Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Handout for my Roman Women's Clothing class

This is the handout that accompanied the most recent class I taught with the assistance of my new roomie.  I'm putting it up relatively soon after the class was taught, since it was taught on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend!

Chic, not Shapeless
An Overview of Female Garments, Accessories and Style from the Roman Empire

Lady Petronia Casta and Lady Aemilia Rufinia
Email: or

The Roman Empire spans several centuries, from 27 BCE to 476 CE in the West, and 330-1453 CE for the Eastern/Byzantine Empire.  This class will generally cover women’s garments from the Western Empire, and give an idea of how to construct and wear these garments with an eye towards accuracy and comfort.  It will also give tips on accessories and hairstyles to complete the look.

Parts of the Synthesis

Let’s start working from the skin out.  Roman female undergarments are a bit controversial, like most underwear from early periods.  We have no surviving garments designed for breast support that I’ve come across.  We do have Latin terms for such a garment, strophium and mamillare, and some mosaics, frescos and a few statues that lead us to believe that such a garment existed, at least in some circumstances.  The mosaics that depict such a garment are colloquially known as the “Roman Bikini Girls,” and show a number of women engaged in some form of exercise, and are frequently referred to as gymnasts (Fig. 1).  The frescos that happen to show women in enough of a state of undress to display the strophium are frequently of an erotic subject matter (Fig. 2).  The statue below displaying a strophium is of the Goddess Venus (Fig. 3).

Along with the strophium, the Bikini Girls are wearing a form of underwear, called subligaria (Fig. 1).  There is an extant pair made from leather on display in the Museum of London (Fig. 4).  No one is sure if they were an every day garment or only worn during exercise and certain weeks of the month.  This leather pair is the only extant pair; if any were made of linen or wool, they’ve been lost to time.

The next layer out from the undergarments would be one or more layers of tunica.  Multiple layers could be worn for warmth.  These long garments can be wide tube-like garments in the case of the tunica recta (Fig. 5) or “straight tunic” or could have long sleeves, a tunica manicata (Fig. 6).  Roman clothing was segregated into male and female categories, and wearing items considered the opposite carried a bit of a social stigma.  Women were allowed to wear long sleeves, men shouldn’t.  Likewise it was considered unfeminine to wear short tunicas or to have your tunica be white.

Over the various tunicas, come various types of outer garment, and what one would wear is dependant on their station in life.  If unmarried, a woman would wear a fancy tunica as her outermost dress layer.  Only married women were supposed to wear the stola, a long, sleeveless overdress (Figs. 9-13).  There are several styles of shoulder treatment on a stola: splitting the fabric for the neck and gathering the shoulder line into a bundle (Fig. 9), a simple strap joining the front and back (Fig. 10), brooches pinning the back to the front (Fig. 11), gathering the top line of fabric into a binding (Fig. 12), even a braided strap joining the front and back (Fig. 13).  The stola could be either a solid color, or have embellishment, called institia, along the hem or on the straps.

Over top of the tunicas and the stola, if a woman was going outdoors, she would wear a large rectangular wrap called a palla (Figs. 14 and 15).  This wrap could be draped over the head and pinned to her hair for more coverage (Fig. 14), and was designed to cover the body for modesty.  A special version of the palla was the flammeum, a yellow/saffron colored veil worn by brides on their wedding day.  Togas were the outer garment for prostitutes and women convicted of adultery, specifically because it was a man’s garment (Fig. 16).

How to make the garments

Romans had access to linen, hemp, some silks and cottons, but the most common fabric for Roman clothing is wool.  That being said, the weight of the fabric is going to make the biggest difference in how the garment drapes, and drape is part of what makes the clothing “fit” right.  Light weight fabrics like gauze, crepe and chiffon will hang in small tight folds like the images.  Choose the fabric you will use for these garments based off the weight.  If you are looking to wear Roman clothing year round instead of just as summer garments, try wool crepes or tricotines and soft, light-weight silks for insulation and wear several layers.  For summer, limit the number of layers; try thinner linens, breezy cotton gauzes or blends of vegetative fibers.  To test if a fabric is light weight enough, gather up small folds in your hand and hold it in the air.  If the folds stay relatively small all the way down, it is light weight enough to use.  If the folds get larger or don’t fold much at all, it’s probably either too heavy or too stiff to use.

These garments don’t really have much in the way of cutting patterns, as the vast majority of them are constructed from rectangles.  The strophium is a long band of fabric, roughly 8-11 inches wide by 120” long, and wrapped around the breasts to keep them contained.  This wrap can be seen in both Fig. 2 and Fig. 3.

The extant pair subligaria were an hourglass shape, with ties on the side like modern bikini bottoms.  Theory is that women wore this shaped pair of undergarments, and men wore wrapped loincloths.
The tunica recta was woven as one long piece and a fold was placed on one side with a seam up the other side.  Modern fabric widths make this a little more difficult.  The look can be accomplished by cutting two pieces of fabric, the full width by the wearer’s shoulder to hem measurement plus some length for blousing.  The two pieces are sewn most of the way along the selvedges, leaving enough opening at the top along the selvedge for the wearer’s arms to go through.  The top of the tube is hemmed and locations along it are stitched together to join the front and the back.  It is more comfortable to allow a little more drape in the center front than the center back section so the tunica doesn’t strangle the wearer.  An alternative version of this garment is made by taking one piece of fabric twice the length of the wearer’s shoulder to hem plus blousing, and cutting a horizontal slit in the middle for the head, and sewing the selvedges the same as the tunica recta that is open on top (Fig. 7).

The tunica manicata was most likely sewn like the tunica recta with sleeves inserted into the side seams.  I’ve created a method that works for me and approximates the look while being more comfortable in my opinion.  Instead of two panels that are the same width across front and back, I use a very narrow panel for the back, and a much wider panel for the front.  There are also side panels added that are a shorter length than the front or back, the height being made up for by the sleeves.  This gives a garment that doesn’t fall off the shoulders (though there are several images of just such a thing happening, see Fig. 8) but still gives ample fullness for walking.

The stola is also very simple rectangular pieces, with either the top edge of the fabric gathered into a band, gathered and stitched to a strap, hemmed and pinned similarly to the tunicas, or there is a vertical slit in flat fabric and that is gathered.  The panels are usually made from the full width of the fabric, and are shoulder to hem plus blousing in length.

Pallas are also rectangles.  (Sense a theme?)  Fabrics 45-54” and 2-2½ yards in length work well for a palla, or one could use a sari, as that is how I arrived at that measurement.

Togas are roughly the height of the wearer and two times their height in length.  Early togas were cut in a semicircular shape, while later togas were cut more complexly.  Both pallas and togas are draped starting with the ends in front over the left arm, around the back, under the right arm, and back over the left.  See Fig. 16 for both draping techniques and cutting diagrams for togas.  I will often start with the tail hanging down the back first, as this makes adjusting the garment to go up over my head easier.


The most important accessory for this outfit is a belt.  Women’s belts were called cingulum and could be a cord or a woven sash.  The cingulum is what makes the garments fit in a flattering manner.  It should be fairly narrow, no more than three inches wide and long enough to wrap around the body twice and still hang down past the knees, approximately 5 yards in length.  Center the belt between the breasts and right underneath them on the front, wrap the cingulum around to the back and cross it there or give it a twist to keep it tight, wrap the ends back to the front and tie it tightly around your waist.  The belt should cinch in all the fabric as closely to your body as you can handle in order to give waist definition and make the garment flattering to your figure.  Blouse the extra length over the part of the belt over the waist, and distribute the folds of the skirt evenly around the body.

Roman women’s shoes could be as complicated as the garments were simple.  Rich colors, elaborate cutwork, gold leafing, and fancy laced patterns are all exhibited on extant Roman shoes.  Women wore mostly enclosed slippers or low boots when outdoors, which could be worn with ankle-high, woven-fabric, socks in cold weather.  Sandals, similar to modern thong sandals, were worn primarily indoors, though many statues show women wearing sandals and pallas.  Ladies’ shoes were often made of leather or fabrics, and certain colors were reserved for certain stations in life.  Red was reserved for the senatorial class, yellow/saffron was reserved for brides and for expensive courtesans.

Jewelry came in many and varied styles.  Gold was preferred, and emeralds and pearls were frequent favorites.  Earrings were usually drop or dangling styles.  Necklaces can be strings of beads, chains with stones, have pendants, or granulation.  Fibulas were used to fasten clothing and hold garments in place.  They can be simple wires, elaborate “crossbow” shapes, or complex enameled affairs.  Bracelets and anklets feature in mosaics and paintings.  Rings often feature cameos carved in semi precious stones.  Many paintings feature women wearing gold laurel wreaths, which may not work for many Scadians.  There are also paintings that feature a gold hairnet that sits on top of the head. 

Along with shoes and jewelry, Roman women’s hairstyles often display high levels of complexity.  The simplest hairstyle of early Roman women was all the hair pulled back to a low bun.  Later styles incorporated elaborate and complex braiding and curling to create height and large buns.  I can go on for quite some time on Roman hairstyles, contact me if you’d like more information on it.

We hope this helps when putting together your Roman clothing.  Please feel free to contact us for more information about any of the garments discussed in this class, or for shopping advice.
Fig. 1 4th Century AD mosaic found near the ancient Roman Villa del Casale in Sicily, M Disdero 2006
Fig. 2 Fresco found in the House of the Centenery in Pompeii 
 Fig. 3 Venus from Museum Burg Linn, Germany
Fig. 4 Bikini-like leather subligaculum found in excavations of Roman London (Museum of London)

Tunica Types

Fig. 5 Tunica Recta                                       Fig. 6 Tunica Manicata

Fig. 7 Tunica Recta with open top                           Fig. 8 Wide necked tunica falling                                                                                       off the shoulders

Stola Types

Fig. 9 V-necked                                                         Fig. 10 Thin strap

Fig. 11 Brooches                                  Fig. 12 Banded                                   Fig. 13 Braided


Fig. 14 Wrapped palla over                             Fig. 15 Palla off the head
the head

Fig. 16 How to wrap a toga; 5, 6, and 7 being toga shapes


  1. I'm glad that you like my colorized images of Roman art and find them useful. I would appreciate a link back to my site and credit for them though. My site is: and my contact info is Countess Dulcia MacPherson, OL, OP, OR, Baroness of An Crosaire, Kingdom of Trimaris MKA Elizabeth Bair Brooks

  2. Holy. Cow. I love your blog. I'm an Ansteorran who's going to be relocating to An Tir in the near future, and I'm gobbling up everything about the kingdom that I can online in the meantime. I came across your blog via Pinterest, and I'm SO glad I found it! You do gorgeous work, and I LOVE your in-depth articles! Thank you! I hope to meet you one day. :)

    L. Madylyne Grey
    Bryn Gwlad, Ansteorra