Prescribed Implications of Dress: Comparing the Matrona and the Mistress in the Early Roman Empire

I was interested in discovering what made clothing important to the Romans. What aspects were unique to women? After some initial research, I decided to focus on two seemingly opposite classes of women, feeding into the Madonna and Whore trope, I decided to investigate differences in dress of matronas and prostitutes in Roman society. However, through the course of my research it soon became apparent that there are may similarities between the two, particularly as they as both accounted for in ancient literature more prescriptively than descriptively (Olson, 2006), and that in reality the adherence to these prescriptive was likely less than writers would have us believe (Edmondson & Keith, 2008).

After completing my research, I have divided information into four categories: Why was appearance socially valuable? What was the Matrona supposed to wear?  What was the mistress supposed to wear? What were the commonalities these groups shared?

In the interest of brevity, I have chosen only to share the highlights from my research. These are a curated collection quotations, explanations and images which captured my interest and were most influential to my learning on the subject.

“We are transported by fashion; all things are covered by gems and gold; the smallest part is the girl herself.”  Ovid, Remedia amoris 343-4


In 1971, Albert Mehrabian found that 93 percent of human communication is not conveyed by spoken word. Mehrabian suggested that the language breakdown was as follows: 7% spoken words; 38% tone of voice; 55% body language. One can reasonably apply this knowledge to clothing. The clothing we choose to wear speaks not only for itself, but also for the wearer.

“The toga and stola served as a powerful means for defining who belonged within, and who was excluded from, roman citizen body. As such, they fostered a sense of civic uniformity and cohesion, contributing in theory at least to social order. However, Roman public dress still had greater potential, since within the officially sanctioned dress code there were variations which highlighted status and rank. As a result, the particular type of toga one wore in public and changes in that type of dress one was entitled to wear very strikingly marked and affirmed one’s changing place within Roman civic society” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“Public dress thus contributed significantly towards dividing the roman citizen body into its various status hierarchies. Rome was a culture of spectacle, and the spectacle of dress helped to emphasize some of its most important values.” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“Clothing therefore embodies social structure and is important to a society’s sense of itself.” (Olson, 2008)

The Matrona

CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=1320595
Image by CC BY-SA 3.0,

“Whoever he be, despiser of stola or purple, that has assailed with versus those whom he ought to respect.” (Martial, 10.5.1–2)

“Augustus also put renewed emphasis on the wearing of the stola for female roman citizens. The dress of the matron was meant to shield its wearer both physically and morally from the prying gaze of disreputable males who might impune her chastity. This is a point underlined by Ovid in the prologue to the first book Ars Amatoria (2 BC) where he warns off respectable stolatae from the saucy delights of his didactic work: ‘Stay far away, you slender headbands, symbol of modesty, and you long ruffle, you who cover half your feet’ (Ars amatoria 1.31–32)” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“This was a heavy straight cut garment worn over a tunic, it was fixed in place with straps. It was often covered with a mantel or palla… at the bottom was a ruffle (instita) that covered the ankles, and thus, the modesty of the matrona.” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

The Mistress

Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Public Domain,

A note: prostitutes, adulteresses, courtesans were often assimilated in the classic literature, hence many description of these women are prescriptive, lacking in precision, and could also be attributed to members of other social categories.

“By this exclusion from the sartorial distinctions of the chaste matronae, the toga ideally identified them as those who rejected the moral code bound up in those clothes.” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“What, my life, do you delight to walk out with your hair styled and rustle the slender folds of your coan silk gown, or drench your hair in Syrian myrrh and sell yourself for foreign gifts, marring your natural beauty by buying adornment and not allowing your limbs to glow with their innate charms?” (Propertius 1.2.1-6)

“Myrrh and coan silk were expensive eastern luxury imports at Rome. The former an Arabian commodity available through Syrian trade, the latter produced on the island of cos by spinning of the caterpillar filaments similar to Chinese silkworm. Since coan silk was almost transparent, it advertised the wearer’s sexual availability” (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“In comedy, Roman that the very traits that were used to marginalize prostitutes and actors in terms of their social status also worked to establish them as symbolically central to the construction of the ideal Roman subject, and that the qualities imputed to them that were used to justify viewing them as objects of suspicion also served, not coincidentally, to make them objects of desire.” (Duncan, 2006)


South wall of Ara Pacis, Rome
Image by Andy Hay – Flickr: South wall of Ara Pacis, Rome, CC BY 2.0,

“Any citizen deemed to be infamis – that is, one who had chosen to pursue an ‘unspeakable’ profession such as gladiator or actor, pimp or prostitute… similarly, roman citizen women convicted of adultery were banned from wearing the stola and may have been required to wear the toga in public. In this way, they were assimilated as prostitutes, some at least of whom also wore togas in public, to mar them off from respectable women. By wearing this ostensibly masculine dress they had given up any claim to feminine modesty.”  (Edmondson & Keith, 2008)

“In each stage of the roman woman’s life costume served as a visual and tactile reminder of the virtue she should maintain and for which she should be respected” (Sebesta and Bonfante, 2001)

“Most (writers) certainly follow the expected conventions of their particular genre… Where the sources intrigue and attract the scholar is in their lines of intersection and correlation, in their points of consensus concerning female clothing and the adorned woman.” (Olson, 2006)


My goal was to highlight some pivotal pieces of research which inspired me to form my own opinions regarding female dress in Rome. I hope that the quotes and insights provided above have spurred your imagination.

I would like to leave you now with a quote regarding fashion in a sense more serious than I find particularly apt for our class study on women in the ancient world:

“Clothes aren’t going to change the world, but the women who wear them will” Anne Klein



Duncan, A. (2006). Infamous performers: comic actors and female prostitutes. In C. A. Faraone & L. K. McClure (Eds.), Prostitutes and courtesans in the ancient world. (pp.252-273). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Edmondson, Jonathan & Keith, Allison. (2008). Roman dress and the fabrics of Roman culture. (2008). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Olson, Kelly. (2008). Dress and the Roman woman. New York: Routledge.

Olson, K. (2006). Matrona and whore: clothing and definition in Roman antiquity. In C. A. Faraone & L. K. McClure (Eds.), Prostitutes and courtesans in the ancient world. (pp.186-206). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sebesta, Judith Lynn & Bonfante, Larissa. (2001). The world of Roman costume. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


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