Horrible History Costume: The ‘Hollywood’ Toga
Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:
• We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.
• That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.
• However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.
• And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.
The ‘Hollywood’ toga So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ with depictions of Roman toga? Firstly, togae (Latin: sing. toga) were only worn by adult male Roman citizens. That said, in our next post ‘Horrible History Costume: Hair’ it is noted that prostitutes and women who had forfeited the title of matron, usually through adulterous behaviour, were required by Roman law to wear one (Kittell-Queller, 2014). No respectable Roman woman, therefore, would ever wear a toga.
Sadly, this does not seem to worry film and television costume departments where one will frequently encounter the ‘Hollywood’ toga. This garment is essentially a sash draped over one shoulder and around the actor or actress’ body. There is no historical precedent that we are aware of in any contemporary imagery or description for these sashes. By contrast, the Roman toga was a very specific item of clothing (you can read more about this distinctive garment here). It was invariably made of wool cloth of varying sizes up to six metres (about 20 feet) in length. It was generally worn over a tunic with draped folds over the left shoulder and the excess material wrapped round the body in a swag. After the 2nd century BC, the toga was worn almost exclusively by men and as already mentioned, only by Roman citizens.
It is true that togae were draped over one shoulder and wrapped about the body, but that is where the similarity between an accurate Roman toga and the ‘Hollywood sash’ ends. The latter can only be described as a thing favoured by lazy costume designers. What is more these sashes may have given impetus to the idea that togae can be easily slipped on or off. Having worn a recreated toga, the author can attest that help is definitely needed to don one and achieve the proper drapery.
Donning a Toga Wearing a toga will be quite possibly a very alien concept for people used to modern tailored clothing. Being swathed in metres of material all precisely and properly draped with the left arm and, occasionally, hand dedicated to supporting the voluminous garment, and being restricted to walking in short, measured steps, requires practice. The toga was impractical day wear needing constant adjustment to preserve the correct draped form and stop it simply falling off. Perhaps surprisingly, considering its iconic status, most Roman men did not like wearing the toga as it was hot, heavy and uncomfortable. A full toga cannot be simply 'slipped' on but takes a great deal of preparation and the assistance of at least one, preferably two other people to help the wearer dress.
The evidence for precisely how ancient Romans donned their togas does not survive, however. Consequently, those seeking to recreate the look today have had to experiment with the most effective way of doing so. The resulting ‘complexity’ may well explain why costume designers and actors are content to stick with the ‘Hollywood sash’ but, for the sake of accuracy, the following guidance is offered to assistants charged with dressing a toga wearer:
1. The wearer stands erect with their arms extended laterally at shoulder height in a cruciform stance. Other than holding a fold or slowly rotating when instructed, there is little else for the wearer to do.
2. The toga is prepared for donning by gathering the folds, which are then placed, from behind the wearer, over their left shoulder. The folds should be uppermost and hang down the wearer’s front, with the bottom edge reaching to the level of the knee or mid-calf. The folds should be adjusted as required to drape properly. The wearer can assist by bending his left arm at the elbow and gripping the material in place.
3. Keeping the folds together, drape the material down the wearer’s back, looping up under their right arm, across the chest (the wearer’s left hand must be out of the way) and once again over the left shoulder. The depth of the swag will depend on how long and full the toga has been made. Tucking the material into a belt may help the draping on the wearer’s right side. Depending on the available space it may be advantageous to get the wearer to perform a slow quarter or half turn to the right.
4. If the toga is particularly long, the remaining material should be passed over the right shoulder (from back to front) and under the right forearm to cradle the arm in a sling before again passing over the left arm or shoulder. Alternatively, excess material may be tucked beneath and into the folds created by the first pass across the body.
And finally…This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, bon appétit.
Kittell-Queller, E., (2014), ‘Matrons in Ancient Rome’, available online (accessed May 26th, 2022).
Sebesta, J.L. & Bonfante, L. (eds), (2001), ‘The World of Roman Costume’, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.