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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

How To: Dress as an ancient Roman

Updated: Feb 17


This ‘How To:' guide is a follow up on a previous one aimed at readers wishing to recreate simple yet effective ancient Greek costume. The focus for this guide, however, is on the ancient Romans and the typical clothing worn by men and women at the height of Imperial rule in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Three garments were the basis of Roman dress: the tunica (pronounced too-NEE-kah), the peplos, an overgarment worn by women, and the toga, the famous garment exclusively worn by male citizens. The first two garments were accessorised according to the wealth of the individual and the prevailing fashion at given point in the Roman period. As for the toga, it has been covered in greater detail here and will not feature in this guide.


First off are a few practical pointers for the modern maker:


Material The only truly acceptable cloth is that made from the natural fibres of linen or wool. It is recognised that sometimes modern cloth contains a mixture of these and cotton. This is tolerable compromise for those seeking to be as accurate as possible since the mix of fibres will not adversely affect the appearance or the draping qualities of the base material.


Construction There is no reason why seams that are not immediately visible cannot be machine stitched. There are some people for whom this is an anathema as it is ‘not historically accurate’. We would argue that careful use of machine stitching is merely a practical measure (we live in the 21st century and are not actually ancient Romans) providing visible seams, such as those in collars, sleeves and hems, are hand sewn.


Fastenings Garments that were not sewn together were typically fastened using long pins (fibulae), brooches, or buttons and toggles made of bone or wood.


Underwear


A letter discovered at Vindolanda Roman Fort, tablet 346, sent to a soldier probably from his home in Batavia [1] refers to socks (udones), underpants (subligaria) and sandals (soleae) being dispatched to him. Other tablets preserved from the excavations at the fort also reference underwear so we can be fairly confident that, just like us, Romans wore such clothing. What form this took is a little harder to discern, however. It is uncertain whether Roman underwear was a tailored garment or a more straightforward loincloth, or breechcloth (breechclout). Even today the latter remains one of the simplest forms of dress, and in some cases the only garment worn. Evidence from the clothing Ötzi the Iceman was discovered wearing revealed that, in Europe around 2000 BC, some men wore leather breechcloths. In Ötzi’s case it was made from narrow strips of sheep hide stitched together to produce a garment, originally a 100 cm x 33 cm, that was worn between the legs and fastened with the belt (see right).


From Ötzi’s simple loincloth developed more encompassing garments such as the one shown below left in a carved relief of ancient Egyptian farmers or labourers. This form of underwear is relatively easy to recreate requiring a T-shaped piece of cloth. The width needs to be enough that it can be tied round the waistline to form a ‘belt’. Likewise, a sufficiently long length of material, forming a ‘tail’, is drawn between the legs, from back to front, and looped through the ‘belt’ to secure it in place. The result is somewhat like a pair of shorts with an apron of cloth at the front (see below right).



From the Vindolanda Tablets we know Romans wore a type of loincloth known as a subligaculum. While we cannot be certain of its design, it is highly likely that such garments were very similar to the Egyptian versions.


Tunica


The tunica (pl: tunicae) is the base garment worn by both men and women and is synonymous with the Greek khiton [2]. As such the Roman soldier’s tunica is also a rectangular piece of cloth folded laterally to form a tube. It seems, however, that the Romans preferred the garment sewn at the shoulders and sewn from the underarm to the hem. As in our earlier post, the difference between the sexes remains the overall length of the garment and where the hemline ends. For Roman women, dresses are typically shown full length with the hemline at least to the ankle. By contrast, Roman men tended to wear their tunicae with the hemline at or just below knee height, but there are examples of the wealthier elite wearing full length tunicae. By contrast, soldiers are shown in tunicae with the hemline just above the knee (we suggest two to three finger widths above) allowing greater freedom of movement in exercise, manual labour and in warfare.


Subuclas In addition to any subligaria previously mentioned, a linen tunica known as a subuclas was most likely worn beneath the woollen outer garment. From practical experience, this form of underwear makes the woollen tunica more comfortable in both hot and colder weather. On hotter days the linen acts will soak up perspiration, but is easier to wash, and dries more quickly, than wool. On cooler or colder days, the extra layer provides additional warmth. The subuclas should be slightly shorter in length and narrower in width than the overlying tunica.


Warming wool Most Roman tunicae and outer garments were made from wool, whether lightweight fine weaves or heavier, coarser ones. For warmth, harder wearing wool was, and remains, a sensible choice. Indeed, as already alluded to, Romans wore layers of clothing to stay warm. The Emperor Augustus, for example, is said to have routinely worn no less than four tunics at a time, so it is not unreasonable to assume others did something similar. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that soldiers may have purchased locally made long sleeved tunics to be worn over or under their Roman style ones.


Unless the natural sheep’s fleece is preferred, perhaps for reasons of cost which would limit the available colours to creamy white, brown, or black/grey, then the woven wool cloth was dyed. The evidence suggests that the ancients liked colourful clothing much as we do today, but dyes were also a status marker. The dying of wool requires that it be degreased before entering the dye bath. This process, usually performed before spinning, removed the wool’s natural lanolin by immersing it in stale urine which, although a waste product, has the required ammonia content to break down the fats, was relatively cheap and easy to collect. Once degreased, the wool becomes much easier to dye, but the natural waterproofing provided by the lanolin is lost.


It can be challenging to avoid buying cloth that has not been dyed with modern chemical dyes. There are dyers who produce cloth using historical correct natural dyes, but it should come as no surprise to discover that such material is typically more expensive. Naturally dyed woollen cloth can range in shades whereas chemical dyes produce a more consistent colour. The latter, however, often can be too vivid for a historically correct ancient impression. Where possible choose more muted or pastel shades but do not be afraid of using colourful cloth. The ‘Hollywood’ vision of ancient Greeks and Romans wearing white or of Mediæval people wearing dull greys and browns is out of kilter with the reality being revealed by modern scientific examination of textiles. As today, our ancient forebears loved colour.


Ladies tunica patterns


As in our previous post, we will focus on patterns for a woman’s tunica as the men’s version is essentially a shortened form either with or without short sleeves. For most Roman women tunicae were worn beneath other garments such as the stola and palla (see below). As undergarments, they were typically of white, cream-coloured, or unbleached linen, but more colourful tunicae would be acceptable.


To recreate a tunica is relatively simple for any aspiring seamstress. For our purposes, the basic garment is a rectangular piece of cloth approximately 2 m long, so that when belted it reaches the feet, and between 2 m and 3 m wide.


In its simplest form women’s dresses copied the Doric style khiton being a folded rectangle of cloth with the two halves fastened with multiple fibulae (pins) or buttons at the shoulders, or simply sewn together. Doric style dresses worn by ancient Greek women may well have been left open along the line B-C (refer to the diagram below), with the two halves of the dress belted in place. This does not seem to be the case for Romans but if you are feeling particularly risqué, then you could follow the ancient Greek example. We would suggest, for modesty’s sake alone, that the seam annotated B-C is sewn.


An alternative is the Ionic style khiton (pictured above right) which was also a large piece of fabric folded laterally and then pinned at intervals along the arms and at the shoulders. Belted it formed voluminous sleeves when carefully draped.


In the diagram below, the head hole is formed between D-E which, from experience, needs to be at least 25 cm to 30 cm (c. 10 to 12 inches) wide. When folded in half, and if you decide to sew the shoulders together between A-D and E-F, then the cloth must be cut at F-G to allow the right arm to pass through. If you prefer to simply pin the garment at the shoulders with brooches at D-D and E-E, then the cloth would fall on each side and cutting the F-G armhole would not be necessary [3]. In this instance the rectangle of cloth needs to be approximately 2 m long and at least 3 m wide (once folded it will be 1.5 m wide).


An alternative design is made from two pieces of cloth sewn at the shoulders and sides (the sewn seams are marked in red). Width wise it should extend from elbow to elbow and as such produces a voluminous garment [4]. Although sleeveless, the excess material in its width forms rudimentary sleeves much as the Ionic peplos previously mentioned. Where sleeves are preferred, then a less bulky tunica may be made from the same size piece of material. In this instance the cloth is cut to remove some of the excess material and shaped to form a t-shirt with integral sleeves.



A third option is to add sleeves separately, which allows for variation in sleeve length and fullness. As before the aim is to end up with a baggy t-shirt loose enough to allow freedom of movement. Cut two identically sized pieces of cloth to form the front and back panels. Similarly cut two pieces for the sleeves, the size shown below left would be for short sleeves. It is easiest to join the tunica at the shoulders first, as shown below right, leaving sufficient room for your head to pass through. As mentioned above, the head hole needs to be at least 25 cm to 30 cm (c. 10 to 12 inches) wide.



The next step is to attach the sleeves (below left) before sewing the sleeve and side seams (below right).



Peplos


While the Doric style khiton or tunica is perfectly acceptable attire for women, a peplos (Greek: ὁ πέπλος) is the more typical clothing for ancient Greek women by circa 500 BC. Inspired by Greek culture, such dresses were thus popular with Roman women being worn in their own right without an undertunic. As with the khiton previously described, the Doric peplos was a body-length (A-C) garment made from a rectangle of cloth folded about the wearer and open on one side of the body. In this case, however, the top edge was folded down about halfway to, or below, the waistline thereby forming an overfold called an apoptygma in Greek (pictured below). The folded top edge was pinned from back to front at the shoulders (D-D, E-E) and the garment gathered about the waist with a belt. A shorter, waist-length apoptygma might be belted beneath the material, while longer apoptygma hanging below the waistline are sometimes shown belted just below the bust. In either style the apoptygma provided the appearance of a second piece of clothing. The overfold should be arranged to drape evenly.



Belts Tunicae should be belted at the waist. Excess material can be pulled up and bloused over the belt to achieve the desired length. Sometimes women’s dresses were belted twice, once at the waist and again at the hips, giving a double-bloused effect. Similarly, they are also depicted belted high under the breasts, or cross-belted over the chest and tied at the waist.


Stola

For women in ancient Rome the title of ‘matron’ (Latin: matrona; ‘mother’) exemplified certain ideals and status in society. From contemporary references she was freeborn and usually either married or a widow, but beyond that the concept of a matron is hard to define. Every Roman implicitly understood what being one signified. We are aware that matrons dressed in a certain distinctive style according to the norms of the time. Her clothing ‘signified her modesty and chastity, her pudicitia (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). During the late Republic and throughout the time of the Empire a matron generally wore an ankle length tunica covered by a long woollen dress known as a stola. It was generally sleeveless and frequently, if not always, suspended from short straps (see right).


Palla


In ancient societies, particularly the Greeks and Romans, for a woman to be out in public without their head covered or with long flowing, loose hair was seen as a sign of impropriety - loose hair, loose woman. An example quoted by Sebesta & Bonfante (2001) serves to illustrate the point. Sulpicius Gallus, a consul in 166 BC, ‘divorced his wife because she had left the house unveiled, thus allowing all to see, as he said, what only he should see’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 49).


So, the archetypal matron’s hair would be bound with woollen bands (Latin: vittae, sing. vitta) to protect her from impurity and as an indication of her modesty. When she went out, she would add a palla (see above right), a mantle [5] draped over the shoulders and often over the head as well very much in the ‘Middle Eastern custom of veiling women’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). In ancient Roman society this was ‘a symbol of their honour and of the sanctity and privacy of family life’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). While covering the head served to protect the matron against the cold and wet it also protected her from indecent display, and against any 'evil eye' or improper advance. Naturally the palla would have been a heavier woollen cloth in cold weather and of thinner material (linen, cotton, or silk for the very richest) in warm weather. Having said it was worn about the body, it can be loosely draped over the arm when a woman was seated or in a more relaxed pose.


Young girls, prostitutes, and those who had forfeited the title of matron, usually through being caught in adultery, were not permitted to wear either the stola or palla. Young girls wore tunics, while prostitutes and women convicted of adultery were required to wear togae (Latin: sing. toga) (Kittell-Queller, 2014).



Hats and Cloaks


Ignoring helmets, ancient Greek men are often depicted wearing broad-brimmed, bell-crowned hats to protect against sun and rain. Called petasos (below left) they seem popular with travellers and may have been made of straw, felt or leather. A simpler style of straw cap or tatulus (below middle), perhaps favoured by labourers, were also worn. There are far fewer depictions of women wearing hats but this does not they were not worn. In the artist’s impression below right, the lady is shown with her outer garment, a himation, draped over her head, which is probably how most women went abroad outdoors. As already mentioned, in ancient societies, particularly the Greeks and Romans, for a woman to be out in public without her head covered or with long flowing, loose hair was seen as a sign of impropriety - loose hair, loose woman.



Footwear


From the extensive collection of recovered and preserved Roman period shoes housed in the Vindolanda Museum collection, Roman footwear ranged from wooden ‘clogs’ to beautifully decorated and pierced leather shoes. Unsurprisingly there is also a large variety of footwear depicted in ancient Roman art and sculpture ranging in styles from soleae, sandals held in place by a leather thong or tongue between the toes, to calcea that enclosed more of the foot. Ankle and calf-height boots are also shown, as are caligae famously worn by soldiers. The subject of footwear probably deserves a separate article but if you are looking for a simple, cheap style then choose carbatina. These featured soles and uppers cut from one-piece of leather. Loops cut around the leather’s edges allowed laces to pass through and draw the uppers together about the foot.

 

Reference:


Sebesta, J.L. & Bonfante, L. (eds), (2001), ‘The World of Roman Costume’, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.


Endnotes:


1. Batavia is a historical and geographical region in the Netherlands, forming large fertile islands in the river delta formed by the waters of the Rhine (Dutch: Rijn) and Meuse (Dutch: Maas) rivers.


2. The Greek khiton and Roman tunica are interchangeable terms to describe essentially the same garment.


3. In other words the arms pass through the gaps A-D and E-F.


4. The more material used, the more capacious and impractical the garment becomes is a good indicator of the wearer’s social status. If you are portraying a wealthy Roman matron, then this might be the option. If, however, your persona is an ordinary Roman, a working woman or someone of a lower social status, then options 2 and 3 might be preferable.


5. As a general guide the palla should measure at least 1500 mm long by 3000 mm wide.

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