Our information on Roman dress comes from art works such as sculpture, painting, and tombstones, from literary works and from surviving clothing. Unfortunately the little that has withstood the ravages of time came from the outer corners of the Empire such as Egypt, Britain and France and may or may not have been representative of Rome or even Italy. When people today have their portraits done they usually chose to wear fairly dressy clothing, perhaps wanting to look their best for succeeding generations. In any event sculpture and paintings were expensive and only the wealthy could afford to be memorialized in this way. It is hard for us today to determine what difference if any there was between the ideal dress pictured in various art forms and that which people of all classes wore on a day to day basis.

       With that caveat in mind let us look at what the women of Rome wore. Throughout the duration of both the Republic and the Empire the tunica was a standard item in every woman’s wardrobe. It tended to be long, floor length in fact for matrons, but color, weight, fabric, texture, fit, sleeves and method of construction varied according to social class and the dictates of fashion. In its simplest form the tunica was a rectangular piece of cloth sown in a way that formed a tube with slits for the head and arms. Stitching across the shoulders was usually done so as to allow the front of the dress to be a little wider than the back, letting the neckline droop and form a V. Two identical rectangles could be sown together in the same way to produce a similar tunic. It is possible to weave a piece of cloth so that the top portion is wide enough to extend from one outstretched hand to another while the bottom portion is narrow enough to make half a tube dress. Sew two such pieces together and the result is a tunic with sleeves. A popular variation involved stitching the bottoms of the sleeves but tying the tops only at intervals, producing what has become known as the gap-sleeved tunic. This version is known to us only through art work and the nature of the fastenings has been the subject of much speculation. They do not appear to bear any form of decoration, making it unlikely they were made of gold or copper, leading to the suggestion that they are simply places where the cloth is bunched up and tied. In any event it is one of the easiest styles to recognize either in sculpture or in a painting.

       The Romans loved color and made use of it whenever possible. Clothing was labor intensive and very expensive, and colored garments were even more so. As might be expected, slaves and the poor wore the cheapest clothing possible. Many Roman writers were critical of the use of bright colors, but one can safely assume that the young girl pictured in a short, undyed tunic was a slave and the woman wearing the long, deep purple tunic was fairly well-to-do. A belt was the most common accessory. Sometimes made of fabric and in the late Empire even leather, belts were usually cord and almost always tied under the bust rather than at the waist as is common today.        

       In theory the stola, the ultimate sign of respectability, was the ideal garment for those eligible to wear it, as none but the married matron could do so. It was commonly worn in the late Republic and Augustus praised it and encouraged all women who were entitled to do so to wear it whenever they were out of the house. Its praises continued to be sung but in reality there were few women past the end of the First Century willing to wear it. The stola was a sleeveless, V-necked, floor length tube-dress with institia across the shoulders. Older books refer to this as a flounce at the bottom of the dress, but modern scholars now agree that no such flounce existed and that the term institia referred to the shoulder straps that kept the stola from falling down. They were made from cords or folded pieces of fabric and attached in such a manner as to produce a V or scooped neckline and to provide vertical folds down the front. The stola was worn over a tunic and belted just under the bust.

If the weather required it, a woman could wear an extra, short sleeved tunica as an undergarment for additional warmth or add a palla to her costume. The palla was a large square of material that could be folded in half and draped in a variety of ways over the shoulder or pulled atop the head for extra warmth. It was used by a Roman in much the same way a modern woman uses a stole.

       There was a changing variety of accessories and underclothes, and just as hemlines go up and down today, so slight modifications in detail appeared and disappeared, but the basic articles of dress stayed the same over the centuries. Since all were made by simply sowing together squares and rectangles of cloth, a second century Empire matron might look at a tunica from the Republic and say, “It sure looks funny, but I could fix it up in a few minutes and wear it.” A modern woman would not be able to do the same thing with this century’s complex, factory-made apparel.

       Except for a few who deliberately cut their hair short to accommodate the wigs they wore every day and the slaves who lost it to make wigs for others, almost all adult Roman women wore their hair long. Instead of letting it fall over their shoulders, hair was plaited, folded and tied to the head. The specifics of how this was accomplished was subject to the whims of fashion. When a new Emperor ascended the throne his wife’s favorite hairstyle spread quickly through the city and more slowly but just as inexorably to the farthest corners of the Empire. At times in the early Republic women simply parted their hair in the middle, pulled it back on the sides and tied it in a chignon. In the First Century a popular alternative to the chignon saw the ends of the hair rolled in numerous tight curls on the forehead and down the sides of the head. In the Empire hairstyles got so complex that the fashionable upper-class women kept a specially trained slave to do nothing but her hair. At times this involved piling the hair on layer after layer of pads until it reached a high peak at the centre. Hair dyes were available. Blond and red were particularly popular colors. Wigs were available to those who needed them and had the money. “I can’t go out with my hair looking like this,” was probably heard as much back then as it is today.


       Ovid, a Roman poet and contemporary of Augustus, wrote The Art of Love in which he claimed to teach men and women how to be attractive to each other. Discounting the poetic style which probably has only limited appeal to modern readers, how up to date is the advice? If Ovid passed through a time warp and showed up today, some two thousand years later, willing to write a revised edition of his poem in contemporary English, what changes would he have to make in his counsel? Beauty, he argued, is a gift offered to some and denied to others, but art can easily replace anything that nature left out. Dress well but avoid too much brocade or embroidery for overly rich apparel checks desire. Cleanliness is most important. Hair should match the face: a woman with a long face should avoid piling her hair too high on top of her head and a woman with a round face should not let her hair hide her ears. A woman whose hair has begun to turn grey should use herbal juices to color it and restore her youthful appearance. Many dyes are available to color clothing, but a woman should pay less attention to trying to impress through the use of expensive dyes and more attention to choosing colors that match her hair and skin tone. Use art to repair a face, and let people see the end result but not the means by which the result was achieved. A face dripping with melted grease is not a pleasant thing to see. Finally, of course, said Ovid, a woman should not clean her furry teeth when men are watching.