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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Vaguely 'Historical' Costume

Updated: Feb 16

We think it is great for children to dress up but many of the products for sale are, to the trained eye, rather dubious. What follows is a critique of such costumes highlighting the common, repetitive oddities. Clearly, this should not to be taken too seriously. Rather, we hope to draw attention to the mistakes that continue to influence, or have been influenced by, so-called historical costumes seen on television and in film.

A quick search for children’s Greek or Roman costume on well-known on-line marketplaces will produce a variety of quite similar results for both boys and girls. Looking at the search results and one might be tempted to conclude that the different manufacturers or suppliers have blindly copied a competitor’s dodgy attempt at making a costume. The descriptive tags used for marketing these products, however, have little to commend them and are quite misleading. Here, then, are a few examples highlighting the faux pas.

For the Boys Described as a ‘Boys Toga Costume’ it is very definitely not a toga. It is, however, one of the better products we have seen for sale, albeit with some caveats [1]:

  • The footwear shown (which, incidentally, is not included) does have (very) loose parallels with known imagery and would be significantly better than wearing modern sandals.

  • The belt is a needlessly long ‘gold rope’ but this could easily be shortened.

  • The tunic is ‘100% polyester’ but for a costume retailing for about £20 this can be forgiven. The shape and styling are quite good. The excess length could be easily drawn up through the belt and bloused over since boys in ancient Greece or Rome typically wore their tunics with a hemline above the knee.

  • The sash, which is ‘sewn to the shoulder with a gold ring accent’, is a total nonsense. We recommend getting rid of this trip hazard.

In summary, this particular product is a good basis for an ancient Greek ‘khiton’ or Roman ‘tunica’. As said before, although often confused and misidentified as a Roman ‘toga‘, such tunics are very definitely different garments. But if you wanted to add a toga, or the less well-known Greek equivalent, the ‘himation’, to your costume, then what would this look like?

The himation (ancient Greek: ἱμάτιον / hə-MAT-ee-un) was a large rectangular piece of woollen cloth worn by ancient Greek men and women from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods (c. 750 BC to 30 BC). It was typically worn over a man’s khiton or woman’s ‘peplos’ (see below) and thus played both the role of a cloak or shawl. Many vase paintings depict women wearing a himation as a veil covering their faces. The himation was sometimes worn alone without a khiton underneath. In this manner it served both as a khiton and as a cloak being then called an ‘akhiton’.

The himation was markedly less voluminous than the Roman toga, which was a very specific garment worn only by citizens. The toga 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 previously mentioned, only by Roman citizens.

For the Girls Searching for an appropriate costume for girls we discovered the ‘Grecian Goddess Costume’ (shown right). As for the boy’s tunic, we think this is one of the better offerings currently for sale, but it too comes with a few caveats:

  • Firstly, what is with the diaphanous strip of material? It serves no purpose, has no historical provenance, will probably get tangled and, as is so often the case in school, will most likely be discarded by the child. Best get rid of it.

  • The criss-crossing ‘gold’ belt is not a separate item but integral to the garment. Belts were, however, both functional in holding the dress closed about the body and decorative. Where we have surviving depictions of this cross-belted style, on statues for example, it seems the belt was crossed over the chest and tied at the waist. In this instance the belt is purely decorative, but it looks the part.

  • The dress is again ‘100% polyester’ but, as before, what should one expect for a costume retailing for less than £10. The shape and styling are surprisingly quite good and imitate the ankle length peplos (Greek: πέπλος) worn by respectable ancient Greek and Roman women from circa 500 BC, during the late Archaic and Classical period, onward.

Essentially, a peplos was a long, rectangular cloth draped about the body and left open on one side. The top edge was folded down about halfway, so that the folded-down portion gave the appearance of a second piece of clothing. The garment was then belted about the waist and the folded top edge pinned at the shoulders. In our opinion, the ‘Grecian Goddess Costume’ imitates that styling rather well.

Summary As with most things you only get what you are prepared to pay for. Most of the children’s costumes for sale are cheap and cheerful but do not let that put you off. Some are slightly more ‘historically’ correct than others and we would recommend choosing these over the more dubious, clichéd offerings. Should you be inspired to make your own, then perhaps our guide to creating a simple ancient Greek or Roman costume, available here, might help.



1. The quoted text is taken from the retailer’s description.

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