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Roman Costumes And Dress

( Originally Published 1926 )



"Fashion, as long as it deals only with outward effects, if not persistently bad enough to destroy natural taste, is not a matter to be treated with 0vermuch solemnity."

"Taste in Dress," George Frederick Watts.

The early Romans probably wore few garments, due to the warm climate of Italy and the hardening effect of their physical exercise. They were a nation of lawmakers and agriculturists rather than a nation of inventors, they borrowed the achievements of the people they conquered, and it was not until after they came in contact with the civilization of the Greeks that we find them paying much attention to beauty in architecture or dress; in fact, their love of beauty seems to have been developed by their intercourse with the Greeks, and natives of Greece at all times were employed to give and to execute the designs intended to display the taste and opulence of the Romans.'

Their character was stern, grave, and steadfast. That they were very ambitious was shown by the competition for high civil and military honors, and the enormous fortunes they spent on dress, housing, and entertaining.

The Romans were divided into two castes: the patricians, or upper class, were the first people to settle a new city or town. They were given large tracts of land and were waited upon by the lower class, or plebeians. There seems to have been a continual conflict between these two classes in regard to government, land, and costume, the plebeians resenting the authority of the patricians. Owing to their different characteristics we would expect to find their dress more elaborate or cumbersome, and more dignified than that of the Greeks.

Men's Dress.—When at home the early Romans wore the tunic, a woollen shirt-like garment made in two pieces, sewed together at the sides, which somewhat resembled the modern sweater; it had short sleeves and a skirt to the calf of the leg, and probably had no girdle. Two tunics were often worn, and in cold weather garments made of heavier wool were added. Under the tunic was worn the subligaculum, or trunks.

As the civilization advanced these were given up, and the Romans became an untrousered race; they looked down upon the trousered races and always spoke of them as barbarians. In the carvings and paintings found on arches or monuments to commemorate the triumphal entry into a city, their captives are represented wearing trousers as a sign of their subjection.

The toga was preeminently the distinguishing garment in later Roman dress; it was probably handed down to them by the Etrurians and "may be called their true national garb." It was worn originally by men and women of all classes, in the country as well as the town, both at home and out-of-doors. The women discarded it first, probably from love of novelty, or on account of its weight and complicated arrangement. The lower classes gave it up for the sake of convenience, it being a heavy, cumbersome garment much in the way of their work. Its use was discontinued by the patricians when they lost some of their early characteristics and became more ease-loving and effeminate. As their wealth increased, they moved to the hills about the city and established elaborate and beautiful estates, where they were waited upon by hundreds of slaves, and entertained with a lavish hand.

The toga still remained the dress of state and representation with the patricians and emperors until the last days of Rome's splendor. It was not until the empire was transferred to Constantinople that the toga gave way to the more decided Greek dress, the "pallium."' "No foreign nation had a robe of the same material, color, and arrangement; no foreigner was allowed to wear it, though he lived in Italy or even in Rome itself; even the banished citizen left the toga with his civil rights behind him."

The Toga.—There is much controversy as to the shape of the toga. It was probably a half-circle with one straight edge, or a circle doubled over, forming two semi-circles, one smaller than the other. No corners show in the draping of the statues, although hems show in some cases, both straight and curved. It is a question whether it received its shape from the way that it was put on and draped about the body, or because it was made up of several parts fastened together. No tacks or fastenings appear, but it hung in formal plaits and folds. Some authorities think that it was fashioned by tailors, they being often spoken of in Rome. Horace, in his fourth Epode, gives us an idea of the size of this garment:

"Mark, as along the Sacred way thou flauntest, Puffing thy toga, twice three cubits wide,"

or about eighteen feet from tip to tip.

Most of the authorities agree as to the method of adjustment. One end was placed on the left shoulder, so that the point just touched the ground; it was then drawn around the back of the figure under the right arm and over the shoulder, where it was brought again over the left shoulder, the long end being draped over the left arm at the wrist. The ends hung front and back in formal plaits. A long loop or bag was pulled out in front, and hung over the drapery; this was called the "sinus," and was used as a pocket, in which was carried the purse, the stilus, and other writing materials. The drapery in the back was full enough to be brought up over the head when needed in religious ceremonies, or in case of rain. The toga was made of white or natural-colored wool in the earliest times; later the patricians began using silk. The plebeians always used wool, dyeing it a suitable color, as they were forbidden to wear white.

Color.—Color played an important part in the toga, denoting not only the rank or office of the wearer, but some-times the occasion for which it was worn. Candidates for public office wore white and were most particular to have it immaculate, and always had their garments bleached with fuller's earth before appearing in public. A black toga was worn in mourning or it was left off altogether. The priests and magistrates wore the "toga-pretexta," white with a purple border. This was also worn by boys of high rank, with the "bulla," a small round box or amulet which hung around their necks, until they reached the age of fifteen, when they exchanged this "insignia of juvenility" for the "toga pura," without rim or border.'

Knights wore the "trabea" of purple and white stripes; both narrow and wide, extending from shoulder to hem. The generals' togas were entirely of purple, especially during their triumphal entries. When Tarquinius Priscus conquered the Etrurians, they sent him "a golden crown, a sceptre, an ivory chair, a purple toga, an embroidered tunic, and an axe tied in a bundle of rods."

The tunic took the place of the toga and was regarded as a great luxury; it was not worn by persons who wished to affect humility, such as candidates for office, but it was worn at sacrifices and in camps by the inferiors without the toga. With the men this garment reached only to the thigh, a longer one being considered effeminate and suitable only for women and the Oriental nations. Over the tunic was worn the "gallium," similar to the chalmys of the Greeks. This clasped on the right shoulder or was fastened on the breast with fibulae, cords, or rings. It was called the "paludamenturn " when worn over armor, and was bright red in color. The synthesis, a gay-colored, easy lounging-robe, was used by the men over their tunics at banquets. The lower classes wore a brown woollen cloak with a hood, called a "cucullus." A garment similar to this may still be found among the seafaring peoples of the islands of the archipelago and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.'

Women's Dress.—The garments of the Roman women show a rather close resemblance to the Ionic dress of the Greeks, except that they are more elaborate and dignified. The "stola" was a tunic which descended from the neck to the feet; it was fastened at the shoulder with pins, and was long and full. Some authorities think that the lower part was added in the form of a flounce, on account of the length in the back. The sleeves were either short or quite long and tight, reaching to the wrists. Under the stola was worn a linen tunic and a vest. Young girls and foreign women were not allowed to wear the stola.

A great deal of individuality was displayed in the arrangement of the folds of the "palla," a shawl-like outer garment, covering the entire body, with the exception of the hands and face. The vestal virgins, whose duty it was to keep the sacred fire burning on the altar, always wore pure white with a broad band, like a diadem, around their fore-heads. When walking in a procession or during a sacrifice the head and face were covered by a white veil.

Head-dress.—The dressing of the hair was carried to excess, in fact, almost to absurdity, especially by the Roman matron. An elaborate arrangement of curls, sometimes close to the head and sometimes piled high on top, was one of the favorite styles, and jewelled coronets and pins held it in place. The dressing of the hair was left to the female slave, or attendant, and Juvenal tells us that she suffered cruelly from the impatience and temper of her mistress, who frequently made use of the long hairpins as a means of punishment; this slave was also an adept in the use of.unguents, oils, and' tonics, which kept the hair in a soft and lustrous condition, and the cosmetics, powder, and paint, which were part of the daily toilet of the Roman matron.

Among the men we find "peculiar head-dresses appropriated to peculiar offices and dignities." "The flamens dialis," or priests of Jupiter, wore a cap or helmet called "apex," with a ball of cotton wound around its spike," and an olive-branch fastened on top with a white woollen thread. If this head-dress happened to fall off they were obliged to resign their office. Other priests, when ministering in the temples, wore a twisted fillet, or "infula," with long ribbons which descended on the neck. The boys of Rome still wear white ribbons tied about their foreheads on a certain day in August; this may be a custom which had its origin at that time.

Wreaths of various sorts were given as rewards for certain achievements; the "corona muralis" was in the shape of battlements, and was presented to the first man who scaled the walls of a city; and one of oak-leaves denoted the saving of the life of a citizen. In the navy the crown was in the shape of the "rostra," or beak of a galley, and was given to the man who first boarded the ship of an enemy.' When in mourning the men of Rome allowed their hair and beards to grow as a sign of sorrow. All children wore the hair long and hanging, but the boys had theirs cut when they reached the age to leave off the bulla and the toga-pretexta.

Foot-gear.—The Romans show more knowledge of construction and more decoration in their shoes and boots than the Greeks. The "togati," a short boot with straps crossed over the instep, was worn by the women as well as the men in the early days of Rome, but later the women adopted the sandals of the Greeks, especially in the house.

Color denoted the rank of the wearer. Consuls wore red shoes, senators black with a silver crescent, slaves wore wooden clogs, and the poorer classes plain black. In the British Museum there are examples of Roman shoes, which show a decoration made by piercing or cutting the leather in a pattern; sometimes there is an extra piece of leather placed underneath very similar to the decoration of the pierced leather on our modern shoes.

The nobility of Rome spent fortunes on the decoration of their shoes and sandals. Caligula had his ornamented with precious stones, Nero had sandals of gold, and Poppaea, his wife, those of silver. The Emperor Adrian had shoes made of cut leather ornamented with precious stones, gold, and silver. The profession of bootmaker, like that of tailor, was most honorable, and their corporation made part of the College of Rome.

Jewelry.—The exquisite pieces of jewelry found in the Pompeian excavations prove that the Romans were extremely fond of jewels of all kinds and that fortunes were invested in them. In the museum at Naples many beautiful examples may be seen ; rings, brooches, pins, jewelled buttons, coronets, bracelets, and necklaces were among these ornaments, and modern designers of jewelry get many of their designs and much inspiration from them. Pearls were highly prized; Lollia Paulina, the wife of Caligula,had a set of pearls and emeralds which were valued at the equivalent of $2,000,000. Fans of all kinds, with jewelled sticks and tops of feathers, were carried by the slaves in attendance; they were never used by the owners themselves.

A strange custom prevailed among the women, that of carrying glass and amber balls; the glass ones were used to cool the hands, and the amber, when held in the warm hands, gave off a delicious odor.

The Roman matron had much more liberty, both at home and abroad, than her Greek sister. She developed a strong personality, and sought to become learned and clever. During the Punic wars the women were left at home to manage the estates, and many of them inherited large properties. This gave woman a chance to become a power in politics and a free agent controlling her own actions. The elder Cato complains that "All men rule over women, we Romans rule over all men, and our wives rule over us."

This independence of property led to great extravagance in dress, and sumptuary laws were passed restricting the value and kind of ornaments and apparel worn by the women : "No woman was to wear more than half an ounce of gold." This law was repealed twenty years later, in spite of Cato's protests. In 181 B.C. the Lex Orchia limited the number of guests at entertainments, and the Senatus Coesultum in 16 A.D. forbade men wearing silk garments; another law, the Lex Fanina, 161 B. C., limited the amount of money which might be spent on an entertainment, and also the amount a person might spend on festivals and ordinary days.

Like the Greek wife, the Roman matron superintended the work of her household, and most of the materials and garments worn by the family were woven and constructed by the slaves. Wool, linen, and silk were used for these. It was not until the reign of Justinian that silk culture was introduced into Europe, when two Persian monks made their way into China and brought back the eggs of the silk-worm in their hollow staffs, thus establishing the silk industry at Constantinople.



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