The clothes that women wore during the Roman Empire were not just practical but a statement of who they were. Clothing styles showed their societal rank, and colours could indicate wealth (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). We have an idea of what kinds of clothes Roman women would wear thanks in part to Roman art and literary sources (Harlow 2012). Sculptures can give us an idea of how Roman women would have worn their clothes. However, there is a problem with sculptures: they often depicted the wealthiest women wearing the highest fashion of the time (Olson 2008). After all, would you wear your sweatpants to your graduation portrait? This means that we have very little information on what everyday women wore, as well as what slaves and children would have worn, from statues.
For information about these clothes we must turn to depictions of everyday life, such as carvings on graves. On occasion, reliefs might show the dress of a female slave as well. As far as colours go, statues give little idea of patterns and what vibrant colours fabrics came in as they have lost their colour due to the weathering and time. Advances in science have led researchers to be able to trace the composition of some paints. However, the best information for how clothes were patterned and coloured come from mosaics, writing, and the odd surviving painting. On rare occasions small rags of fabric may survive, allowing for a unique glance of what clothing would have looked like. One must be careful when observing art to determine what women would wear, as sometimes clothing was symbolic in Roman art (Harlow 2012). For example, in some Roman funerary art the deceased woman would be dressed as a goddess, not because that is what she would have worn in life, but instead to signify that she had joined the divine realm (Harlow 2012).
With this in mind, we can now question what Imperial Roman women actually wore. In ancient Rome, layers were definitely ‘in’. Despite the sometimes scorching weather, Roman women could be caught wearing copious layers of wool and linen the vast majority of the time. The basic garment for women and men alike was the tunic, which could then be topped off with a peplos, stola, and palla. In this page, I will discuss these clothing articles and how they were worn, as well as what they signified. I will talk about what clothes were made of, what their colours meant, the price of clothes, what different classes of women wore, and cap it all off, like any good fashion ensemble, with makeup and hairdos.
A great summary of Roman women’s fashion is available here, which describes the styles of women starting at 6:47
Types of Garments
The tunic is the basic article of clothing for women, men, and children (Harlow 2012; Croom 2010). For women, this was often belted at the waist. However, during mourning, this would remain unbelted to show that the wearer was suffering such intense grief that they did not care about their appearance. The length of the tunic varied by social class: wealthy women would wear tunics that brushed their feet, while lower class women wore their tunics shorter (Harlow 2012). Tunics that were cut above the knee indicated a slave woman, and were said to be more practical for their type of work (Harlow 2012). For women, there were three types of shoulder styles that could be worn: buttoned, sewn, or fastened with brooches. These would close the seam of the tunic down to the elbows.
Despite what every Hallowe’en costume says, Roman women rarely wore togas. On occasion, girls could be seen in togas, but a woman in a toga sent a very specific message: that they were either a prostitute, or an adulterer (Croom 2010). Sorry, next time you want to accurately dress as a Roman woman for Hallowe’en, you’ll have to pick up a whole lot of woollen layers.
After the tunic, this is the next layer. A peplos looked something like a loose-fitting tank top and could either go from the shoulders to the waist or past the hips. This was usually secured with a belt underneath the bust (Croom 2010). The peplos was commonly hidden by the palla.
Married women would wear this over their tunics (Harlow 2012). It was usually a white, sleeveless dress fastened by brooches at the shoulder. Often, women would receive this as a wedding present.
The palla is a large (11 by 5ft) rectangular piece of fabric, which is something like a large scarf. It could be worn around the shoulders or over the head (Harlow 2012). Any Roman woman could wear this garment, married or not. The palla could be used to cover the head as it was considered distasteful for Roman women to be unveiled in public (Macmullen 1980).
This was the Roman version of a bra, called a breast-band. It was worn under the tunic by both girls and women. The ideal in Imperial Rome was for women to have small breasts, therefore these were small tight bands of cloth. The idea was that this would make the wearer look more slender.
Clothes in Imperial Rome could be made out of plant (linen) or animal matter (wool). Most commonly, clothes were made from linen or wool, though clothes could also be made of silk, goat hair, and cotton (Harlow 2012). Slaves’ clothes needed to be weatherproof and were often made out of tough leather (Harlow 2012). Thread was spun by hand. During the time of the Roman Empire, wealthy/upper-class women stopped making their own clothes; with the exception of a few women who continued to make clothes for tradition, clothes were made by slaves or could be bought at a market. Interestingly, the spindle was still shown on the graves of Roman women as a sign of womanhood.
Romans preferred to weave simple shapes. Rectangles were the preferred shape to weave, as they were quick and relatively easy to make. This means that a lot of Roman clothing was rectangle-based in order to waste the least amount of fabric possible. It was also very handy to make rectangular clothes since it meant no cutting of fabric, and fewer hems to sew. This ensured that clothes would last as long as possible- and with the price of clothes, this was a must!
Since clothes started to be sold in markets instead of made by hand, skilled weavers were able to make quite a lot of money. After all, everyone needed clothes, and the idea of looking like a high society Roman was very important to the citizens of Imperial Rome. This meant that clothes were insanely expensive: not just for the labour of making them, but also for the dye. A woman’s tunic could cost anywhere from 7000-11,000 denarii, and it was the most basic clothing item(Harlow 2012)! Pallas ranged from 500 denarii for a slave’s palla to 7500 for a nicely dyed and patterned palla, but if you wanted a gold-embroidered purple shawl, that would cost the small fortune of 55,000 denarii (Harlow 2012). For reference, farming and building Romans ers and builders made 25-50 denarii per day, and teachers made roughly 250 denarii per pupil per month (Harlow 2012). Dressing yourself, your wife, your children, and your slaves was a pricy endeavour. This meant that clothes were often reused plenty and passed down from parents to children, and children to younger siblings. This also meant that there was likely a thriving second-hand market for clothes.
Dye was expensive and hard to produce. This meant that, except for the wealthiest citizens, most Romans would wear natural colours. These included black, brown, grey, and cream. Romans in mourning or waiting for trial also wore these colours to symbolize that they were under too much emotional stress to care about their appearance. Colours such as purple and red signified wealth, though green, orange, yellow and blue dyes were also known to be used.
Purple was the hardest to come by, because it was created by removing a gland from the murex mollusc. Pliny the Elder states that 10000 shellfish were required for one gram of dye (which is hugely unsustainable). This means that someone had to dive for, shell, collect, and refine the dye from all these molluscs. Not to mention shipping. Despite its fishy smell, the Romans loved it.
Red was worn by people in power, but was not as revered as purple. It was either made from roots or crushed tiny bugs. This was hard to process as well, but did not involve diving for or cracking shells. This is likely why it is not as expensive.
Whites were used in ceremonies and holidays like weddings and birthdays. Rootlet juice was used to first bleach the cloth, and then sulphur was burned below them to keep them white. It seems as though ancient Roman fashion does not come without a rank smell.
Clothes for the Classes
Married women dressed in a style that showed that they were chaste and modest. They hid their faces and bodies from men when outside the house using many layers and a palla over their heads. The most identifiable clothing item for a married woman was her stola which she wore over her tunic. This was usually a pretty bland clothing item, so married Roman women would show their wealth with ornate pallas which they used to veil their heads. Throughout her life, a wife would wear colours and patterns that were affordable to her husband. The exception of this being on her wedding day, where a woman would wear yellow and white. On her wedding day, the bride would wear a special six-tress braided hairdo, and a special veil called the flammeum (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001).
An interesting video describing the hairstyles worn on a wedding day (and by vestal virgins) and the style of the Roman ‘wedding dresses’ can be found here.
Girls and Unmarried Women
There is little information in literature on the dress of girls, as girls dress was not as important as woman’s dress and there is far less information on Roman girls than boys (Croom 2010). However, the way that girls dressed was important to determine if she was a still a girl or a woman. The tunic was the main clothing item for girls. As in women, the tunic of girls also reached just above their feet. Over this, girls were also known to wear a toga praetexta as boys do. This is a toga with a purple border, which was supposed to show how sacred youth was (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001).. Girls also wore a supparus which was a band of clothing with short sleeves that hung over their shoulders. The toga praetexta can be seen on multiple reliefs, the most notable being the girl on the north side of the Ara Pacis (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). Other examples are on a mid-first century BCE girl, a mid-first century CE grave at Ince Blundell Hall, and the Cologne statue of Poblicia (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). It is also noted that in the ancient marriage rite of confarreatio children were required to be dressed in togae praetextae (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). When a girl safely matured into a woman, this was signified by menarche (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). Before her wedding, a girl would set aside her toga praetexta to be dedicated to Fortuna Virginalis and wear the plain white tunica recta of a new bride (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001).
Girls could be seen wearing just their tunics, as is seen in the Villa Doria Pamphilj, and many other works of art. In the Hadrianic sculpture below, named Seated Girl, a girl can be seen wearing just her tunic.
Toga wearing was much less common in art, leading to the interpretation that togas were a ceremonial garment. There is proof that girls wore togas in art, as a little girl can be seen on the north frieze of the Ara Pacis wearing a toga.
Young girls were not high on the list for family members to spend money on; as they aged, girls would inherit some of their mother’s old clothes. Girls’ clothes were much simpler than those of married women. They did not have to wear an extra dress over their tunic, instead a simple peplos would do, if anything. There was no need to cover their faces, so a pallas could be worn more like a shawl.
The clothing for slaves were usually replaced annually since they were cheaper and used more heavily. The quality of this clothing would show how close the slave was to the members of the household, as well as her rank compared to other slaves in the house. These clothes were not meant to be fashionable. Instead, they were designed to be cheap, weatherproof, and practical. This meant that they were often short tunics, above the knee to allow for more free movement without fear of dirtying them as much as a long tunic. Material was much thicker and unlikely to become unraveled. This is because leather was often used for slave clothing. It was tough, cheap, and in relative abundance but also was just about the only thing hotter than wool to wear which ought to have made working outside even more exhausting.
The clothes of the Vestal Virgins looked similar to those of a high status Roman bridal dress (Sebesta and Bonfate 2001). They were made of white wool and accompanied by an infula, veil and white or yellow palla. They also wore ribbons in their hair of red to show their devotion to Vesta’s fire, and white to show their purity. Hairstyles were usually on the simple side, keeping hair up and out of the face.
As with clothing, a woman’s hairstyle also changed throughout her life. Since so much of a Roman woman was covered, hairstyles were their version of our designer clothes (Barman 2001). Hairstyles were elaborate and a large part of identity. Hair was a major part of an Imperial Roman woman’s attractiveness, giving an excuse for women to spend copious amounts of time to get it styled (Bartman 2001). Our knowledge of hairstyles comes almost entirely from art and literature. Though the large towers of curls in some Flavian statues may look unrealistic, they can be copied by an expert stylist. If you want proof, I encourage you to click on the link below.
Women and girls in Imperial Rome had long hair which they divided in the middle by a part. In young girls, hair could be worn in loose curls down the back, but was usually tied back as the girl aged. Girls commonly wore their hair back in a ‘melon hairstyle’, which was when hair was twisted back in sections and wound into a bun. As girls reached an age that they could marry, their hairstyles became increasingly more complex. There are many reliefs where the daughter has a much more extravagant hairstyle than that of her mother. This, along with the absence of a head covering, were thought to help the young woman attract a suitor.
Popular hair trends also changed from year to year, which provides a handy hint at date when looking at Roman art (Bieber 1962). The most extreme hairstyles were perhaps those of the Flavian women who wore mounds of curls (Bartman 2001). The Fonseca bust (left) shows an example of the extreme hair of the Flavian era (Bartman 2001). This bust shows a high arching crown of curls with a braided bun in the back. This is also the style that is being done in the video link above. It is possible that the front was a separate hairpiece made of curls which were glued or sewn onto backing. But it is also possible that it was created using stiff wax and yarn to sew it together.
Hair accessories were commonly used but kept out of sight. This is supported by the discovery of a braid sewn into leather found in a woman’s tomb in Gaul. Other hairpieces included hairpins and hairnets which have both been seen in surviving statuary (Trajanic lady bust in Palazzo Corsini, and 2 Century bronze of a woman in Princeton) (Bartman 2001). It was also not uncommon for women to purchase hair extensions. The blondes of the Germans or the dark black hair of Indians were the most preferred (Bartman 2001).
It was also common for Roman women to dye/bleach their hair. Henna was a popular choice as it also made hair more malleable for styling (Bartman 2001). However, natural dyes, bleach, powders, gels, and pomade were also used (Bartman 2001).
It was encouraged for Roman women to have healthy pale skin (Olson 2009). Therefore, they used many oils. Crocodile poop, or crocodilea, was used as a facial whitener (Olson 2009). Pliny the Elder claims that the dung comes from land-dwelling crocodiles who live on sweet smelling flowers which makes their dung smell nice, however it seems like Pliny might not have much experience with crocodile dung (Olson 2009). Sometimes this crocodile dung was mixed with starling droppings as well to make it extra white (Olson 2009). One could also bathe in donkey milk to whiten their entire complexion (Olson 2009). The worst possible face whitener was cerussa (AKA sugar of lead) which is as bad as it sounds, a mixture of white lead and vinegar (Olson 2009). Then they brightened their pale skin with paideros (purple dye). They also added cinnabar (red mercuric sulphide) and minium (red lead) as blush (Olson 2009). Dark eyebrows were also a popular trend in Imperial Rome, much like many people today they would dye them or fill them in with asbolos (soot). Petronius describes the perfect eyebrows as going from the cheekbones and almost meeting at the bridge of the nose (Olson 2009). Eyes were lined with platyophthalmon which made the eyes look larger (Olson 2009). Kohn and oil with ash were common eyeliners (Olson 2009). Eyeshadow of many hues was also worn.
As we can see in this post, fashion is an important indicator of status in Roman women. This video goes well in-depth on the ways that a Roman woman might prepare her makeup, touching on ingredients, origin of ingredients and what different social statuses of women might have worn. Check out a Roman makeup tutorial here.
Bartman, E. (2001). Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment. American Journal of Archaeology. 105: 1-25.
Bieber, M. (1962): ‘The copies of the Herculaneum women’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106: 111-34.
Croom, A. T. (2000): Roman Clothing and Fashion. Stroud.
Edmondson, J., Keith, A. (2008) . Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Harlow, M.E. (2012). ‘Dressing to please themselves: clothing choices for Roman Women’ in Harlow, M.E. (ed.) Dress and identity (University of Birmingham IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature and Art 2), Archaeopress, pp. 37-46
Harlow, M. (2004): ‘Female dress, 3rd – 6th centuries: the messages in the media’. Antiquité Tardive 12: 203-15.
Macmullen, R. (1980): ‘Women in public in the Roman empire’, Historia 29: 208-18.
Olson, Kelly. (2008). Dress and the Roman Woman Self-Presentation and Society. Routledge. 1-7
Olson. 2009. Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: supstance, Remedy, Poison. Classical World. 102(3): 291-310.
Sebesta, J. & Bonfante, L. (eds) (2001): The World of Roman Costume. Wisconsin.
Note: the featured image is called Mosaic of the Lady of Carthage from the Bardo Museum (mid 5th century AD) and the photo was taken by Dennis Jarvis (Wikimedia Commons).