ornament containing protective charms that was given to them at the time they were named.
Both brides and vestal virgins, women whose lives were dedicated to the goddess Vesta, seem to have worn a special headdress. It consisted of pads of artificial hair alternating with narrow bands. A veil was placed over this. For brides the veil was bright orange and a wreath made of orange blossoms and myrtle was set on top of it. This association of veils and orange blossoms with weddings continues until modern times and may have its origin in Roman custom.