Fashion in ancient Rome was not anything like the fast-paced industry of today. Styles of ancient Roman clothing and jewelry changed slowly across the centuries. But this did not mean that fashion and personal adornment were not important to the Romans; far from it. In a society obsessed with status, clothing and jewelry played a key part in outwardly indicating one’s position in the world.
Expensive fabrics and precious jewels were clearly indicators of wealth. But overt ostentation was frowned upon, suggesting newly acquired wealth and a lack of nobility. Particular elements of style could also open a person up to criticism with regard to their character. For men in particular, their appearance could be interpreted as a sign of effeminacy or even immorality – the greatest of Roman insults.
‘You are familiar with the carefully coiffed young men, with their gleaming beards and hair – everything from a box; you can never hope for anything strong or solid from them.’
(Seneca the Younger)
How Was Ancient Roman Clothing Made?
The most common fabrics found in ancient Roman clothing were wool, linen, and silk. Leather was only used for shoes and sandals, with the exception of military uniforms. Wool was produced in Italy, but linen and silk often came from the eastern parts of the empire. Greece provided an excellent climate for the flax plant and some of the best silk came from the island of Kos. It is also likely that by the 1st century CE, some linen and silk were imported from Syria and China, respectively.
Most fabric was not dyed as this was an expensive process. The most luxurious color of dye was purple, which came from crushed sea snails and was known as Tyrian purple. By the Imperial era, purple was closely associated with the emperor. Roman sumptuary laws stated that only the emperor could wear a toga of solid purple.
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Clothes were cut and sewn from large pieces of woven cloth that had been produced using a loom. In ancient Rome, women were traditionally weavers of cloth. It was considered part of the role of Roman women to participate in making clothes for their household. Even aristocratic women were expected to oversee this work.
Once woolen cloth had been woven it was then taken to the fuller. His role was to clean and shrink the wool to make it suitable for making into clothes.
Fullers’ workshops discovered in Pompeii and Ostia provide many details about this process. The wool was seemingly cleaned by being trodden underfoot in a mixture of water and urine. It was then dried, trimmed and pressed in large screw-presses. Most cloth retained its natural color. However, white garments could be produced by bleaching the fabric in sulfur.
There were few differences between ancient Greek and Roman clothing styles. Indeed, much ancient Roman clothing was inspired by earlier Greek counterparts. For example, the Greek himation, pictured above, was worn by citizens in Greece to indicate their freeborn status. This garment and its indication of social standing was also adopted by the Romans. The Etruscans are believed to have introduced the himation to ancient Rome after early contact with Greek culture. The himation gradually developed into the more voluminous Roman toga.
The toga was essentially a piece of draped cloth with a semi-circular shape. By the 1st century CE it is thought to have measured as large as 5.5 x 2.75 meters. The toga had no fastening and the majority of the fabric was held in the crook of the arm. In reality, it must have been cumbersome to wear. This perhaps explains why it was only desirable for certain occasions.
Togas were worn in different colors and with different embellishments according to status and occasion. The toga pulla was a dark wool garment worn for mourning. The toga candida was worn by candidates for public elections and was distinguished by its bright white color. An undyed toga with a narrow purple stripe (clavus angustus) at the border was worn by equestrians and sons of the elite. Togas with a wide purple stripe (clavus latus) were reserved for senators and other holders of high office. As we have seen, only emperors could wear a toga entirely of purple. But victorious commanders returning from war could wear togas of purple wool and gold thread (toga picta).
The use of togas spread gradually throughout the western provinces of the empire, but was less common in the East. Togas also became increasingly large and expensive. This meant they were eventually the sole preserve of the very wealthy.
Everyday Clothing in Ancient Rome
Most normal Romans probably did not own a formal toga. It was not a practical garment and did not fit into the demands of daily life for most people. Instead, everyday ancient Roman clothing would have consisted of tunics, cloaks, and mantles (informal draped cloth).
Most Romans would have owned at least one woolen cloak. Roman cloaks were worn pinned at one shoulder (chlamys) or joined at the front with a hood (birrus). Women also wore a type of cloak known as the palla. This was a draped garment that could be pulled over the head when required.
Tunics were a staple item of ancient Roman clothing for men and women. These were mostly made of wool or linen for the warmer months. They could be worn alone or under more formal garments, such as the toga. Normally a tunic was sleeveless and worn with a belt for definition.
Women wore the stolla, which was a type of long dress secured with a girdle. Decoration was often found at the neckline of the stolla, with motifs or bands of color woven into the cloth. Embroidery was rare since it was an expensive and time-consuming handcraft.
The Romans did not wear trousers, except as part of the military uniform. In ancient Greece, trousers had long been associated with foreign enemies such as the Persians, who wore striped tapered trousers. The Romans also viewed trousers as the clothes of the enemy. The so-called barbarian tribes of Europe, the scourge of the Roman Empire, also favored the trouser over tunics and draped cloth.
Little is known about Roman underwear. Undergarments were likely made of linen and probably took the form of a lightweight tunic. Women were known to bind their breasts with cloth bands and men wore loincloths.
Women and Beauty in Ancient Rome
Women in ancient Rome used hairstyles, make-up, and jewelry to add interest and variation to their attire. While ancient Roman clothing styles changed slowly, the fashion for hairstyles changed quickly and is often a useful indicator for dating Roman art and sculpture.
Elaborate hairstyles were very popular in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries CE. Hair could be arranged around a wire framework to create height for eye-catching styles. Hair pieces of plaits and curls, often made from the hair of captured slaves, were also clipped into a woman’s existing hair. By the mid-2nd century AD, styles became more simplified. Waves crimped into the hair also became popular at this time, as in the portrait bust above.
Hairstyling for wealthy women was done in the home by a specialist female slave, the ornatrix. But evidence from Pompeii does suggest that hairdressing shops for men and women also existed, known as tonsores.
Archaeological finds show that hair and beauty tools in ancient Rome were quite similar to those we use today. These include combs, tweezers, razors, toothpicks, and nail cleaners. Hair-curling tongs have also been discovered. These consisted of two cylinders, one hollow and one solid, which could be heated in the fire.
Cosmetics and perfume were also widely used, including by some men. Glass containers have been found with traces of their original contents such as blusher and face powder.
Interestingly, one of our best ancient sources for Roman women’s beauty regimes is the love poet Ovid, who wrote Cosmetics for Women. This was a parody of more formal didactic poetry and sought to provide details of how women could make themselves beautiful for men. The following is his recommendation for an effective cream for blemishes:
‘Spots on the face are banished by a remedy taken from the querulous nest of birds: kingfisher-cream they call it.’
(Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Feminae, line 75)
Jewelry in Ancient Rome
Jewelry was used to embellish formal and informal ancient Roman clothing. The Etruscans, a dominant group in Italy from the 8th—5th centuries BCE, created beautiful jewelry using sophisticated techniques such as granulation and filigree. These early designs inspired later Roman styles. However, the techniques gradually became simpler with the use of embossing and beadwork.
Jewelry made from precious metals, such as gold and silver, only really became popular in ancient Rome in the 1st century CE. By this time, the empire had grown exponentially over the last century. Many new provinces had been acquired, such as Asia Minor, Greece, and Syria, which opened up access to precious metals and luxury objects.
The use of precious stones in jewelry also became more fashionable during this period. Precious stones were believed to have protective qualities. For example, amethysts were thought to relieve the effects of overindulgence in food and wine. Intaglio stones were also popular. These were created using a specialist technique of carving images into gemstones. Some women belonging to the elite sections of society amassed impressive gemstone collections. Pliny the Elder gives the following description of Lollia Paulina, the wife of Emperor Caligula:
‘She was covered in emeralds and pearls…glittering with jewels on her head, in her hair, on her neck, ears, and fingers.’
(Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 9.117)
Aside from the expected necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings, Roman women wore some more unusual items. These included hairnets woven from gold wire, diadems – a type of tiara, and hairpins in a wide range of designs.
Some jewelry also held very specific connotations and indications of social status. For example, a member of the equestrian class could be identified by the anulus aureus, a solid gold ring worn on their left hand.
Why Was Ancient Roman Clothing Important?
Personal appearance clearly played an important role in the Roman world. If we need concrete evidence of this, then we need look no further than the sheer number of mirrors that have been discovered at sites across the Roman Empire.
But ancient Roman clothing and personal adornments were not just products of vanity. A piece of clothing or jewelry could quite literally act as a symbol of status. As we have seen, the various versions of the toga were used to indicate the social or even political positions of the elite.
Ancient Roman clothing was also important for those lower down in society. Freedmen and women were presented with a conical felt hat after gaining their freedom, known as the pileus. This hat would have represented a struggle out of slavery and must have held great personal importance for individuals throughout the Roman world.
Fashion and personal adornment were therefore rich in possibilities for the people of ancient Rome. They offered opportunities for self-expression and displays of social status while also serving as an important symbol of personal challenge and achievement.