Roman Clothing: Roman Fashion and Interesting Pieces of Ancient Roman Attire

Roman clothing provides insight into the intricacies of ancient society, revealing how fashion was influenced by societal values, status, and norms. The variety of Roman dress, ranging from practical tunics and armor to the culturally significant togas and stolas, illustrates a society that placed great importance on the symbolism embedded in their attire.

Types of Ancient Roman Clothing

Ancient Roman clothing was primarily influenced by ancient Greek fashion but developed its own distinctive styles. In the ancient world, the simplicity of clothing was paramount, largely due to the limited materials available—wool was the main fabric used, with linen also playing a role to some extent. The sewing needles available at the time were crude and bulky by today’s standards, leading to minimal stitching in garments. This limitation also meant the absence of buttonholes, necessitating the use of brooches or clasps to fasten clothing. Thus, Roman attire was characterized by its practicality and the use of simple, yet effective, means to secure garments.

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Roman Toga

The Roman toga, an emblem of citizenship and liberty, was a distinctive piece of Roman clothing, reserved for adult male citizens of the Roman Empire. This garment, which began as a simple piece worn over the bare body, evolved significantly over time. Initially, it was a practical item made of wool, reflecting the utilitarian aspect of ancient Roman attire. However, as the Roman Republic transitioned into the early Empire, the toga became a more complex symbol of social status and official dress for formal occasions.

Crafted from wool, the quality of a toga’s material could vary, with wool from regions such as Apulia, Tarentum, Attica, and Laodicea being particularly valued. The toga itself was a large woolen blanket, artfully draped over the body in a semi-circular shape, typically leaving the left shoulder exposed, and was often belted at the waist when worn over a tunic. It ranged from 2.5 to 5.5 meters in length and up to 2 meters in width. Some togas featured a purple stripe, denoting senators, and were sometimes weighted at the hem for better stability.

While women wore their own specific styles of dress and wealthy women had access to high-quality fabrics, the toga was strictly for Roman men, symbolizing their status as free citizens. Toga praetexta, adorned with a purple border, was worn by Roman boys and officials, signifying their nobility or office, while the toga virilis, a plain white toga, marked the transition of Roman boys into adulthood, reflecting the rites of passage under Roman law.

The use of the toga waned over time, remaining mainly as a ceremonial garment for specific occasions within the upper class and upper classes. Politicians, aiming to appear as the ideal candidates, would whiten their togas with chalk, a practice that led to the term “candidate” from “candida,” meaning white. The toga picta, worn by victorious generals, and the toga pulla, donned during periods of mourning, underscored the toga’s role in ceremonies and its importance in Roman costume.

Despite its prominence, the toga was often deemed impractical for everyday wear or private events, frequently replaced by the more comfortable synthesis or a simple tunic. This shift reflected the practical considerations of Roman clothing in the face of bad weather or the need for more manageable attire. The Roman toga remains a powerful symbol of the Roman Empire, encapsulating the intricacies of ancient Romans’ social stratification, cultural values, and aesthetic preferences.

Stola

The stola was the quintessential garment for Roman women, akin to a long tunic that extended to the ground. Available in variations with long or short sleeves, or even sleeveless, it was typically worn over a tunica interior, a longer under-tunic, allowing the layers to be visibly displayed—a subtle indicator of wealth and status. To further signify affluence, either the stola or the under-tunic might feature a wide, decorative border known as an “instita” at the lower hem, emphasizing the wearer’s social standing through their attire.

Palla

The palla, an evolution of the early Republic’s ricinium, served as the primary outer garment for Roman women. This draped cloak, akin to a more manageable version of the toga, lacked a standard size or shape, making its versatility one of its key features. It could envelop the wearer’s body in a large, elegant drape or be as understated as a scarf, adapting to the needs and preferences of the individual. This flexibility allowed the palla to range from a statement piece of attire to a simple accessory, showcasing the wearer’s style and status.

Tunica

The tunica, the cornerstone of Roman attire, functioned as the primary piece of clothing for most Romans, including slaves, often serving as their sole garment outdoors. Men’s tunics typically reached the knees, while women’s versions were longer, some touching the ground, and often came with long sleeves—a style that only became socially acceptable for men by the second or third century AD, as prior to this, long sleeves were considered effeminate.

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To combat cold weather, Romans might layer two or three tunics, with the subucula worn closest to the body as a form of undergarment, followed by the intusium or supparus. Emperor Augustus, noted for his delicate health, was known to wear up to four tunics during the winter months.

Tunics also served as indicators of social rank, distinguished by the addition of a purple stripe, or clavus. A wide stripe, the latus clavus, signified senatorial status, while the angustus clavus, a narrower stripe, denoted members of the equestrian order. Senators wore tunics with a single broad stripe down the center, whereas equestrians had tunics with two narrow stripes along the sides.

Special tunics, such as the tunica palmata—embroidered with palm leaves and brightly colored—were reserved for triumphators and possibly other dignitaries during exceptional events. In the empire’s later years, the dalmatica, a rich, long-sleeved tunic, often replaced the toga entirely, reflecting the era’s shifting fashion influences, including the adoption of long, close-fitting trousers from Germanic soldiers in the Roman army.

Fibulae

Fibulae were crucial to Roman clothing, functioning as the ancient counterparts to modern safety pins. These items, both decorative and functional, were used to fasten garments like togas and stolas. Their varied designs not only served practical purposes but also conveyed the wearer’s wealth, status, and personal style through elaborate craftsmanship and materials.

Caligae

Caligae were the distinctive heavy-soled military boots worn by Roman legionaries. These boots, essential for the demanding marches across the empire’s varied terrains, symbolized the discipline and strength of Rome’s military forces. While primarily for soldiers, caligae also represented the rigorous life and readiness associated with Roman martial prowess.

Lorica

The lorica segmentata (segmented plate armor), along with other forms like the lorica hamata (chainmail) and lorica squamata (scale armor), showcased the Roman military’s advanced protective gear. These various armors provided essential protection in combat, with differences in design signifying the wearer’s rank and role within the Roman army.

Roman Jewelry

Jewelry in Rome went beyond mere adornment, serving as indicators of the wearer’s wealth, status, or religious affiliation. Crafted from precious metals and stones, items such as rings, necklaces, and bracelets were worn by both men and women, highlighting their place in society and personal beliefs.

Ancient Roman Footwear

Footwear in Rome, ranging from the utilitarian caligae of soldiers to the more refined sandals and calcei of civilians, was designed with both function and social standing in mind. The type of footwear one wore indicated their occupation, social rank, and the occasion, underscoring the practical yet hierarchical nature of Roman society.

Roman footwear showed little distinction between male and female. One usually wore sandals tied round the ankle with thin strips of leather. There were three main types of footwear: The calcei were the standard outdoor footwear for a Roman and formed part of the national dress with the toga. It was a soft leather shoe, generally speaking a cross between a shoe and a sandal.

Sandals (soleae, crepidae or sandalia) were generally regarded as indoor footwear. It was as improper to be seen in public wearing sandals outdoors as it was to visit your host’s banquet in anything other. Hence a wealthy Roman would have a slave accompany him to a banquet, to carry his sandals, where he would change into them. The third general type of footwear was a pair of slippers (socci), which were also meant for indoor use.

There were of course other types of footwear. The pero was a simple piece of leather wrapped around the foot, the caliga was the hob-nailed military boot/sandal and the sculponea was a wooden clog, worn only by poor peasants and slaves.

Fabrics and Materials

The textiles used in Roman clothing reflected the empire’s vast trade networks and social hierarchies. Demand for luxurious Tyrian purple, fine wool, and imported silks revealed clothing’s role as a marker of status. The existence of trade guilds for tailors, dyers, and fullers highlighted the skilled labor and organization behind Rome’s fashion industry, with the unique use of urine by fullers for its ammonia showcasing an innovative approach to textile processing.

Status was evidently all-important in Rome. Given that clothes were a simple way of expression such status, it is little surprise that rich families had slaves trained as tailors (vestiarii, paenularii). Trade guilds existed for the professional tailors, dyers and fullers, indicating that there existed a substantial industry.

The fullers of course are famed for their large earthenware bowls which they kept at their gates into which citizens caught short could relieve themselves. The gesture was of course not entirely selfless. Fullers were dependent on the ammonia they gathered from urine as a natural detergent.

Of the greatest importance when considering the dying of textiles was of course Tyrian purple. Tyrian purple dye was one of the most costly commodities available in the ancient world.

The dye was gained from the glandular fluids of certain types of sea snails in the eastern Mediterranean, known collectively as murex snails.

Ancient Roman Clothing: Men

Men’s clothing in Ancient Rome emphasized status, function, and tradition. The tunica, a simple knee-length garment, served as the base of male attire, worn by citizens of every class.

For those with the right to wear it, the toga draped over the tunica was a symbol of Roman citizenship and social standing, varying in design and detail to indicate the wearer’s rank or role in society. Senators and equestrians distinguished themselves with tunics adorned with purple stripes, the latus clavus, and angustus clavus, respectively. Military attire included the caligae, rugged boots suited for the demands of the legion, and the lorica for protection in battle.

Over time, fashion evolved with the incorporation of trousers and the dalmatica, especially under the influence of cultures within the Empire. Jewelry, though less ostentatious than women’s, was worn to signify status or allegiance to certain deities or beliefs.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses: The Names and Stories of 29 Ancient Roman Gods and Roman Religion

Ancient Roman Clothing: Women

Roman women’s attire was both a reflection of personal status and adherence to societal norms. The stola, a long tunic worn over an undergarment, was the quintessential female garment, signifying a woman’s marital status and respectability. Variations in sleeve length and decoration added diversity to this foundational piece.

The palla, a draped cloak similar to the men’s toga but more versatile, offered additional modesty and protection while allowing for expressive styles through different ways of draping. Women’s clothing also included a wider use of jewelry and accessories, with elaborate hairstyles and precious ornaments signifying wealth, social status, and individuality. The tunica interior, worn beneath the stola, and the richly decorated instita at the hem, added layers of complexity and elegance to the ensemble, showcasing the wearer’s sophistication and attention to fashion.

Ancient Roman Clothing: Slaves

Slaves in Ancient Rome wore the simplest form of clothing, primarily the tunica, which was often the sole garment provided. This simple tunic, shorter for men and modestly longer for women, differentiated slaves from free citizens, who might adorn themselves with additional garments and accessories.

Slaves’ tunics were typically made from cheaper, rougher fabrics and lacked the decorative elements seen in the garments of the free. Footwear was minimal or absent, and slaves had little to no jewelry. Their attire was functional, designed to facilitate their work without regard for fashion or personal expression. The simplicity and uniformity of slave clothing served as a constant reminder of their status within the Roman hierarchical society.

Roman Hairstyles

In ancient Rome, hairstyles were not just about personal grooming but also conveyed social status, cultural identity, and fashion sensibilities. Influenced by the Greeks and Etruscans, Romans initially embraced natural hair and beard styles until the Hellenistic period’s shaving culture, introduced during Alexander the Great’s era, became popular in Rome around the third century BC. Scipio Africanus is credited with popularizing daily shaving among Roman men, a trend that necessitated skilled barbers, known as tonsors, who became integral to Roman society for their grooming services.

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Despite this trend towards clean-shaven faces, fashion ebbed and flowed with societal changes. The Late Republic saw a resurgence of neatly trimmed beards among the youth, a symbol of grooming and status, as noted by Cicero. However, Emperor Hadrian‘s reign marked a significant shift with his adoption of a beard, possibly influenced by Greek culture or to conceal facial scars, making beards fashionable once again until Emperor Constantine the Great re-established the preference for being clean-shaven.

Roman men typically kept their hair short, viewing long hair and elaborate hairstyles as effeminate, except for a brief period under Marcus Aurelius when shaving one’s head became fashionable. Early Christians also preferred short hair and beards, aligning with the broader Roman norms for simplicity and modesty.

Women’s hairstyles, on the other hand, were complex and varied widely, reflecting their status, age, and marital status. Young women favored simple styles like buns or knots, while married women adopted more elaborate arrangements. Early Roman women might have worn their hair in styles reminiscent of Etruscan fashion, evolving over time into more sophisticated dos, especially during the Flavian dynasty when hairstyles became particularly extravagant. These styles often required additional hairpieces, dyes, and the expertise of ornatrixes (female hairdressers) to achieve the desired look. Blonde hair, acquired through trade with Germanic tribes, was highly prized, and dyes made from caustic soap were used to achieve various shades.

Overall, Roman hairstyles mirror the Empire’s shifting cultural influences, technological advancements, and social stratifications, showcasing a rich mosaic of aesthetic preferences and societal norms. From the functional tunics and togas to the intricate hairstyles and grooming habits, Roman attire and personal appearance offer a window into the values, priorities, and complexities of ancient Roman life, highlighting a society deeply invested in the symbols of status, identity, and fashion.

Drapes of Power: Unveiling Roman Fashion

The clothes worn by Romans were more than just practical necessities; they were a significant aspect of their culture, symbolizing social status, citizenship, and moral values. From the military caligae to the prestigious senatorial togas, every piece of attire served as a testament to the empire’s complexity and its enduring fascination. Roman fashion was a direct reflection of an advanced civilization that was acutely aware of its own identity and legacy.

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