The Romans



Roman dress

Various types of Roman dress worn by different social classes. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

Roman clothes had to be simple. Only wool and, to a lesser extent, linen were available, and because needles were of bronze or bone, and thread only of the coarsest quality, stitching or sewing was neither elegant nor particularly effective. Buttons and buttonholes were therefore rare, and clothing was fastened or held together mainly by enormous safety-pins, belts, or knots, or not at all. As underwear, both men and women wore a loin-cloth knotted round the waist, with a belted tunic or shift with short or long sleeves. For the poorer classes, slaves, and small children, that was the limit of their attire.

toga and palla

The toga and the palla. (From Antony Kamm, The Romans: an introduction, Routledge 1995)

The outer garment, the classic toga for men and the palla for women, was the standard, and statutory, formal dress for a Roman citizen. It was simply a vast blanket, draped round and over the body, leaving one arm free, and probably held together only by its own weight and its folds. The palla was rectangular in shape. It has been concluded that the toga was in the form of a segment of a circle, along the straight edge of which ran the purple (more like a reddish pink) stripe of the toga praetexta (worn by boys and also men of senatorial rank), and that it was about 5 metres long and 2 metres wide at its deepest point.

dimensions of a toga

Conjectural diagram of a toga. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press 1913)

Those who were standing for public office were in the habit of whitening their toga with chalk, and were thus known as candidati (clothed in glittering white). For dinner-parties, at which the toga could have been a burden, it was often replaced by the synthesis, a kind of dressing-gown. Cloaks were worn out of doors in bad weather. There was little difference between the footwear of men and women; both usually wore sandals tied round the ankle with thongs, and on more formal occasions the calceus, a soft leather shoe.


Replica of a Roman sandal. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

leather shoes

Roman leather shoes (top) with modern replicas (bottom).(VRoma: Saalburg Museum: Barbara McManus)

For men, shaving was the rule between about 100 BC and AD 100, performed with iron razors by a slave or at one of the innumerable barber’s shops which were a feature of urban life. Women wore their hair up in a variety of styles varying between the simple, often with a knot or lock at the back falling to the nape, and the intricately curled and over-ornate.


Hairstyles. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Overview of this page [Ref: 5.8]


Male and female dress


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Believe it or not:

In winter, one might wear two tunics, one on top of the other. Those particularly susceptible to cold, as was Augustus, might wear four.
Pliny the Elder used to allow his shorthand writer to wear gloves in cold weather.
Martial mentions a rich acquaintance who used to change his synthesis eleven times during a meal.