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Roman Dress: the Influence of Roman Law Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 16th, 2020


Roman law made an impact on all spheres of life, including political, economic, and social. Even the peculiarity of the Roman costume was expressed in a strong gender and class hierarchy. This paper aims at examining the influence of Roman law upon Roman dress in the Etruscan, Byzantine, and Roman provinces, including types of clothing, textiles, insignia, colors, and accessories, with an eye to a critical interpretation of the revealed facts.

Types of clothing

The aristocratic nature of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, and the privileged position of Roman citizens about the other residents of the vast territory of the Roman state, as well as the developed bureaucratic apparatus headed by the emperor, created different social groups, who tried to emphasize their peculiarities both in appearance and clothing. In the Roman period, there was a prevalence of draping clothes to emphasize the natural beauty of the human figure, partially uncovering it.

The basis of the Roman male costume consisted of toga and tunica. The toga symbolized the person’s citizenship, regardless of class, as neither slaves nor foreigners were allowed to wear a toga according to Roman law. Moreover, Roman citizens were obliged to wear the toga. For example, not only did Scipio suffer recriminations for wearing Greek dress, but was deprived of the right to citizenship, and lost the right to wear the toga (Spielvogel 103).

It is essential to note that the Romans had a variety of tunics and dressed according to different social classes and genders. The striped tunica was a sign of senior officials, while the tunica with a broad purple stripe, called the lava, belonged to senators. There was also a triumphant tunica that was decorated and embroidered with palmettos. The subocular, another type of tunica, was a sign of lower-class clothes and looked like a Greek tunica (Hill et al. 103). It had a rectangular cut and was sewed together on the shoulders and worn over the head. The subocular was worn at home, often without any additions. Like the tunica, it was sleeveless with slits for hands, ending below the knee and tied. Over the tunica, Romans wore other garments: Men wore the toga and women the paenula or female toga, which was not as massive and heavy as masculine clothes.

A woman’s tunica reached the toes, and also served primarily as clothing worn at home. Just as the men carried off the toga, Roman women wore a long cloak, sometimes reaching to the ankles and usually composed of a single piece of cloth. During sacrifices, this was worn over the head or wrapped around the body below the shoulders. The palla was formed from the two parts. One half covered the breast, and the other, the back.

Roman women used the palla in different ways: It could cover both shoulders as a himation, use a staple clasp on one or both arms, or arrange over the head and envelop the whole figure. Sometimes, women’s tunics were worn over outer clothing, such as a stola resembling a tunic, but longer and wider, with many folds. If the bottom had a tunic sleeve, the stola was sleeveless and tightened with a belt just below the breast, forming a lap. At the bottom of the stola, necessarily trimmed with a pleated frill, there was a sort of loop. Appearing without stola or palla in public was considered indecent.

However, unwieldy togas and Pallas did not allow the wearer to move quickly. In general, a slow gait, draperies that reflected probity, and theatrical movements were considered the epitome of grace. To replace the toga as necessary outerwear, Romans used a peninsula, a closed warm cloak of thick castor with a cutout for the head in the middle, bracing the body from the shoulders, often with a hood. Initially, the peninsula was worn over tunics or togas on the road and in the case of inclement weather in the city. It was made from coarse wool or leather. A similar yet shorter cape, the sagum, was for soldiers. It originated as a Gallic cloak for riding.

At the end of the Roman Republic, men’s locker rooms sported lacuna and Elena, a cloak of fine material, sometimes beautifully decorated, which had the form of an oblong quadrangle with an open front and tightened belt (Edmondson and Keith 25). In the days of the Empire, the above garments became ordinary wear for upper classes of citizens and soldiers.


The main fabrics for the manufacture of garments were wool and linen. These two textiles were used for wealthy citizens and in warmer regions of the country. The rich population also especially loved to wear silk clothes. The majority of garments of the lower classes were made of wool. As a rule, agrarian peasants and laborers used to produce their dresses at home. After the importation of cotton from Mesopotamia, it became popular among low-income people, due to its cheapness and comfort.


About insignia, it seems useful to point out the headdress of the Romans. In ancient Rome, the head was covered almost like in ancient Greece. Men wore a headdress only during military campaigns, or during the hours of theatrical performances. Aristocrats wore hats and caps borrowed from the Greeks. They were made from felt, straw, leather, and woven plant fibers. Cultists completely covered their heads. Warriors wore helmets of various shapes, made mostly of leather or metal, covering the cheeks and nose. The upper part of the helmet was adorned with a crest, animal tails, and metal plates. Helmets of generals and noble patricians were made of precious metals inlaid with enamel or stamping.

The Romans borrowed from Greek tradition the practice of decorating the head during festivities and feasts with wreaths, but only a limited segment of the population had the right to wear a wreath. As a rule, wreaths crowned the heads of triumphant winners. For making wreaths, they used not only natural plants, but also artificial flowers made of silk or metal plates, and strongly scented with aromatic substances. The beautifully woven wreaths were very valuable. The variety and color of the plant in a wreath also were of great importance. For example, oak leaves, laurel, and myrtle symbolized citizenship, power, and authority.

Women’s headbands were combined with wreaths of leaves, flowers, and twigs. The headdress of a woman dressed for special occasions was a small tiara of precious metals encrusted with pearl, plates, and sockets made of stones. To save their hairstyles for a longer period, women wore mesh woven from thin gold or silver threads, thin varieties of flax bags, and light silk scarves.


The major color of clothing in the Roman period was white, which showed the privilege of Roman citizens (Hunt 158). A white toga, for example, was outerwear only for Roman citizens, while slaves and unequal citizens did not have the right to wear it. The colors of the outfits of the latter were dark: dominated by brown, yellow-brown, and gray tones. The color white partially kept its significance as a significant color of dress for a long period, especially when making sacrifices and engaging in other religious ceremonies and rites.


In the days of the Roman Republic, jewelry was rarely used. Romans used the necessary fasteners, buckles, and pins. The severe manners of the time banned the excesses of earrings and rings. Later, during the Roman Empire, a huge influx of military production contributed to the degradation of morals and an attraction to ostentation. Accessories were a sign of higher social status. For instance, the vitta band decorating Roman women’s hair was a sign of the mistress of the house, or the matrona, while whores had no right to wear it (Hill et al. 109). Women’s headpins, combs, and hairpins became true works of art.

They were made of gold or silver, and the ends were decorated with figures of animals, people, and sculptural groups. The combs were carved from expensive wood and inlaid with rubies, sapphires, and carnelian (Olson Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity 192). Also, carving and chasing were commonplace in the headdress. Women began wearing several rings on one finger.

At the same time, plenty of attention was paid to cosmetics. During the period of the Republic, Romans sought to be slim. They spent hours in thermae, rubbing the skin with essential oils or incense. Roman women willingly used cosmetics. Every wealthy Roman woman had a special box called Women’s World, which contained everything needed for the care of the body. In the days of the Empire, fashionable women spent a lot of money on cosmetics. In the markets, they could buy any beauty products but especially appreciated Egyptian ointments and powders, which were attributed to various magical properties.

Aristocrat women strongly whitened their faces, necks, chests, and arms using ocher and wine yeast, without worrying about natural appearance (Olson Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation and Society 69). The eyes and eyebrows were outlined with soot. Among the Roman population, recipes for hair coloring in red color were popular, as well as a set of lotions derived from almond oil and milk. There were remedies for wrinkles made from linseed oil and animal fats. Instead of perfume, Romans used scented ointments, for example, telium, which was made from the peel of oranges and olive oil.


In conclusion, it should be emphasized that there is an obvious connection between Roman law and the Roman mode of dress. It was stated that the upper classes had more opportunities to wear better clothes made from silk. Moreover, they had enough money to afford several headdresses and cosmetics. At the same time, the lower classes had to wear woolen garments that were primarily made by themselves. There also were some gender determinants that influenced the choice of clothing.

While men wore togas, palliums, and lacunas, women donned Pallas, paenulas, and other garments. The basic color of aristocrats and citizens, regardless of class, was white, and slaves along with foreigners used to wear brown or black garments.

Works Cited

Edmondson, Jonathan and Alison, Keith. “Public Dress and Social Control in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome”. Roman dress and the fabrics of Roman culture. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 21-46. Print.

Hill, Bennet, John McKay, John Buckler, Clare Crowston, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks. Western Society: A Brief History. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Hunt, Alan. “Style Wars: Fashion and the Class Struggle before Classes”. Governance of the consuming passions : a history of sumptuary law. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 1996. 142-173. Print.

Olson, Kelly. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation and Society. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Olson, Kelly. “Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity.” EBSCO Publishing: EBook Academic Collection (2006): 186-204. Print.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume I: To 1715. 9th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

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