In Ancient Rome, the clothes in which the Romans wore said a lot about who they were and their status in society. Roman clothing consisted of togas, tunics and stolas, but different types and colors represented different members of public and those in positions of power.
Most Roman’s wore colorful clothing, and dyed their clothes in purple, indigo, red, yellow and other colors. There were also expensive dyes that could be used by those wealthy enough to show their status. Clean, bright clothing was also a mark of respectability and status among all social classes.
The toga was considered Rome’s “national costume,” but for day-to-day activities most Romans preferred more casual, practical and comfortable clothing, in the form of a tunic. The tunic was the basic garment for both genders.
Clothing was very simple in the Roman Empire, and its production required minimal cutting and tailoring. It was produced by hand through spinning and weaving, which was considered a virtuous yet frugal occupation for Roman women of all classes. However, those who could afford it, would have their clothes made by specialists.
Let’s take a look at Roman clothing in more depth below.
Fabrics and Materials of Roman Clothing
The most commonly used fiber in Roman clothing was wool, with white wool being preferred. This is because it could then be further bleached or dyed. Naturally dark wool was used for the toga pulla, which was a toga used for mourning, and work garments subjected to dirt and stains. Wool used in Roman clothing was usually sheep’s wool.
Linen and hemp were also commonly used in Roman clothing, as these could be produced on Roman territory. The plant stems were retted after harvesting to loosen the outer layers and internal were fibres, stripped, pounded and then smoothed. Following this, the materials were woven. Natural linen was greyish brown in color that faded to off-white through repeated washing and exposure to sunlight. It did not absorb dyes as well, and so was generally bleached or used in its raw, undyed state.
Other materials were used by the Romans to make their clothes, but these had to be imported. Silk and cotton were imported from China and India. Because they were very expensive, they were reserved for higher classes.
Cotton was especially used in the summer, as it was a more lightweight material. It was also more comfortable than wool, less costly than silk, and unlike linen, it could be brightly dyed. For this reason, cotton and linen were sometimes interwoven to produce vividly coloured, soft but tough fabric.
In producing the clothes, fibers were pressed mechanically with a mallet and smoothed with large combs. They were then spun and woven on looms. Most fabric and clothing was produced by professionals, and these were available for all classes, at a price.
However, carding, combing, spinning and weaving of wool were part of daily housekeeping for most women and those from middle or low income families could supplement their personal or family income by spinning and selling yarn, or by weaving fabric for sale. In fact, spinning and weaving were considered a virtuous yet frugal occupation for Roman women of all classes, with wool-baskets, spindles and looms positioned in the semi-public reception area of houses so those you could show off their frugality.
Those from low income families could hire out high quality clothing for special occasions or when they needed to make an impression. Expensive clothing was also a target in street robbery or stolen in public baths.
Even when clothes had fallen to rags, centonarii (“patch-workers”) made a living by sewing clothing and other items from recycled fabric patches.
The basic item of dress for both genders during Roman times was the tunic, made of two pieces of undyed wool sewn together at the sides and shoulders. It usually had very short sleeves, covering hardly half of the upper arm. Men had theirs belted so that the garment just covered the knees.
Men of the equestrian class were entitled to wear a tunic with narrow stripes, in the color the Romans called purple but was more like a deep crimson, extending from shoulder to hem, while broad stripes distinguished the tunics of men of the senatorial class.
For comfort and protection from cold, both sexes could wear a soft under-tunic or vest (subucula) beneath a coarser over-tunic. Loincloths, known as subligacula or subligaria, were used as undergarments but could be worn under a tunic. They could also be worn on their own, particularly by slaves who engaged in hot, sweaty or dirty work.
Women’s tunics were usually ankle or foot-length, long-sleeved, and could be worn loosely or belted. Women wore both a loincloth and strophium (a breast cloth) under their tunics, and some wore tailored underwear for work or leisure, too.
The toga was probably the most significant item in the ancient Roman wardrobe, worn predominantly by men, and known as the the national garment of Rome. Togas were made of a large woolen cloth, around 6 feet in width and 12 feet in length, and were not sewn by instead draped across the shoulders and around the body. It was usually worn over a plain white linen tunic.
Togas were specifically meant as a public display garment, and so would only be worn outside of the home, where tunics would be worn. Distinct tunics were worn to signify one’s title. The main types of toga were:
- Toga Virilis. This was as a plain, unadorned toga made in off-white color. It was worn by any adult male.
- Toga Praetexta. This was an off-white toga with a broad purple border. This toga was reserved for Senators and Curule Magistrates such as Consuls. There were minor distinctions between stripe indications for various magistrate positions.
- Toga Pulla. This toga was a dark toga reserved strictly for times of mourning.
- Toga Candida. This was an artificially whitened toga worn by candidates for political office. It was important to be white to indicate both purity of intention by the candidate and for the candidate himself to stand out from the crowd.
- Toga Picta. This was a special all purple toga embroidered with gold thread worn by a Roman general during a triumphal parade. Julius Caesar later adopted it as part of his regular dress and the emperors followed suit by using this type during many state occasions. The picta was likely adapted from the toga purpura, which was an all-purple toga worn by the early kings.
Citizens were supposed to wear togas for all public occasions, but it was difficult to put the toga on properly by oneself, and prominent Romans had slaves who were specially trained to perform this function.
Togas were expensive, heavy, and difficult to wear — while the wearer looked dignified, they would have found it difficult to do anything very active and the majority of citizens avoided wearing one. The upper classes favoured ever longer and larger togas, increasingly unsuited to manual work or physically active leisure. In addition, they would also sometimes wear a belt around the waist of the tunica to hold the waist of the garment snug, giving the impression of a two piece garment.
Roman slaves, regardless of their role and task, were not allowed to wear togas, because togas were a garment reserved for free living Roman citizens only. Togas were also forbidden for foreigners and for exiled Romans.
In poor weather, men used leather for protection against poor weather, but its primary use was in footwear and belts.
Soldiers in the military wore tunics that were plain white with a yellow or brown robe. Their tunics were cut shorter than those of a common man and sat just above their knees to immediately signal their status to others. Roman soldiers on active duty wore short trousers under a military kilt. Their clothes often extended up to the neck or included a linen scarf in order to prevent the soldier’s armor from chaffing.
For added protection from wind and weather, they could wear the sagum, a heavy-duty cloak also worn by civilians. The sagum distinguished common soldiers from the highest ranking commanders, who wore a larger, purple-red cloak, the paludamentum.
While white was the standard color for military tunics, archaeologists have also found military tunics dyed red, purple, green, or blue. The exact reason for this dying is still unclear, but it seems as though blue and green tunics were worn by guardsmen who remained stationed in cities and colonies. It may be that some members of the military dyed their tunics to demonstrate their wealth.
Animal skins were also worn by soldiers. Legionaries wore bearskins while Praetorian Guards preferred feline skins.
Originally, both men and women wore togas. There were two types of toga for women, similar to tunics worn by Greek women: peplos and chiton. Peplos were made from two rectangular pieces of cloth partially sewn together on both sides with the open sections at the top folded down in the front and back. It was pulled over the head and fastened with two large pins, forming a sleeveless dress. A belt was then tied over or under the folds.
For the chiton, two wide pieces of cloth were sewn together almost to the top, leaving just enough room for armholes. The woman pulled this garment over her head and used several pins or buttons to fasten it over her shoulders and arms, forming a dress with sleeves which could be belted under the breasts, at the waist, or at the hips.
At some point, the toga became a male-only garment. For most of ancient Roman history, married Roman women wore the stola, which was a long dress that reached down to the feet. It was worn over a tunic.
Stolas were made of linen, cotton or wool and generally had no sleeves. Over the stola, citizen-women often wore the palla, a sort of rectangular shawl up to 11 feet long, and five wide. It could be worn as a coat, or draped over the left shoulder, under the right arm, and then over the left arm.
Women convicted of adultery, and high-class female prostitutes (meretrices), were not only forbidden public use of the stola, but might have been expected to wear a toga muliebris (a “woman’s toga”) as a sign of their infamy.
As infants, Roman children were usually swaddled. Most Roman children wore scaled down versions of what their parents wore, with girls wearing a long tunic that reached the foot or instep, belted at the waist and very simply decorated, most often white, and boys also wearing a tunic, although shorter. Girls may also have worn another tunic over the base one when outside.
Both boys and girls wore amulets to protect them from immoral influences and sexual predation. For boys this was a bulla, worn around the neck, and for girls this was a crescent-shaped lunula. For formal wear, boys wore a toga praetexta, until they puberty, when they gave their toga praetexta and childhood bulla into the care of their family Lares and put on the adult male’s toga virilis. Girls may also have worn a toga praetexta until marriage, when they offered their childhood toys, and perhaps their maidenly praetexta to Fortuna Virginalis.
Slaves and freedmen usually wore tunics, but there was no standard dress for them. They may have dressed well or badly depending on their master, and usually dressed based on the chores they were given. House slaves were usually the best dressed as they lived in close proximity with their masters. However, regardless of their role or task, slaves and freedmen were not allowed to wear togas.
Cleaning Of Clothes
To wash their clothes, Romans took them to a fullonica, run by fullers, the ancient version of a laundry mat or dry cleaners. Romans did not use soap to clean their clothes, but instead a mixture of the urine of men and animals!
You may be wondering where the Romans got enough urine to do all their laundry! Well, they laced jars on street corners around the neighbourhood where they operated so that passersby could make a donation!
The first step was for the clothes to be washed by the fuller. This was done by putting the clothes in a small tub full with a mixture of water, nitrum or fuller’s earth (known as creta fullonia), some alkali elements, and urine. Once cleaned in the mixture, the fuller would stand in the tub on top of the clothes and stomp away until the clothes were clean.
The clothes were then rinsed in a series of larger, interconnected wash basins into which poured fresh running water from the town water supply. Finally, the clothing was brushed with either thistly plants, or the skin of a hedgehog, and were hung to dry on a large upside-down wicker basket work with sulphur placed beneath it to allow the fumes to whiten the clothes.
The Romans had a variety of different footwear, all of which were flat soled. Footwear was made of leather and usually a one-piece shoe. Their were four main types; a solea, which was a thin-soled sandal secured with thongs; a soccus, which was a laced, soft half-shoe; a calcea which was a hobnailed, thick-soled walking shoe; and a caliga, which was a heavy-duty, hobnailed standard-issue military marching boot.
When indoors, most reasonably well-off Romans of both sexes wore slippers or light shoes made of felt or leather. On their wedding day, brides would wear distinctively orange-coloured light soft shoes or slippers (lutei socci).
There were also certain shoes worn depending on status. Red ankle boots were worn by senators, and shoes with crescent-shaped buckles where wore by equites. Wooden clogs with leather uppers were worn in wet weather, and also worn by rustics and field-slaves.
Roman Hairstyles and Beards
Hairstyles were very important for the Romans, particularly for Roman women. They relied on elaborate hairstyles rather than clothing to vary their appearance. Roman women often curled their hair in a corkscrew fashion, and used hairpins made of ivory, silver, and gold, often mounted with jewels, were used to keep the hair in place. Women also wore hairnets made of finely woven gold wires.
Slaves who were skilled in the arts of hairdressing and cosmetics were needed for these elaborate hairdos. Women also had many creams, make-up, and perfumes. Cosmetics and hairstyling required mirrors, which were made of highly polished bronze or silver in rectangular or round shapes. The most elaborate of these mirrors had handles and relief carvings on the back.
Men on the other hand, especially during the middle and late Republic and into the early Empire, wore their hair short and were clean shaven, even though the process of shaving was uncomfortable and frequently resulted in cuts and scratches.
Emperors became style setters in Roman times. For example, the emperor Nero adopted a more elaborate hairstyle with curls framing his face and later added sideburns. Hadrian was the first emperor to adopt a short beard, and many men followed his example. After his reign, in fact, beards became quite common among Roman men.
Unlike the Greeks, who preferred light hair, the Romans liked dark hair. Many older Romans dyed their hair to hide gray with dyes made from burned walnut shells and leeks. To prevent graying some Romans wore a paste at night made from herbs and earthworms. The Roman remedy for baldness was bear grease and crushed myrtle berries.
Some Romans also wore blonde wigs made from the hair of German captives. Blonde wigs were the trademark of Roman prostitutes, which they wore to advertise their services.
The hair of children, even boys, was allowed to grow long and hang around the neck and shoulders. However, when the boy reached puberty and assumed the toga of manhood, his long locks were cut off.
Hats and Head Coverings
Romans didn’t regularly wear hats, and some Romans, such as slaves, were not allowed to cover their heads. The main reason one would cover their head in Roman times was to protect themselves from bad weather. In this instance, men would use a cloak, or women would use the palla or a veil. If they were caught out in the rain, they would make do with pulling their toga up to cover their head.
However, workmen who were outside all day wore a conical felt cap which was called the pilleus. A man of the upper classes, would protect his head, especially against the sun, while he was traveling or was in the country. To do this he would use a broad-brimmed felt hat of foreign origin, the causia or petasus.
Freed slaves often wore a Phrgygian (a cone-shaped hat) as a sign of their freedom.
Alongside hairstyles, jewelry was another way in which Roman women could express themselves. Since Roman clothing was usually pinned rather than sewn, brooches and pins offered a way for Romans to wear beautifully decorated jewelry which showed off their wealth and status. Necklaces, bracelets and earrings were also popular jewelry, sometimes made of gold or adorned with precious gemstones and vibrant glass beads.
Armbands seem to have been in fashion around the time Pompeii was destroyed, many of which were shaped like snakes. Pearls were popular too, although they were very expensive and therefore saved for those who were the richest.
Rings were worn by both genders. For men, the ring was the only article of jewelry worn by a Roman citizen after he reached the age of manhood. Roman men wore many rings, with five on each hand being a common sight. Only men of high social standing were permitted to wear rings made of gold or silver, while lower class men were only allowed to wear rings that were made of iron.
Despite this, some Roman soldiers of low social standing were granted special permission to wear a single gold ring for showing bravery in battle.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Roman Clothing" https://englishhistory.net/romans/roman-clothing/, June 10, 2022