Hello and welcome to Rome Across Europe! In the past we have talked about Roman fashion.
Not shocking, it was from a male perspective and focused primarily for men. It was not too far off from the fashion industry these days.
Because we are trying to get more stories with Roman women as the focus, we found the women of Ancient Rome did indeed actually have clothes.
The palla is a single piece of material draped over the shoulders and around the body or over the head as well. It was similar to the pallium that a man would wear.
The palla was similar to a shawl that a woman of today would wear. The palla would come in many colors some including blue, green, and yellow.
A palla was like the toga in which both were a woven, not sewn, expanse of cloth that could be pulled over the head. The shape of the palla was rectangular instead of semi-circular as with the traditional toga.
The stola was a long, pleated dress, worn over an undergarment called a tunica intima (the Roman version of a slip). The stola was generally sleeveless but versions of it did have short or long sleeves.
These sleeves could belong to the stola itself or be a part of the tunica. The traditional sleeveless stola was fastened by clasps at the shoulder called fibulae.
The stola was typically girt with ribbons, and typically had 2 belts. The first was worn just below the breasts creating a great number of folds. The second and wider belt was worn around the waist.
Stolae were generally made of fabrics like linen or wool, but a wealthy woman could be seen wearing a stola made of silk. The stola was worn as a symbol and represented a woman’s marital status.
A wealthier woman might also have added a limbus to her stola. A limbus was a separate piece of fabric with many folds that was sewn into the hem of the stola creating the appearance of another gown being worn beneath. This created the illusion of layers, a symbol of wealth and status.
Stolae were made in a variety of colors including red, yellow, and blue. Decorations were also added to the neckline and hem.
A wide ornamental border called an instita was often used around the neckline and hem as a display of wealth.
Originally, women wore togas as well. After the 2nd Century BC, however, the toga was worn exclusively by men, and women were expected to wear the stola.
At that point, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to wear a toga. Wearing the male garment was associated with prostitution and adultery, thusly adulterers and prostitutes were forbidden to wear the stola.
Although the stola was a Roman garment, it was inspired by the clothing of ancient Greece. It was a staple of fashion in Ancient Rome spanning from the early Res Publica Romana through the Imperium Rōmānum and Byzantine Empire into the 1st millennium.
It was the basic garment that went on under the stola, palla or toga. It could also be worn alone.
The tunica or chiton was worn as a shirt or gown by both genders. The body garment was loose-fitting for males, usually beginning at the neck and ending above the knee. A woman’s garment could be either close fitting or loose, beginning at the neck and extending over a skirt or skirts.
While men might belt up the tunica, women were expected to have fabric extending to their feet. So if this was all she wore, a Roman woman would not belt it.
The Roman tunica was adopted from the Greek in the 3rd Century BC. It was worn by citizens and non-citizens alike. Citizens, though, might wear it under the toga, especially at formal occasions.
The length of the garment, the presence or lack of stripes, as well as their width and ornamentation, would indicate the wearer’s status in Roman society. Roman Senators, for example, used the Laticlavus, with broad purple stripes, and members of the equestrian class wore the Angusticlavia, with narrower stripes.
Soldiers, slaves and manual workers generally had tunics to a little above the knee. Those in more sedentary occupations had a length to about the ankle, unless they were expecting to ride a horse, when a shorter one would be worn.
The breast band was a normal, if optional, item in a woman’s underwear.
Women in Ancient Rome adopted a form of the Greek apodesme, known as the strophium ormamillare. Since the Romans regarded large breasts as comical, or characteristic of aging or unattractive women, young girls wore breast bands secured tightly in the belief that doing so would prevent overly large, sagging breasts.
Observation of artifacts and experiments shows bands had to be wrapped several times around the breasts, largely to flatten them in a style popular with flappers in the 1920s. These Greco-Roman breastbands may have flattened big breasts and padded small breasts to look bigger.
Sometimes in the most sexually explicit Roman paintings, the breasts are kept covered by the strophium. The settings in which the paintings are found indicate that the women so depicted may be prostitutes, but it can be difficult to discern why an artist decides in a given scenario to portray the breasts covered by a strophium or exposed.
The so-called “Bikini Girls” mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale (4th Century AD) shows 10 women performing gymnastic or dance routines, weight-lifting, discus throwing, and running, while wearing a garment like a strapless bra and briefs.
The Bikini Girls from Piazza Armenia, some of whom sport the braless look of the late 20th Century, do not depict any propensity of such popularity in style. One bottom, made of leather, from Roman Britain was displayed at the Museum of London in 1998.
There has been no evidence that these bikinis were for swimming or sun-bathing.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the clothing of Roman women. Maybe it’s something to look into for your own wardrobe, or maybe not.
In any event, come check us out again soon to see what we have in store for you. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Gill, N.S. Roman Dress for Women.
Huskinson, Janet. Experiencing Rome. Routledge (2000). ISBN 0-415-21284-7.
Judith Lynn Sebesta &, Larissa Bonfante, The World of Roman Costume. Wisconsin Press (1994). ISBN 0-299-13854-2.
McManus, Barbara F . Roman Clothing. The College of New Rochelle (2003).
McGinn, Thomas A. Prostitution, sexuality, and the law in ancient Rome. Oxford University Press (1998). ISBN 0-19-508785-2.