The clothing of Roman women was simple in cut; styles changed little for centuries. The effect varied with the quality of material and the grace with which garments were worn. Ordinarily a matron was dressed in a subligaculum, an under tunic, and an outer tunic (stola). She often wore a scarf indoor and a palla (shawl) outdoors. Over or under the inner tunic she often had a belt or sash to support the breasts.
Her under tunic corresponded to a chemise or slip, although sometimes it had short sleeves. It came to her knees and was not so full as her outer tunic. Neither tunic had colored stripes. Women usually wore both tunics, even in the house.
Stola and Palla
The distinctive dress of Roman matrons was the stola. It usually had sleeves formed by the width of the garment over the shoulders. The early stola was made of two pieces of cloth seamed together over the shoulder and upper arm, with an opening at the neck for the head to slip through. Many statues show a later form of stola made of two pieces. The back and front were wide enough to cover the extended arms, but they were not sewed together over the shoulder and upper arm. In this style, the open edges from the neck to the end of the sleeves were gathered for two or three inches at intervals. Opposite gathering were sewed together and the joining sometimes covered with buttons or fancy pins.
A stola was too long for walking so the extra length was brought up and suspended with a belt. However, the overhanging folds covered the belt. On the lower edge of the stola, there was a border of crimson or purple, and there was also a narrow colored border around the neck.
A palla was a large oblong shawl, usually woolen, and worn outdoors. There were many ways to put it on. Often one end was thrown over the left shoulder from behind, falling straight in front, and the rest was drawn around the back and brought forward over or under the right arm. The end was then carried across the breast and thrown back over the left shoulder, or it hung from the left arm. This wrap could also be drawn over the head, although scarves or veils were sometimes worn. The shawls, scarves, and veils were made of thin material for hot weather.
Girls' Wearing Apparel
A young girl sometimes wore only one tunic in the house; outside, she usually wore both inner and outer tunic. A girl's outer tunic was long and belted. One form was so long that the top was folded over, front and back. It hanged below the waist at the length desired, with a belt holding it in place.
Woman's street shoes were like men's but made of finer and softer leather. Sometimes they were white or ornamented or dyed a bright color. Shoes for winter often had cork soles, and thick soles were occasionally worn to appear taller. House sandals were of any preferred color. Some were beautifully decorated with pearls.
Women did not wear hats, but their hair was always carefully arranged. Styles of hair varied; at some periods they were elaborate. Statues that have survived the times show every puff, curl, and wave of detail. Young girls usually wore her hair in a knot at the back of her neck. But some girls had curls or bangs that were straight or curled.
Hairpins were of ivory, silver, or gold, and often set with jewels. None was bent in what we call "hairpin" shape; they were straight like a hatpin. Many common toilet articles have been found including hairpins, combs, and boxes for cream, powder, or rouge, and mirrors (highly polished metal, no glass) with straight or ring handles.
Women often dyed their hair. They liked to dye their hair golden-red to imitate the color of Greek women's hair. They also added false hair, which became a major commercial item. Wreaths of flowers or flowers and leaves, and coronets of pearls and other precious stones enhanced the natural or artificial beauty of the hair. The hairdresser was a female slave, who was skillful in arranging hair in a popular style, as well as in the use of dressings, oils, and tonics to make it soft and lustrous and to encourage its growth.
Parasols (umbrella look-a-likes) were used at tome as early as the end of the Republic. They were necessary in the hot climate because women wore no hats. An attendant held the parasol over her mistress' head. Women had fans made of wings of birds. Peacock feathers attached to thin sheets of wood connected to a handle or linen stretched over a frame. The task of the slave was to keep her mistress cool by fanning her and untroubled by flies. Both men and women wiped perspiration from face and hands by using handkerchiefs of fine linen. To keep the palms cool and dry, ladies held balls of amber or glass, just as eighteenth-century ladies in Europe and America used "hand-coolers" of glass.
Roman women were passionately fond of jewelry and great sums were spent on rings, brooches, pins, jeweled buttons, and coronets. From the earliest times, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and pendants were worn by all that could afford them. Some had precious stones but goldsmiths made beautiful and elaborate pieces without jewels.
An engagement ring was often made of iron, so that only its jewel gave it material value; but we know that there were rings of gold because it is said that sometimes on engagement ring was the first bit of gold jewelry a girl possessed.
Most of the precious stones we have, except diamonds, could be found in the jewel box of woman of wealth. Pearls seem to have been favorites.
Romans used wool, linen, cotton and silk for clothing. Woolen garments were worn in ancient days, since the early inhabitants of Latium were shepherds and had wool from their own sheep. During the Republic, wool was used extensively for men and women clothing. But woolen material varied by weight and fineness. Often undergarments, and sometimes women's tunics, were made of linen. The best native wools were produced in southern Italy, in Calabria and Apulia. The finest came from the neighborhood of Tarentum. Wool was imported because of the great demand for it.
From very early times, linen goods were made in Italy, but they were not of the best quality. The finest linen came from Egypt and was soft and almost transparent. Cotton was not known in Europe until after the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great. Since Romans also used the Indian name for cotton (carbasus) for linen, there is often doubt as to which material is meant. Some women wore garments of cloth so sheer that they were reproached for wearing "woven wind."
Silk came from China; early in the Empire it appeared in a mixture with linen. Garments of pure silk were not worn until much later, and were rare and expensive.
Throughout the Republic, white was the natural color of wool so it was the prevailing color for clothing. The lower classes preferred shades of undyed wool that did not need to be cleaned so often as the white. From Canusium came brown wool with reddish tinge; from Baetica in Spain, light yellow; from Mutina, gray, or gray mixed with white; and from Liguria, dark gray, used in public mourning. Other shades from red to deep black were found in imported wool.
During the Empire, women wore various colors. Wool was dyed in the fleece before it was spun into thread. Linen, cotton, and silk thread were dyed before being woven into cloth. Almost the only artificial color used for clothing under the Republic was purpura, which varied from garnet, obtained from a native mollusk, to true Tyrian ("royal") purple. The Roman shade was brilliant and cheap, but likely to fade. Mixed with the true purple in various proportions, it gave different shades of fast color. Wool dyed violet, a popular shade, was twenty dollars a pound, while cloth of genuine Tyrian purple cost ten times as much.
Even through the costume of women changed little from generation to generation, the general effect could not have been monotonous. Variations in material and color, individuality in draping, the gleam of gold and jewels, gave variety without change in style. A Roman women, wearing her draperies with graceful dignity, might have laughed or perhaps shuddered at the grotesque styles of many periods since. Certainly she would not have envied their wearers.