Ancient Threads

Roman Threads, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Roman Threads, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Today on Museum Bites we’re wrapping up our ramble through ancient Rome with a look at fashion. From senator to slave, a Roman’s wardrobe was based more on social standing than on personal taste. The citizens of Rome adhered to a strict dress code and used clothing to emphasize their badassery, signify their fidelity, and punish their sinners.

Join me for a brief look at these ancient fashion trends. We begin with the toga…

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. 

~ Mark Twain

Toga Party:  The Etruscans were the first to wear togas, but it was the Romans who made this iconic dress a fashion statement. Romans were so tightly linked to the toga they were referred to as the gens togata or “people of the toga”. But as the empire grew, so did the toga. It morphed from a simple, everyday garment to exclusive and macho. At its peak, the toga measured a hefty 18 feet long by 6 feet wide. Slaves were dedicated to the task of wrapping elite Roman males into these woolen cocoons, and pains were taken to create and show off intricate folds and draping.

Roman Toga, (c1st century BCE), Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, Photo by ML Nguyen, WikiMedia Commons
Roman Toga, (c1st century BCE), Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, Photo by ML Nguyen, WikiMedia Commons

The toga came in a variety of colors and styles, and a strict dress code was enforced. The toga virilis was the off-the-rack variety of toga. Made of natural, unbleached wool (think: burlap sack) this off-white version was the jeans and t-shirt flavor of toga. The dark gray or brown toga pulla signified mourning while the bleached toga candida was worn by men running for public office. These snowy white togas symbolized a candidate’s supposed honesty and purity. Eschewing their tunics, bare-chested candidates stumped on the campaign trail in an effort to show off battle scars and flaunt their devotion to the empire. The word candidate comes from the toga candida.

The more demure toga trabea sported red and purple stripes and was worn by Roman priests. The toga praetexta was reserved for magistrates and military leaders. And last but not least, the intricately embroidered and purple toga picta was the haute couture of togas, reserved for victorious generals and emperors.

Swaddled in itchy wool, with restricted use of one’s left arm, in a sweltering Italian heat meant prancing about in a toga required a significant amount of stamina. It’s no wonder they needed 60+ senators to whack Julius Caesar. The toga gradually fell out of favor and was only required for public events. Eventually, it was dropped for the lighter and airier tunic.

Franklin D. Roosevelt & the Cuff Links Gang Toga Party (1934), National Archives
Franklin D. Roosevelt & the Cuff Links Gang Toga Party (1934), National Archives

Fun Franklin Fact:  In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Cuff Links gang threw a toga party at the White House, decades before Bluto, Otter and the boys of Delta Tau Chi. The Cuff Links were FDR’s close friends and colleagues who worked on his failed 1920s campaign. Perhaps a snowy white toga would have come in handy? FDR had gifted each member with a pair of gold, monogrammed cuff links, and once a year he hosted a themed party in their honor.

Roman Stola, Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Photo by cjverb (2016)
Roman Stola, Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Photo by cjverb (2016)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Roman women were not immune to the empire’s strict dress codes. While upper-class males endured the rigors of the toga, their female counterparts donned the stola, a floor-length dress usually paired with a loose coat or shawl called a palla. In a show of fidelity, brides wore the flammen. This bright yellow veil was first worn by the Flaminica Dialis, a Roman priestess known for her enduring love and faithfulness to her husband. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, prostitutes and women accused of adultery were forced to wear the dratted toga. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, the masculine toga was meant to serve as a badge of shame.

Fun Colorful Fact: The color purple was rare and highly valued in Roman society. Only a small subset of the highest officials was allowed to wear this striking color. The Tyrian purple dye was obtained from the glands of the purpura mollusk. In order to extract the precious ink, Roman dyers boiled the purpura in vats of water for several days. The word purple was derived from the purpura mollusk.

Centurion's Uniform, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Centurion’s Uniform, Cranbrook Institute of Science, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Battle Gear:  Military uniforms were also subjected to a strict code of dress. Helmets, armor, weapons and even footgear were dictated by rank and branch of service. For example, centurions wore not one but two tunics, a chain mail version layered on top of a woolen one. Military tunics were worn above the knee and came in natural off-white (remember the burlap sack?) or dyed red.

Next came a metal belt called a cingulum. Linked around the cingulum, were a series of long metal pendants that clanged loudly when a centurion and his comrades marched into battle. Like bagpipes, this regimented din was meant to intimidate Rome’s enemies. It also served as an ancient siren, warning travelers to clear off the road (Click on Museum Bites: Paving the Way to learn about the many wonders of the Roman road).

On his feet, the centurion wore leather, cleat-like sandals called caligae. And on his head, he wore the coolus. This metal helmet not only protected the centurion’s head and neck, it was fancy, often sporting plumes of feathers or ridges. When centurions were not out conquering new lands, they were allowed to wear the toga praetexta.

Roman Laundry, Pompeii-3
Ancient Romans Washing Clothes (c1st century CE), Pompeii, WikiMedia Commons

Fun Undie Fact:  Roman men and women wore underwear that was similar to loincloths. Women also wore a mamillare, a type of breastband resembling a tube top and a precursor to the bra.

That wraps up our look at ancient Roman fashion. Next week we’re venturing north to visit the Dennos Art Museum in Traverse City, Michigan. In the meantime, have a great week!


Ancient History Encyclopedia


Beard, Mary (2015) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Britannica: Dress

Britannica: Toga

D’Amato, R. (2011) Roman Centurions 753-31 BC: The Kingdom and the Age of Consuls.

DiLuzio, M.J. (2016) A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome

Fashion Encyclopedia

FDR Presidential Library & Museum



McGinn, T.A.J. (1998) Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome.

Museum Bites: Paving the Way


Sebesta, J.L & Bonfante, L. (2001) The World of Roman Costume

Smithsonian Magazine



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