06 April 2009

Fashion: Women's Fashion in Rome

By Michelle Styles

To modern eyes, the hairstyles and clothing of ancient Rome seem unchanging. However, to the Romans, in particular to the Romans of the Empire, fashion was a big deal. It showed the wearer's status and wealth.

Women who dressed like Roman matrons were afforded more protection under the law than women who dressed like prostitutes or slaves, so much so that if a Roman matron was raped or injured while dressed as a slave/prostitute, the man was not held liable. For example, her belt needed to be worn just under her bust, rather than at her waist or hips. Statues depicting women with belts tied around their hips or waists are either priestess, goddesses or copies of earlier Greek statues.

The stola (where the modern word stole comes from) is also an important indicator of status as only respectable Roman matrons could wear them. Stolas should be long enough to cover the feet. However the stola and the way it is worn changes through out the centuries. For many years after it had fallen out of day to day use, it did symbolise feminine modesty.

Generally speaking, the more wealth or status, the greater the amount of cloth used. So Roman matrons tended to wear long tunics, rather than short ones. The quality of the cloth was important. Heavy silk was highly prized. It is said that Marcus Aurelius sold several of his wife's gowns to fund the war in Germany.

Prostitutes, though, tended to wear transparent silk. Prostitutes were also the only women permitted to wear togas. Given that togas tended to be heavy and all enveloping, it begs the question--why would a woman who lives by selling her body wish to conceal it?

Although women were supposed to keep their heads covered when they went out of doors, hats were rarely worn. This is despite the lovely fresco from Pompeii showing a woman with a hairnet type hat and stylus. One reason we can tell this is the elaborate hairstyles that are displayed on the various statues as well as the coins depicting the emperor's wives do not lend themselves to hats. It is thought that new empresses set the vogue in hairstyle and women wishing to be fashionable followed the empress.

For example Julia Domna, the wife of Septimus Severus, was into big hair. Whereas at the best known hairstyle--high very stylised curls that are taller than they are wide was popular during the Trajan period. The single curl down the neck comes from the period around the time of Nero.

Many of the hairstyles involved pads or false hair and thus a woman would require an experienced hairdresser to make the style work. And it is possible that like clothing, hairstyle was used to denote status.

Ovid also mentions the use of wigs. Hair is always depicted as being pinned up, except if the woman is depicted as being in distress at a funeral. It is thought that short hair was only worn under wigs, by slaves who sold their hair for wigs and possibly by women who had been ill. Elaborate hair pins were used to keep the hairstyle in place. These pins have been found in a number of sites, including Vindolanda in Northumberland.

If you want to learn more about Roman clothing, A. T. Croom's Roman Clothing and Fashion (Tempus Publishing 2002) is a great place to start.

Michelle Styles has written four historical romances set in the late Roman Republic. A NOBLE CAPTIVE and SOLD AND SEDUCED will be published in the US in early 2010. They have already been published in the UK.