Toga parties, gladiator sandals and blockbuster films offer us a stereotypical impression of fashion in ancient Rome. However, the civilisation of ancient Rome spanned over a thousand years and reached Spain, the Black Sea, Britain and Egypt. As a result, clothing varied hugely, with different styles, patterns and materials communicating information about the wearer such as marital status and social class.
As the Roman Empire expanded into new territories, fashions derived from the Greeks and Etruscans melted into styles which reflected the different cultures, climates and religions across the empire. In short, the development of Roman clothing worked in parallel to the flourishing of art and architecture across cultures.
Here’s a rundown of what people in ancient Rome would wear every day.
Basic garments were simple and unisex
The basic garment for both men and women was the tunicas (tunic). In its simplest form, it was just a single rectangle of woven fabric. It was originally woollen, but from the mid-republic onward was increasingly made of linen. It was sewed into a wide, sleeveless oblong shape and pinned around the shoulders. A variation on this was the chiton which was a longer, woollen tunic.
The colour of tunicas differentiated depending on social class. Upper classes wore white, while lower classes wore natural or brown. Longer tunicas were also worn for important occasions.
Women’s clothing was broadly similar. When they weren’t wearing a tunica, married women would adopt a stola, a simple garment that was associated with traditional Roman virtues, especially modesty. Over time, women took to wearing many garments on top of the other.
Tunicas with longer sleeves were sometimes worn by both sexes, though some traditionalists considered them appropriate for women only since they regarded them as effeminate on men. Likewise, short or unbelted tunics were sometimes associated with servility. Nevertheless, very long-sleeved, loosely belted tunics were also fashionably unconventional and were most famously adopted by Julius Caesar.
The toga was reserved for Roman citizens only
The most iconic piece of Roman clothing, the toga virilis (toga), may have originated as a simple, practical working garment and blanket for peasants and herdsmen. Translating to ‘toga of manhood’, the toga was essentially a large woollen blanket that was draped over the body, leaving one arm free.
The toga was both complex to drape and restricted to Roman citizens only – foreigners, slaves and exiled Romans were forbidden from wearing one – meaning that it awarded a special distinction upon the wearer. Similar to the tunicas, a commoner’s toga was a natural off-white, whereas those of a higher rank wore voluminous, brightly-coloured ones.
The toga’s impracticality was a sign of wealth
Most citizens avoided wearing a toga at all costs, since they were expensive, hot, heavy, hard to keep clean and costly to launder. As a result, they became suited to stately processions, oratory, sitting in the theatre or circus, and self-displaying among peers and inferiors only.
However, from the late Republic onward, the upper classes favoured even longer and larger togas which were unsuited to manual work or physically active leisure. The heads of households might equip his entire family, friends, freedmen and even slaves with elegant, costly and impractical clothing as a way of denoting extreme wealth and leisure.
Over time, the toga was finally abandoned in favour of more practical clothing.
Military wear was surprisingly varied
In contrast to popular culture which depicts Roman military dress as highly regimented and uniform, soldiers’ clothing likely adapted to local conditions and supplies. For instance, there are records of warm socks and tunics being sent to soldiers serving in Britain. However, locals were expected to adapt to the Roman way of dressing, rather than the other way around.
Common soldiers wore belted, knee-length tunics for work or leisure, though in colder areas, a short-sleeved tunic might be replaced by a warmer, long-sleeved version. The highest-ranking commanders wore a larger, purple-red cloak as a means of differentiating them from their soldiers.
There was no standard clothing for slaves
Enslaved people in ancient Rome might dress well, badly or barely at all, depending on their circumstances. In prosperous households in urban centres, slaves might have worn a form of livery. Cultured slaves who served as tutors could be indistinguishable from freedmen, whereas slaves serving in the mines might wear nothing.
The historian Appian stated that a slave dressed as well as a master signalled the end of a stable and well-ordered society. Seneca stated that if all slaves wore a certain type of clothing then they would become aware of their overwhelming numbers and try and overthrow their masters.
Materials communicated wealth
With the expansion of the Roman Empire, trading became possible. While wool and hemp were produced in Roman territory, silk and cotton were imported from China and India and were therefore reserved for higher classes. The upper classes thus wore these materials to denote their wealth, and the emperor Elagabalus was the first Roman emperor to wear silk. Later, looms were set up to weave silk, but China still enjoyed a monopoly on the export of the material.
The art of dyeing also became more extensive. The most famous dye of the classical world was ‘Tyrian purple’. The dye was obtained from small glands in the mollusk Purpura and was hugely costly owing to the source material’s small size.
The word Purpura is where we derive the word purple, with the colour in ancient Rome being described as something between red and purple. Production sites for the colour were established in Crete, Sicily and Anatolia. In southern Italy, a hill survives that is entirely composed of the shells of the mollusk.
Romans wore underwear
Underwear for both sexes consisted of a loincloth, much like briefs. They could also be worn on their own, especially by slaves who often engaged in hot, sweaty work. Women also wore a breast band, which was sometimes tailored for work or leisure. A 4th-century AD Sicilian mosaic shows several ‘bikini girls’ performing athletic feats, and in 1953 a Roman leather bikini bottom was discovered in a well in London.
For comfort and protection against the cold, both sexes were permitted to wear a soft under-tunic beneath a coarser over-tunic. In winter, Emperor Augustus wore up to four tunics. Though essentially simple in design, tunics were sometimes luxurious in their fabric, colours and detailing.
Women wore accessories
Many upper-class women wore face powder, rouge, eyeshadow and eyeliner. Wigs and hair switches were also frequently worn, and certain colours of hair were fashionable: at one time, blonde wigs made from the hair of captured slaves were prized.
Footwear was based upon Greek styles but was more varied. All were flat. Aside from sandals, several styles of shoe and boot existed, with simpler shoes reserved for the lower classes contrasting with the elaborately patterned and intricate designs reserved for the wealthy.
Clothing was hugely important
The morals, wealth and reputation of citizens were subject to official scrutiny, with male citizens who failed to meet a minimum standard sometimes being demoted a rank and deprived the right to wear a toga. Similarly, female citizens could be deprived of the right to wear a stola.
Like the image-conscious society of today, Romans viewed fashion and appearance as vitally important, and through understanding how they chose to appear to one another, we can better understand the Roman Empire’s wider standing on the world stage.