Roman clothes

 

Women’s clothing

Whereas previously women had once worn the toga, by the first century CE this was no longer considered respectable (Balsdon, 1962, p. 252).  In fact, there is evidence that prostitutes and/or adulteresses were condemned to wear the toga (Dixon, 2014, pp. 298-304).  By the end of the Republic, and all throughout the first century, Roman women wore a tunica reaching their ankles, with an overdress known as a stola, and a wrap known as a palla, around the shoulder and sometimes was pulled over the head (Laver, 1964, p. 9).

In the first century CE, a Roman woman’s sense of what clothing was ‘fashionable’, was probably based on colour rather than garment shape.  From all available evidence, it appears that the shape of Roman women’s clothing did not change for very long periods.  Yet, we know from Epidicus that women’s fashion was regularly changing over time (Sebesta, 2001, p. 65).  So, the theory is that rather than the shape / fabric of clothing changing each season,  then it was the colours which went in and out of fashion (Balsdon, pp. 253-254).  Interestingly, recent research has shown that when creating white marble portraits, the Romans actually painted them (Skovmøller, 2014, pp. 279-286).  It is therefore possible that with more microscopic analysis, we may learn more about clothing colour trends over time (p. 294).

Men’s clothing

There is evidence that – at least in the Roman military – men were sometimes punished by being made to dress as women (Sumner, 2002, p. 2).  Roman men wore a tunic, often adorned by two vertical stripes known as clavi (Jørgensen, 2007, p. 63).

Fabric

Roman clothing was manufactured from wool, linen or silk. However, silk was imported from China and was extremely expensive.  (Laver, p. 9).  Thus, we think people predominantly wore wool and linen.  The task of spinning/preparing wool was seen as decidedly feminine, and so it is likely that the majority of Roman wool was prepared by women and/or slaves (Lovén, 2007, pp. 834-846).

How to make a tunic or tunica

There are instructions below on how to make both a tunica (female) and a tunic (male).  Also below, is a link to a useful video showing how to hand-stitch. If you have any questions when you are sewing your clothes, please contact the President or the Secretary for information and/or advice.

Fabric choice

When you make your clothing, be wise about your fabric choice.   You will need several metres of fabric, so make sure to choose a fabric that is accurate for the period!

Do use these fabrics: wool or linen.  Both of these fabrics can be expensive so we recommend keeping an eye out for sales.  Note, you can use silk to make your clothing, however it should only be used if you are portraying a very wealthy person, or the personal slave of a very wealthy person.

Do not use these fabrics: cotton, denim, polyester, rayon, acrylic, lastex, nylon, velvet,  taffeta, rayon, spandex, viscose, satin etc.  These fabrics do not meet the minimum authenticity standards required by member groups of the QLHF.  In short, our goal is to recreate history as accurately as possible.  The Romans did not have access to these fabrics, so we do not use them.

Steps to make a tunic / tunica

  1. Measure the distance from your shoulder to the floor (females) or from your shoulder to your knee (males).  This becomes the height of your tunic, so you will need double this length in fabric, plus an allowance an extra 8cm – 10cm, to allow a turnover for the hem.
  2. Cut two large rectangles of fabric.  See diagram 1 below for calculating the width of fabric required.  Note that you may need wider fabric if you have broad shoulders.  Hold it up against your body to check before you cut! The front piece of fabric needs to be 10cm wider than the back, as shown in diagram 1.
  3. Turn and sew a hem the entire way around each piece of fabric.  Do this before you join the pieces of fabric together!  If possible, you should stitch by hand, using thread which is similar in colour to your fabric.  We suggest you use a blind hem stitch, as shown in the YouTube video below.
  4. Join the rectangles together, by stitching them as shown by the black lines in diagram 2 below.  Make sure that you leave a large enough gap for your head and your arms!

Handy hint:

If you have very expensive fabric, it’s worthwhile making a mock-up in cheap fabric first.  This way, you get to find out whether it fits well etc. before you cut your expensive fabric!


Diagram 1 – make the front piece of fabric 10cm wider than the back piece.  The width of fabric will really depend on your size; if you have a large build then you will need wider fabric than if you are smaller.

Female tunica
Male tunic

Diagram 2 – sew the two pieces of fabric together, leaving room for your arms and head

Female tunica
Male tunic

Link to the references page on this website.

Last updated: 20 August 2017