The ancient Romans took the clothing traditions of the past and adapted them into one of the most distinctive costume traditions in all of history. The greatest influences on Roman fashion came from the Etruscans, who developed an advanced society in Italy hundreds of years before the Romans became powerful, and from the Greeks. It was from these two cultures that Romans inherited their love of draped garments. Yet Romans were also influenced greatly by the surrounding peoples they conquered over the years of their expansion. From the Gauls, who lived in present-day France, they inherited a garment something like modern pants, and their trade in the Far East enabled them to use silk and precious stones.
There were two different sides to Roman clothing, however. On the one hand, the Roman clothing tradition was very stable, with the dominant garments staying the same from the time of the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 b.c.e. to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 c.e. Yet the materials used to make the garments and the way they were decorated changed a great deal. Garments made from rough wool in the early years were made from rich, imported silk in the later years of the empire (27 b.c.e.–476 c.e.). Strict rules about the kinds of stripes, or clavi, that could be worn on men's tunicas, or shirt, and togas, a long cloak, in the early years gradually disappeared, and men later wore intricately patterned garments.
Romans were also a sharply divided society, with a small number of very wealthy people and masses of poor people. Wealthy Roman men simply did not go outside without a toga draped over a tunica. Respectable women also had an official outfit, consisting of a long dress called a stola, often worn beneath a cloak called a palla. From the lowest classes of society up through royalty, men wore the toga to public ceremonies. It was difficult for the poor people to afford a toga or a stola, yet they had to wear one on certain occasions. Even the poorest Roman citizen, however, was distinguished from slaves or barbarians (the name Romans gave to people from other countries), who were banned from wearing Roman clothes like the toga.
Romans were very careful about the way they dressed. So careful, in fact, that they had a number of rules about who could wear certain items and how certain items should be worn. Romans created some of the first sumptuary laws, which regulated the color and type of clothing that could be worn by members of different social classes. (Sumptuary relates to personal expenditures especially on luxury items.) They also had unwritten rules about such things as the length of a toga or stola and demands for different togas for different social occasions. Wealthy Romans had slaves who helped their masters choose and adjust their clothing to just the right style. Observers have written about how intense the pressure was to wear clothing correctly in ancient Rome.
There is much more of interest about Roman clothing traditions. Because their empire grew so great and took Romans into very different climates, the Romans became the first major society to wear seasonal clothing—that is, clothes for both warm and cold climates. They made warm winter boots and the first known raincoat. The spread of their empire also meant that Roman traditions spread into other countries, particularly throughout Europe and into the British Isles. Variations on ancient Roman costume can still be seen in the vestments, or priestly clothing, worn by members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Most of what we know about Roman clothing comes from evidence left by the wealthiest Romans. The many statues and paintings that have survived, and the various writings from the time, all discuss the clothing styles of those Romans who were very well off. It is likely that poorer Romans wore similar garments, though of much lower quality, but it may be that there were other clothing items that have simply been lost to history.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Sebesta, Judith Lynn, and Larissa Bonfante, eds. The World of Roman Costume. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
Steele, Philip. Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Yates, James. "Solea." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA%2A/Clothing/home%2A.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).Braccae