views updated May 23 2018


If you had to choose one garment to represent the costume traditions of ancient Rome, that garment would be the toga. It can be seen on statues and paintings of Roman men from the earliest founding of the city of Rome in 753 b.c.e. until the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 c.e. During the years of the Roman Republic (50927 b.c.e.), Romans were often called gens togata, or people of the toga. The toga remains familiar to people today because it has been so widely used in Hollywood films, from early epics such as Ben-Hur (1959) to rowdy comedies such as Animal House (1978), which made the toga party a popular college ritual. The toga is undoubtedly the best-known garment from the ancient world.

The toga has its roots in garments worn by the Etruscans and the Greeks. The Greeks had worn a lengthy cloak called the himation, and the Etruscans, early inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, had adapted this into their tebenna. But the true toga was a Roman invention. In the early days of the republic, when Roman society first became quite organized and identifiable, the toga was a rather small elongated oval of woolen fabric and was easily worn over the top of the tunica, or shirt. Though there were many different ways of wearing the toga, the most common way involved holding the toga behind the back and draping one end of the toga forward across the left shoulder, so that the end hung between the legs. The remainder of the toga was crossed under, and sometimes around, the right arm, across the chest, and then back over the left shoulder. It was possible to lift a portion of the toga over the back of the head, forming a type of hood.

During the early republic, the toga was practically required for any but the lowest of Roman workers. It was always worn by more notable citizens and was forbidden to slaves and foreigners. Though women wore togas at first, they soon abandoned the garment for the palla, a type of cloak.

Toga styles

Though the basic shape of all togas was roughly the same, there were important variations in color and decoration that offered clues as to the wearer's place in society. The common toga was known simply as the toga virilis, and it was left in the natural color of wool. When campaigning for public office, candidates wore a toga candida, which was bleached to a bright white. Though the toga was typically worn over a tunica, candidates sometimes went bare chested beneath the toga candida to show off their battle scars. The toga picta, favored by later emperors, was a ceremonial toga, covered in ornate embroidery that was first worn by victorious generals in public ceremonies. Though most togas were light in color, the toga pulla, which was worn by mourners, was a dark shade, such as black, dark brown, or gray. Children might wear a toga praetexta, which had a broad purple border; the toga praetexta was also worn by magistrates, local judges. It was modeled closely after an Etruscan tebenna. Finally, priests wore a toga trabea that had red stripes and a purple border. The toga trabea worn by other religious figures had slightly different coloring. In addition, different types of togas might have clavi, which are stripes that run the length of the garment.

The difficulties of the toga

Roman costume in general grew more complicated over time, and the toga was no exception. First, the toga grew greatly in size. From an easy to wear cloak, the toga grew to a size of about eighteen feet long by about eleven feet wide. Draping the toga about the body became a difficult chore. While wealthy Romans were helped with their wrapping by servants or slaves, the common Roman person had to struggle with it on his own. Not wearing a toga wasn't an option. All Roman citizens were required to wear the toga at public ceremonies, and going without the toga in public was considered disrespectable.

The size of the toga caused other problems as well. As the togas grew larger, they got heavy and hot. The wearer's left arm was usually enclosed in fabric, and the right arm was usually used to hold the toga in place. It was difficult to do anything while wearing a toga, especially anything active. Finally, distinctions about how long togas were supposed to be, and how the front folds were supposed to drape, became very important but required that the wearer constantly worry whether their toga style was in fashion. A Roman writer and an observer of Roman costumes named Tertullian (c. 155c. 220 c.e.), quoted in Michael and Ariane Batterberry's Fashion: The Mirror of History, said of the toga: "It is not a garment, but a burden."

Eventually, sometime after about 200 c.e., the toga was discarded as a common garment. Common people simply didn't have the time or the money to keep their togas in proper condition for public wear, and others grew tired of trying to accomplish their daily tasks while wearing the cumbersome cloak. The toga was still worn for ceremonial occasions, but most Romans wore the simpler tunica, sometimes with a range of other, simpler outer garments.


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.

Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1947.

Smith, William. "Toga." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment.*/Toga.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).

Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

[See also Volume 1, Ancient Greece: Himation ; Volume 1, Ancient Rome: Etruscan Dress ; Volume 1, Ancient Rome: Tunica ]


views updated May 29 2018


The toga was a wrapped outer garment worn in ancient Rome. Its origin is probably to be found in the tebenna, a semicircular mantle worn by the Etruscans, a people who lived on the Italian peninsula in an area close to that occupied by the Romans. Several Roman kings were Etruscan and many elements of Etruscan culture were taken over by the Romans. The toga may have been one of these elements.

The toga was a highly symbolic garment for the Romans. It had numerous forms, but the toga pura or toga virilis was the most significant. In its earliest form the toga pura was a semicircle of white wool.

At the time of the Roman Republic (509 b.c.e. to 27 b.c.e.) and after, only free male citizens of Rome who were at least sixteen years of age could wear this toga. It was the symbol of Roman citizenship and was required dress for official activities. Men wore togas to audiences with the Emperor and to the games played in the Roman arena.

The toga was worn outermost, over a tunic. (A tunic was a T-shaped woven garment, similar in form to a long, modern T-shirt.) The toga wrapped around the body. The straight edge was placed at the center of the body, perpendicular to the floor. The bulk of the fabric was carried over the left shoulder, across the back and under the right arm, after which it was draped across the chest and over the left shoulder.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the earlier half-circle toga had changed its form and had an extended section added to the semicircle at the straight edge. The system of draping remained the same, however the extended section was first folded down. The overfold section fell at the front of the body and formed a pocketlike pouch, called the sinus, into which the wearer could place objects such as a scroll of paper. As the toga became still more elaborate and larger, the sinus eventually was too open and loose for holding things, so a knot of fabric was pulled up from underneath to form an area called the umbo, and this being smaller and more compact became the "pocket" area. The umbo may also have helped to hold the toga in place.

Individuals of some significant status wore special togas. Although both men and women had worn togas in early Roman times, by the time of the Republic only men wore togas. However, a vestige of the earlier practice remained. Sons and daughters of Roman citizens wore the toga praetexta, a toga with a purple border about two or three inches wide. Boys wore this toga until age fourteen to sixteen when they assumed the toga pura, while girls gave up the garment around the age of puberty. Certain priests and magistrates also wore the toga praetexta.

Political candidates wore a toga candida that was bleached very white. The English word "candidate" derives from the name of this garment.

A toga picta was purple with gold embroidery. Victorious generals and others who had been singled out for special honors were awarded the opportunity to wear this toga. A toga pulla appears to have been worn for mourning, and was dark or black in color. The toga trabea seems to have been worn by religious augurs or important officials.

The toga was an awkward garment. Roman writers speak of the difficulties in keeping the toga properly arranged. Apparently it was acceptable for men to wear longer or shorter togas. A poor man might wear a shorter toga in order to save money, while one seeking to impress others might wear an especially large and long toga. In order to keep this garment clean, it had to be washed often, which caused it to wear out frequently. Replacing a worn toga was an expense that is commented on by some Roman satirists.

By the time of the Roman Republic and after, respectable adult women did not wear togas. Prostitutes were said to wear togas, as were women who had been divorced for adultery. The connotation of a woman wearing a toga implied disapproval.

The form of the toga continued to change. It seems as if men were constantly searaching for variations that made the toga easier to keep in place. In one version dating from circa 118–119 c.e. and after, the umbo was eliminated by wrapping the section under the right arm at a higher point and twisting that upper section to form a sort of band. This band was called a balteus. In the third century it was an easy step from this to "the toga with the folded bands."

In the toga with the folded bands, the twisted balteus became an overfold that was folded and refolded over itself in order to form a flat, layered band of fabric that may have been fastened in place by either pinning or sewing. As the toga wrapped around the body, the bands lay flat, fitting smoothly in a diagonal band across the front of the body.

In the latter years of the Roman Empire, discipline in following prescribed forms of dress grew somewhat lax, and men preferred to wear the pallium instead of the toga. The pallium itself was an evolved form of a Greek wrapped garment, the himation, which draped much the same way as the toga. The pallium was a rectangular panel of fabric that, like the toga, ran perpendicular to the floor, around the left shoulder, under the right arm, and across the body, draping over the arm. It was a sort of skeletal form of the toga, retaining its draping but losing its semi-circular form and most of its bulk.

Although the toga in its exact Roman form has not been revived in contemporary fashion, the name "toga" is often loosely applied to fashions that feature one covered and one uncovered shoulder. Examples include the "toga dress" defined by Calasibetta (2003) as an "Asymmetric dress or at-home robe styled with one shoulder bare, the other covered" or the "toga nightgown," which could be "styled with one shoulder." Both were styles introduced in the 1960s (Calasibetta 2003).

See alsoAncient World: History of Dress .


Calasibetta, C. M., and P. Tortora. The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2003.

Croom, A. T. Roman Clothing and Fashion. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus Publishing Inc., 2000.

Goldman, N. "Reconstructing Roman Clothing." In The World of Roman Costume. Edited by J. L. Sebesta and L. Bonfante, pp. 213–237 Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Houston, M. G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume. London: Adam and Charles Black, l966.

Rudd, N., trans. The Satires of Horace and Persius. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1973.

Stone, S. "The Toga: From National to Ceremonial Costume." In The World of Roman Costume. Edited by J. L. Sebesta, and L. Bonfante, pp. 13–45. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Tortora, P., and K. Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1998.

Wilson, L. M. The Roman Toga. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1924.

Phyllis Tortora


views updated May 23 2018

to·ga / ˈtōgə/ • n. a loose flowing outer garment worn by the citizens of ancient Rome, made of a single piece of cloth and covering the whole body apart from the right arm. ∎  a robe of office; a mantle of responsibility, etc.ORIGIN: Latin; related to tegere ‘to cover.’


views updated May 21 2018

toga a loose flowing outer garment worn by the citizens of ancient Rome, made of a single piece of cloth and covering the whole body apart from the right arm. The word is Latin, and is related to tegere ‘to cover’.


views updated May 23 2018

toga XVI. — L., rel. to tegere cover.
Hence togaed (-ED2) XIX; earlier †toged (XVII). Based on L. togātus.