Toga Parties

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Toga Parties

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the poet Ezra Pound advised writers to "make it new," he was referring to the need for a new vision that would propel artists through a new century. But as artists, intellectuals, writers, and other makers of culture turned to their crafts in order to create a new world, they found themselves looking to the past as much as they looked to the future. They looked not to the recent past, from which they wanted to free themselves, but to the ancient past of Greece and Rome. Homage to the Classical world sometimes manifested itself in the form of the toga party, which took place throughout the century and became particularly popular during the 1970s. Revising Classical culture to modern sensibilities, toga parties represented not only youthful exuberance, but an underlying desire to maintain a link to the past. (The name derives from the "toga," a simple cloth wrap worn loosely around the body in imitation of the national garment of the early Romans). Such parties played out the legendary excess of the Roman god, Bacchus, the god of wine, and his Greek precursor, Dionysus.

It is not hard to see why the figure of Dionysus had such appeal to those in the twentieth century, when more open attitudes toward sexuality began to take hold. At the beginning of the century, "modern women" announced their modernity by cropping their hair short and wearing Greek bangs, and during the 1920s, Classical style tunics became popular. One motto of the 1930s—"wine, women, and song"—was a direct call from the ancient rite of the Bacchanal, or Dionysian rites of spring. The call of the ancient Greeks and Romans was even heard at the Roosevelt White House in the early 1930s, when Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a great toga party in an attempt to poke fun at the politicians and newswriters who viewed F.D.R. as a second Caesar.

The toga was revived when the 1978 film Animal House featured a fraternity house toga party, prompting a new fad on college campuses. Across the United States, students wrapped themselves in bedsheets draped like togas in an attempt to imitate Greek and Roman figures and the Bacchanal. At times, John Belushi and other actors from Animal House would show up at such parties. Perhaps the most widely publicized, if not the largest, toga party was held at the University of Wisconsin, where 10,000 persons attended, all wearing sheets draped like togas, many of them sporting garlands of flowers in their hair. Much as rock concerts of the 1960s defined the 1960s generation, toga parties became an identifying rite of passage for the generation of the 1970s. During the 1990s, toga parties were still known to take place, although largely as a nostalgic gesture.

—Lolly Ockerstrom

Further Reading:

Hope, Thomas. Costumes of the Greeks and Romans. New York: Dover, 1962.

Marum, Andrew, and Frank Parise. Follies and Foibles: A View of 20th Century Fads. New York, Facts on File, Inc., 1984.