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What did the Romans wear?

Updated on August 17, 2010
Photo by Leonardo Barbosa
Photo by Leonardo Barbosa

Roman dress (about 700 B.C. to about 500 A.D.) was, like that of Greece, based on two draped garments- a tunic (man's tunica or woman's stola), and a wrap (toga or pallium). The man's tunica, roughly equivalent to the Greek chiton but directly derived from the Etruscan predecessors of the Romans, was girded up to the knee. Originally sleeveless, of white or natural wool, it was later cut with short sleeves and was of linen or cotton or of leather for workmen. A long-sleeved, floor-length version (tunica talaris) was worn chiefly by actors. Rank was indicated by clavi, or purple bands of different widths on the shoulders of the tunica. The tunica alone was worn by gentlemen indoors, by workmen everywhere.

Gentlemen did not appear in public without a wrap. The characteristic wrap of the Roman citizen, forbidden to slaves and exiles, was the woolen toga, similar to the Greek himation but elliptical rather than rectangular and carefully draped around the body under the right arm and over the left. The toga of the emperor was purple, that of the rich, white, that of the poor, natural wool. Other wraps were the pallium (patta), a large rectangle also like the Greek himation, and the hooded, bell-shaped, weatherproof paenula, derived from the Etruscans, which was more convenient than the toga and eventually replaced it.

In the house, women wore a stola, over which they added another stola for formal occasions. One had sleeves; both were long and girdled once or twice; outdoors, women added a palla and a veil.

Footwear included soleae (slippers) or soccae (light shoes) in the house. On the street men wore leather calcei and soldiers wore hobnailed caligae, both strapped to varying heights.

As Rome became more deeply involved in foreign conquest and trade, foreign influences appeared in dress. Romans began to adopt Eastern luxuries, such as brilliant silk, cosmetics, elaborate hairdressing for the women, and gold jewelry. They also took over various practical barbarian garments; for example, the Gallo-Roman cucullus (hood with small cape) and braccae (trousers). Braccae were traditionally despised by Mesopotamian and Mediterranean peoples as the dress of uncultivated conquerors and were at first forbidden in Rome. However, they were worn by soldiers in cold outlying garrisons, and by the 5th century A.D., as the barbarians gained control of the empire, they were accepted in Rome itself. Barbarian influence also affected the Roman tunica, which developed into the wide-cut, wide-sleeved, long, ungirdled dalmatica, introduced from Dalmatia by the 3rd century A.D. The dalmatica was popular among early Christians, especially among the Copts of Egypt, who decorated it with superbly colored tapestry-woven insets and borders in place of the clavi. The dalmatica or another tunic was often worn over the basic tunic.


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