Ancient world: history of dress

Evidence about dress becomes plentiful only after humans began to live together in greater numbers in discrete localities with well-defined social organizations, with refinements in art and culture, and with a written language. This happened first in the ancient world in Mesopotamia (home of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians) and in Egypt. Later other parts of the Mediterranean region were home to the Minoans (on the island of Crete), the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans (on the Italian peninsula).

The sociocultural phenomenon called “fashion,” that is, styles being widely adopted for a limited period of time, was not part of dress in the ancient world. Specific styles differed from one culture to another. Within a culture some changes took place over time, but those changes usually occurred slowly, over hundreds of years. In these civilizations tradition, not novelty, was the norm.

Certain common forms, structure, and elements appear in the dress of the different civilizations of the ancient world. Costume historians differentiate between draped and tailored dress. Draped clothing is made from lengths of fabric that are wrapped around the body and require little or no sewing. Tailored costume is cut into shaped pieces and sewn together. Draped costume utilizes lengths of woven textiles and predominates in warm climates where a loose fit is more comfortable. Tailored costume is thought to have originated around the time when animal skins were used. Being smaller in size than woven textiles, skins had to be sewn together. Tailored garments, cut to fit the body more closely, are more common in cold climates where the closer fit keeps the wearer warm. With a few exceptions, ancient world garments of the Mediterranean region were draped.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Evidence about Dress

Most of the evidence about costume of the ancient world comes from depictions of people in the art of the time. Often this evidence is fragmentary and difficult to decipher because researchers may not know enough about the context from which items come or about the conventions to which artists had to conform.

The geography and climate of a particular civilization and its religious practices may enhance or detract from the quantity and quality of evidence. Fortunately, the dry desert climate of ancient Egypt coupled with the religious beliefs that caused Egyptians to bury many different items in tombs have yielded actual examples of textiles and some garments and accessories.

Written records from these ancient civilizations may also contribute to what is known about dress. Such records are often of limited usefulness because they use terminology that is unclear today. They may, however, shed light on cultural norms or attitudes and values individuals hold about aspects of dress such as its ability to show status or reveal personal idiosyncrasies.

Common Types of Garments

Although they were used in unique ways, certain basic garment types appeared in a number of the ancient civilizations. In describing these garments, which had different names in different locales, the modern term that most closely approximates the garment will be used here. Although local practices varied, both men and women often wore the same garment types. These were skirts of various lengths; shawls, or lengths of woven fabric of different sizes and shapes that could be draped or wrapped around the body; and tunics, T-shaped garments similar to a loose-fitting modern T-shirt, that were made of woven fabric in varying lengths. E. J. W. Barber (1994) suggests that the Latin word tunica derives from the Middle

Eastern word for linen and she believes that the tunic originated as a linen undergarment worn to protect the skin against the harsh, itchy feel of wool. Later tunics were also used as outerwear and were made from fabrics of any available fibers.

The primary undergarment was a loincloth. In one form or another this garment seems to have been worn in most ancient world cultures. It appears not only on men, but also is sometimes depicted as worn by women. It generally wrapped much like a baby’s diaper, and if climate permitted workers often used it as their sole outdoor garment.

In most of the ancient world, the most common foot covering was the sandal. Occasionally closed shoes and protective boots are depicted on horsemen. A shoe with an upward curve of the toe appears in many ancient world cultures. This style seems to make its first appearance in Mesopotamia around 2600 B.C.E. and it is thought that it probably originated in mountainous regions where it provided more protection from the cold than sandals. Its depiction on kings indicates that it was associated with royalty in Mesopotamia. It probably came to be a mark of status elsewhere, as well (Born). Similar styles show up among the Minoans and Etruscans.

Mesopotamian Dress

The Sumerians, as the earliest settlers in the land around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now modern Iraq, established the first cities in the region. Active from about 3500 B.C.E. to 2500 B.C.E., they were supplanted as the dominant culture by the Babylonians (2500 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E.) who in turn gave way to the Assyrians (1000 B.C.E. to 600 B.C.E.).

One of the chief products of Mesopotamia, wool, was used not only domestically but was also exported. Although flax was available, it was clearly less important than wool. The importance of sheep to clothing and the economy is reflected in representations of dress. Sumerian devotional or votive figures often depict men or women wearing skirts that appear to be made from sheepskin with the fleece still attached. When the length of material was sufficient, it was thrown up and over the left shoulder and the right shoulder was left bare.

Other figures seem to be wearing fabrics with tufts of wool attached, which were made to simulate sheepskin. The Greek word kaunakes has been applied to both sheepskin and woven garments of this type.

Additional evidence of the importance of wool fabric comes from archaeology. An excavation of the tomb of a queen from Ur (c. 2600 B.C.E.) included fragments of bright red wool fabric thought to be from the queen’s garments.

Evidence about dress. Evidence for costume in this region comes from depictions of humans on engraved seals, devotional, or votive statuettes of worshipers, a few wall paintings, and statues and relief carvings of military and political leaders. Representations of women are few, and the writings from legal and other documents confirm the impression that women’s roles were somewhat restricted.

Major costume forms. In addition to the aforementioned kaunakes garment, early Sumerian art also depicts cloaks (capelike coverings). Costumes of later periods appear to have grown more complex, with shawls covering the upper body. Skirts, loincloths, and tunics also appear. A draped garment, probably made from a square of fabric 118 inches wide and 56 inches long (Houston 2002), appears on noble and mythical male figures from Sumer and Babylonia. Because the garment is represented as smooth, without folds or drapery, most scholars believe that this unlikely perfection was an artistic convention, not a realistic view of clothing. With this garment men wore a close-fitting head covering with a small brim or padded roll.

Women’s dress of this period covered the entire upper body. The most likely forms were a skirt worn with a cape that had an opening for the head or a tunic. Other wrapped and draped styles have also been suggested.

Transitions from Babylonian to Assyrian rule are not marked by clear changes in style. In time, the Assyrians came to prefer tunics to the skirts and cape styles that were more common in earlier periods. The length of tunics varied with the gender, status, and occupation of the wearer. Women’s tunics were full-length, as were those of kings and highly placed courtiers. Common people and soldiers wore short tunics.

Fabrics ornamented with complex designs appeared in Assyria. Scholars are uncertain whether the designs on royal costumes are embroidered or woven. Elaborate shawls were wrapped over tunics, and the overall effect was complex and multilayered. Priests selected the most favorable colors and garments for the ruler to wear on any given day.

Hairstyles and headdress are important elements of dress and often convey status, occupation, or relate to other aspects of culture. Sumerian men are depicted both clean-shaven and bearded. Sometimes they are bald. In hot climates shaving the head may be a health measure and done for comfort. Both men and women are also shown with long, curly hair, which is probably an ethnic characteristic. Assyrian men are bearded and have such elaborately arranged curls that curling irons may have been used. In art women’s hair is shown as either ornately curled or dressed simply at about shoulder length.

The status of women apparently changed over time. From laws it is clear that Sumerian and Babylonian women had more legal protections than did Assyrian women. Law codes make reference to veiling and it appears that in Sumerian and Babylonian periods, free married women wore veils, while slaves and concubines were permitted to wear veils only when accompanied by the principal wife. Specific practices as to how and when the veil was worn are not entirely clear; however, it is evident that traditions surrounding the wearing of veils by women have deep roots in the Middle East.

Egyptian Dress

The civilization of Ancient Egypt came into being in North Africa in the lands along the Nile River when two kingdoms united during a so-called Early Dynastic Period (c. 3200-2620 B.C.E.). Historians divide the history of Egypt into three major periods: Old Kingdom (c. 2620-2260 B.C.E.), the Middle Kingdom (c. 2134-1786 B.C.E.), and the New Kingdom (c.1575-1087 B.C.E.). Throughout this entire period Egyptian dress changed very little.

The structure of Egyptian society also seems to have changed little throughout its history. The pharaoh, a hereditary king, ruled the country. The next level of society, deputies and priests, served the king, and an official class administered the royal court and governed other areas of the country. A host of lower level officials, scribes, and artisans provided needed services, along with servants and laborers, and, at the bottom, were slaves who were foreign captives.

Nefertari's tomb, Valley of the Queens. Artistic representations such as in this mural painting, created circa 1290-1224 B.C.E., provide historians with much information on the clothing of the period. This tomb relief shows three different dress styles: a sheath dress, a pleated gown, and a man's skirt (schenti).

Nefertari's tomb, Valley of the Queens. Artistic representations such as in this mural painting, created circa 1290-1224 B.C.E., provide historians with much information on the clothing of the period. This tomb relief shows three different dress styles: a sheath dress, a pleated gown, and a man's skirt (schenti).

The hot and dry climate of Egypt made elaborate clothing unnecessary. However, due to the hierarchical structure of society, clothing served an important function in the display of status. Furthermore, religious beliefs led to some uses of clothing to provide mystical protection.

Sources of evidence about dress. It is religious beliefs that have provided much of the evidence for dress of this period. Egyptians believed that by placing real objects, models of real objects, and paintings of daily activities in the tomb with the dead, the deceased would be provided with the necessities for a comfortable afterlife. Depictions and actual items of clothing and accessories were among the materials included. The hot, dry climate preserved these objects. Works of art from temples and surviving inscriptions and documents are additional sources of information.

Textile availability and production. Linen fiber, obtained from the stems of flax plants, was the primary textile used in Egypt. Wool was not worn by priests or for religious rituals and was considered “unclean” although the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 490 B.C.E.) reported that he saw wool fabrics in use. From samples of fabric that have been preserved, it is evident that the Egyptians were highly skilled in linen production. They made elaborately pleated fabrics, probably by pressing dampened fabrics on grooved boards. Tapestry woven fabrics appeared after 1500 B.C.E. Beaded fabrics are found in tombs, as are embroidered and appliquéd fabrics.

Major costume forms. Draped or wrapped clothing predominated in Egyptian dress. Lower status men wore the simplest of garments: a loincloth of linen or leather, or a leather network covering a loincloth. Men of all classes wore wrapped skirts, sometimes called schenti, shent, skent, or schent by costume historians. The precise shape of these skirts varied depending on whether the fabric was pleated or plain (more often plain in the Old Kingdom, more likely pleated in the New Kingdom), longer or shorter (growing longer for high status men in the Middle Kingdom and after), fuller (in the New Kingdom) or less full (in the Old Kingdom). Royalty and upper-class men often wore elaborate jeweled belts, decorative panels, or aprons over skirts.

Coverings for the upper body consisted of leopard or lion skins, short fabric capes, corselets that were either strapless or suspended from straps, and wide, decorative necklaces. Over time the use of animal skins diminished. These became symbols of power, worn only by kings and priests. Eventually cloth replicas with painted leopard spots replaced the actual skins and seemed to have had a purely ritual use.

Tunics appear in Egyptian dress during the New Kingdom, possibly as a result of cross-cultural contact with other parts of the region or the conquest and political dominance of Egypt for a time by foreigners called the Hyksos.

Long wrapped garments appear to have been worn by both men and women until the Middle Kingdom, after which they appear only on women, gods, and kings. Instead during the New Kingdom men were shown wearing long, loose, flowing pleated garments, the construction of which is not entirely clear. Shawls were worn as an outermost covering and were either wrapped or tied.

Slaves and dancing girls were sometimes shown as being naked or wearing only a pubic band. Laboring women wore skirts when at work. Women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, wore long, loose tunics, similar to those worn by men. From the writings of Herodotus, it appears this garment was called a kalasiris. Some costume historians have mistakenly used this term to refer to a tightly fitted garment that appears on women of all classes. Although this garment has the appearance of a tightly fitted sheath dress, it is thought that this representation is probably an artistic convention, not a realistic view. The garment was more likely to have been a length of fabric wrapped around the body. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993) in an extensive study of garments from Egyptian tombs has found no examples of sheath dresses, but has found lengths of cloth with patterns of wear that are consistent with such wrapped garments.

Sheathlike garments are often shown with elaborate patterns. Suggestions for how the patterns were made have included weaving, painting, appliqué, leatherwork, and feathers. The more likely answer is that beaded net dresses, found in a number of tombs, were placed over a wrapped dress.

Garments from tombs from the Old Kingdom and after also include simple V-necked linen dresses made without sleeves. A later, sleeved version has a more complex construction that required sewing a tubular skirt to a yoke.

Like men, high status women wore long, full, pleated gowns in the New Kingdom. Careful examination of representations of these gowns indicates that the method of draping these garments that was used by women was different from those of men. Like men, women used wrapped shawls to provide warmth or cover.

Egyptian jewelry often provided the main sources of color in costume. Wide jeweled collars, jeweled belts and aprons, amulets worn around the neck to ward off evil, diadems with real or jeweled flowers, armlets, bracelets, and, during the New Kingdom, earrings were all part of the repertoire of ornaments available to men and women.

Headdress and hair coverings were often used to communicate status. As a result works of art show a wide variety of symbolic styles. The pharaoh wore a crown, the pschent, that was made by combining the traditional crown of Lower Egypt with the traditional crown of Upper Egypt. This crown was a visible symbol of the king’s authority over both Upper and Lower Egypt. Other symbolic crowns and headdresses also are seen: the hemhemet crown, worn on ceremonial occasions; the blue or war crown when going to war; the uraeus, a representation of a cobra worn by kings and queens as a symbol of royal power. The nemes headdress, a scarflike garment fitted across the forehead, hanging down to the shoulder behind the ears, and having a long tail (symbolic of a lion’s tail) in back was worn by rulers. Queens or goddesses wore the falcon headdress, shaped like a bird with the wings hanging down at the side of the face.

Men, and sometimes women and children, shaved their heads. Although men were clean-shaven, beards were symbols of power and the pharaoh wore a false beard. When artists depict Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, she, too, is shown with this false beard. The children of the pharaoh had a distinctive hairstyle, the lock of Horus or the lock of youth. The head was shaved, and one lock of hair was allowed to grow on the left side of the head where it was braided and hung over the ear.

Minoan Dress

While the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were flourishing in the Eastern Mediterranean, the island of Crete, farther to the west, was home to the Minoans. This people, named after a legendary king Minos, thrived from about 2900 to 1150 B.C.E. on the island of Crete. By 2100 B.C.E. the Minoans extended their influence to the mainland Greek city-state called Mycenae. After the Minoans went into decline in the period around 1400 B.C.E., the Mycenaeans gained control over Crete and the Minoans.

Archaeological evidence provides a glimpse of Minoan and Mycenaean dress. From wall paintings and statuettes scholars have reached some conclusions about clothing of these periods. Archaeologists have determined that both linen and wool were produced. Wall paintings show Minoan textiles with intricate patterns that required both simple and complex weaving processes, embroidery, or painting. Excavations reveal that dyestuffs were imported. And Egyptian wall paintings showing men dressed in Minoan styles lead to the conclusion that Minoan traders brought their textiles to Egypt.

Major costume forms. Minoan dress had some similarities to and some marked differences from other Mediterranean civilizations. Leaping over the horns of bulls was a sport or religious ritual in which both Minoan men and women participated. Wall paintings show that for this sport, both wore loincloths reinforced at the crotch for protection. Minoan men wore skirts that ranged in length from short thigh-length versions with a tassel in the front, to longer lengths that ended below the knee or at the ankle. Skirts that appear to be very similar to the Mesopotamian kaunakes garment are also seen in Minoan art.

Women, too, wore skirts, but the construction was quite different from those of men. Scholars propose three different skirt types. All are full length. One is a bell-shaped skirt fitted over the hips and flaring to the hem. Another appears to be made of a series of horizontal ruffles widening gradually until they reach the ground, and the third is shown with a line down the center that some have interpreted as depicting a culotte-like, bifurcated skirt. Others see that line as merely showing how the skirt fell. With these skirts women often wore an apronlike overgarment. Arthur Evans, an archaeologist who was one of the earliest to study Cretan sites, suggested that the apron garment was worn for religious rituals and was a vestige of a loincloth worn by men and women in earlier times.

With these skirts, the top women wore a garment unique to the Minoans: a smoothly fitted bodice that, if the art is being accurately interpreted, had to have been cut and sewn. Tightly fitted sleeves were sewn or otherwise fastened onto the bodice. It laced or fastened underneath the breasts, leaving the bosom exposed. Authorities do not agree on whether all women bared their breasts. Some believe this style was restricted to priestesses and that ordinary women covered their breasts with a layer of sheer fabric.

With skirts or loincloths both men and women wore wide, tight belts with rolled edges. They also wore tunics. Men’s were short or long; women’s were long. Most of the tunics, as well as bodices and skirts, seem to have had woven patterned braid trimmings covering what appear to be the seam lines or points where garments would have been sewn together.

Men and women are both depicted with long or short curly hair. A variety of headwear can be seen in Minoan art, much of which may have been used in religious rituals or to designate status. Women are often shown with their hair carefully arranged and held in place with decorative nets or fillets (bands).

Greek Dress

A “dark age” of which little is known separates the Minoan/Mycenaean period from the Archaic Period of Greek history on the mainland. The history of Ancient Greece is generally divided into the Archaic Period (800-500 B.C.E.), the Classical Age (500-323 B.C.E.), and the Hellenistic Period (after 323 B.C.E. to the absorption of Greece by the Romans).

Greek sculpture and vase paintings provide numerous illustrations of Greek costume as do some wall paintings. Some even show individuals putting on or taking off clothing; therefore, scholars believe they understand what was worn and how it was constructed. Color of clothing, however, can be problematic. When first created and displayed most sculpture had been painted with colors. Those colors have been bleached away over time. For many years people believed that Greeks wore white almost exclusively. Most vase paintings are not a good source for information about color because the traditions of vase painting showed either black figures on a red background or red figures on a black background. From the few white background vases on which figures were painted in color and from frescoes it is possible to see that Greeks wore a wide range of often vivid colors.

Married women in ancient Greece ran the household. They provided for the family’s needs for textiles by spinning and weaving. Fibers used included wool, which was produced in Greece. Linen came to Greece by the sixth century B.C.E., probably making its way from Egypt to the Ionian region of Asia Minor, where some Greeks had settled, and from there to the Greek peninsula. Late in Greek history silk evidently came from China by way of Persia, and the Greek island of Cos was known for its silk production. Imported woven silk fabrics were probably unraveled into yarns and then combined with linen yarns and woven into fabrics. In this way, less of the precious silk was needed to make a highly decorative fabric.

Woman on urn. In ancient times, people in warmer climates wore draped clothing such as that depicted in this artwork. Garments of this nature were cooler and allowed freedom of movement.

Woman on urn. In ancient times, people in warmer climates wore draped clothing such as that depicted in this artwork. Garments of this nature were cooler and allowed freedom of movement.

Dyes were made from plants and minerals. A particularly prized and valuable color was purple, which was obtained from shellfish. Dyeing, bleaching, and some other finishing processes were probably carried out in special facilities, not in the home, because of the noxious fumes they produced. Women were skilled in decorating fabric with embroidery and woven designs. Garments were draped and were most likely woven to the correct size and therefore required little cutting and sewing. Many garments appear to be pleated, so it is likely that there were devices for pressing pleats into fabric and for keeping textiles smooth and flat.

Major costume forms. The Greek name for the garment roughly equivalent to a tunic was chiton, which is what costume historians now call Greek tunics. Throughout Greek history one form or another of the chiton was the basic garment for men, women, and children. Its size, shape, and methods of fastening varied over time. Even so, the chiton was constructed in much the same way throughout Greek history. A rectangular length of fabric was folded in half lengthwise and placed around the body under the arms with the fold on one side and the open edge on the other. The top of the fabric was pulled up over the shoulder in the front to meet the fabric in the back, and pinned. This was repeated over the other shoulder. This rudimentary garment was belted at the waist. Sometimes the open side was sewn or it may have been pinned or left open. By beginning with this simple garment, variations could be made easily. Often the top edge of the fabric was folded down to form a decorative overfold. The width of the folded section could vary. Belts could be placed at various locations or multiple belts could be used. The method of pinning the shoulder could also change.

The names used today for these different styles are not necessarily those given to them by the ancient Greeks, but have been assigned later by costume historians who sometimes differ about terminology. The terms employed here are those that appear to be most commonly accepted.

In the Archaic Period, the chiton type garments are known as the chitoniskos and the Doric peplos. Both had the same construction and were made with an overfold that came to about waist length. They appear to have been closely fitted and seem to have been made from patterned wool fabrics. Men wore the chitoniskos, which was usually short and ended between the hip and the thigh. Women wore the Doric peplos, similar in shape and fit but reaching to the floor. The Doric peplos was fastened with a long, sharp, daggerlike decorative pin.

Herodotus says that the transition from the Doric peplos to the Ionic chiton came about because the women of Athens were said to have used their dress pins to stab to death a messenger who brought them the news of the resounding defeat of the Athenians in a battle. Herodotus says that the use of these large pins was outlawed, and small fastenings mandated instead.

This story may be apocryphal, but it is true that the Ionic chiton did replace the Doric peplos for both men and women soon after 550 B.C.E. The Ionic chiton was made from a wider fabric and was pinned with many small fasteners part or all of the way down the length of the arm. With more fabric in the garment, overfolds were less likely to be used. Instead other shawls or small rectangular garments were placed over the chiton. Many of the wider Ionic chitons appear to be pleated and were most likely made of lighter weight wool or of linen. Styles could be varied by belting the fabric in different ways.

Around 400 B.C.E. the Ionic chiton gradually gave way to the Doric chiton. The Doric chiton was narrower and fastened at the shoulder with a single pin very much like a decorative safety pin. The Romans called such pins fibulae and this Latin term is now used for any such pin from ancient times. This garment was more likely than the Ionic chiton to have an overfold. Doric chitons could also be worn with the previously mentioned small draped garments and belted in various ways. They seem to have been made from wool, linen, or silk.

Some scholars see the transition from the large, ostentatious Ionic chiton to the simpler Doric chiton as reflecting changes in attitudes and values in Greek society. A. G. Geddes (1987) suggests that in the late fifth century B.C.E. emphasis was being placed on physical fitness (more obvious in the more fitted Doric chiton), equality, and less flaunting of wealth.

The Hellenistic chiton appears from around 300 to 100 B.C.E. It was a refinement of the Doric chiton that was narrower, belted just beneath the breasts, and made of lighter weight wool cloth, linen, or silk. It is this chiton that is closest in style to many of the later garment styles that were inspired by the Greek chiton.

In general, styles for men and women were very similar, with women’s garments reaching to the floor and men’s more likely to be short for daily use. A poor man’s version of the chiton was the exomis, a simple rectangle of cloth that fastened over one shoulder, leaving the other arm free for easier action.

Several garments seem to have been used more by men than women. The himation was a large rectangle of fabric that wrapped around the body. In use from the late fifth century, the garment might be worn alone or over a chiton. It covered the left shoulder, wrapped across the back and under the right arm, then was thrown over the left shoulder or carried across the left arm. For protection against inclement weather and while traveling, men wore a rectangular cloak of leather or wool called the chlamys. It could also be used as a blanket. The petasos, a wide-brimmed hat that offered additional protection against sun or rain was often worn with this cloak.

The question of whether married, adult Greek women were required to be veiled when out-of-doors is still debated. Some statues do seem to show this. A respectable married woman’s activities were limited; most of her time was spent in the home and she was excluded from men’s social gatherings. The women shown socializing with men in Greek art are courtesans or entertainers, not wives. Some scholars believe that when a woman went outside the home, she pulled a mantle or veil over her head to obscure her face. C. Galt (1931) suggests that veiling came to Greece from Ionia in the Middle East about the time the Ionian chiton was adopted.

Etruscan Dress

A number of tribes occupied the Italian peninsula. By 800 B.C.E. one of these groups had occupied a fairly large area and had developed an advanced culture and economy. Their burial practices, which included tomb paintings showing daily life, provide good evidence for how they dressed.

Trade brought them into close contact with Greece, Greek art, and Greek styles. In some periods Etruscan costume shows more shaping in the sleeves, which flare out at the ends, and a fit that molds the body more closely. Other distinctively Etruscan garments included a tall peaked hat, called a tutulus; shoes with pointed, curved toes; and several different styles of mantles. One especially notable mantle was the tebenna, which was apparently made with curved edges and semicircular in shape. Scholars believe that this mantle was the forerunner of the Roman toga. Even though individual characteristics can be noted for some Etruscan styles, for the most part Etruscan and Greek costumes show so many similarities that Etruscan versions are virtually indistinguishable from the Greek.

As the Romans rose to power in Italy, the Etruscans were absorbed into Rome and by the first century B.C.E. no longer existed as a separate culture.

Roman Dress

A tribe occupying the hills near the present city of Rome, the Romans gradually came to dominate not only the Italian peninsula, but a vast region including present-day western Europe and large parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Because much of the Mediterranean region had been under the domination of Greece, Greek influences permeated much of Roman life. Dress was no exception. As with the Etruscans, it is often difficult to distinguish between Greek and Roman styles. However, Roman dress is far more likely than Greek to include elements that identify some aspect of the status of the wearer.

Not only are there ample works of art remaining from the Roman era, but also literary works and inscriptions in Latin that can be read and understood. Even so, some aspects of Roman dress are not clearly understood. The precise meaning of certain Latin words referring to clothing may not be clear. One example is a man’s garment called the synthesis.

The synthesis was a special occasion garment, worn by men for dinner parties. The traditional Roman man’s garment, the toga, was cumbersome. Romans reclined to eat, and apparently it was difficult to stretch out in a toga, so the synthesis was the solution to this awkwardness. Based on what Roman texts say about the garment, scholars have concluded that it was probably a tunic worn with a shoulder wrap. But there does not appear to be any depiction of the style in Roman art.

Wool, linen, and silk were used in Rome and apparently cotton was imported from India around 190 B.C.E. or before. Silk was available only to the wealthy; cotton might be blended with wool or linen. Textiles were not produced in the family home, as in Greece. Instead they were woven by women workers on large estates or by men and women in businesses located throughout the empire. While some clothing was made in the home, ready-to-wear clothing was also available in shops.

The Roman version of the chiton was called tunica, from which the word tunic derives. Roman men’s tunics ended at about the knee and were worn by all classes of society. Bands of purple that extended vertically from one hem to the other across the shoulder designated rank. Tunics of the Emperor and senators had wider bands; those of knights had narrower bands. Precise placement and width of these bands, called clavi, changed somewhat at different time periods, and after the first century C.E. all male nobles wore these bands. At this time ordinary citizens and slaves had no such insignia, but later they became more common. All male citizens were expected to wear the toga over a tunic.

The toga was the symbol of Roman citizenship. It was draped from a semicircle of white wool and placed across the shoulder, around the back, under the right arm, and pulled across the chest and over the shoulder. As previously noted it probably derived from the Etruscan tebenna. Some officials wore special togas and throughout the history of Rome the size, shape, and details of draping did change somewhat.

Various types of cloaks and capes, with or without hoods, served to provide cover outdoors. Those worn by the military often identified their rank. The sagum was a red wool cape worn by ordinary soldiers. This term entered into the lexicon of symbols, and when people talked about “putting on the sagum” they meant “going to war.”

Women’s dress in Rome differed only a little from that of Greek women of the Hellenic period. They wore an under tunic, not seen in public, and an over tunic very much like a Greek chiton. A palla, rather similar to a Greek himation, was draped over this. The colors of these layers varied. Opinions differ as to just what the stola with the instita was. Many costume histories use the word stola interchangeably with outer tunic. However, literary works clearly indicate that the garment was associated only with free, married women. Some sources describe the instita as a ruffle at the bottom of the stola or outer tunic. But a careful analysis byJudith Sebesta (1994) leads her to conclude that it is a special type of outer tunic suspended from sewed-on straps.

Hairstyles show marked differences from one time period to another. Men are generally bearded during the years of the Republic, clean-shaven during the Empire until the time of the Emperor Hadrian who wore a beard. Each family celebrated the occasion of the first shave for a young boy with a festival at which they placed the hairs in a special container and sacrificed them to the gods.

Women’s hairstyles were relatively simple during the first century C.E., but later grew so very complicated that they required the addition of artificial hair and special curls and braids arranged into towering structures.

Literary sources speak of extensive use of makeup by both men and women. Cleanliness was valued and public baths available to all levels of society.

The children of Roman citizens dressed like adults. Both boys and girls wore a toga with a purple band around the edge (toga praetexta). Boys wore it until age fourteen to sixteen, after which they wore the citizen’s toga (toga pura), and girls gave it up after puberty. Initially this garment was only for the children of noble families, but eventually became part of the dress of all children of Roman citizens. Roman male children also wore a bulla, a ball-shaped neck ornament containing protective charms that was given to them at the time they were named.

Both brides and vestal virgins, women whose lives were dedicated to the goddess Vesta, seem to have worn a special headdress. It consisted of pads of artificial hair alternating with narrow bands. A veil was placed over this. For brides the veil was bright orange and a wreath made of orange blossoms and myrtle was set on top of it. This association of veils and orange blossoms with weddings continues until modern times and may have its origin in Roman custom.

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