23 August 2013

Five Fascinating Facts About… Roman Beauty

by Heather Domin

Roman ladies shaved their legs (and so did plenty of dudes)

Most ancient cultures, including the Romans, found body hair unhygienic and unattractive. Fashion-conscious Roman women shaved, plucked, tweezed, and waxed their way to smoothness in pretty much the same way people do today. Waxes were made from tree resins or beeswax; sugaring goes all the way back to the Egyptians, and threading came to Rome via Persia and India. Manscaping was also in fashion, to the point that Stoics mocked their smooth brethren as effeminate and morally corrupt. (When conservatives label something morally corrupt, you know it’s popular!)

Roman girls treated their hair worse than we did in the 80s

A Roman lady’s intricate hairstyle
featuring ringlets, braids, and twists
Roman women dyed their hair with a host of substances, from innocuous herbs (calendula, chamomile, henna, saffron, turmeric) to terrifying tonics made from ammonia, lead oxide, lime-water, pigeon poop, and dead leeches soaked in wine. (!!!) They also curled their hair with hot irons and wore it in complicated styles requiring tight braids, metal pins, and even twine. Once all that processing took its toll and you looked like a refugee from a Whitesnake video, you could cover the wreckage with wigs – they came in many styles ranging from simple hairpieces to flamboyant multicolored creations that would make Lwaxana Troi jealous.

Roman perfume was serious business

In Ancient Rome perfume was much more than something you splashed on before a date. Romans  of all genders used perfumes in the form of infused ointments, not just to smell nice but to enhance health and well-being. Scents had specific purposes: you might choose a certain blend before taking a test, giving a speech, performing religious rites, or even before battle; others were used for headaches, nausea, depression, or fatigue. Roses were popular, along with violets, lavender, spices like ginger and cinnamon, fruits like citrus and pomegranate, resins like myrrh and cedar, and herbs like lemongrass, citronella, mint, and lemon balm – basically, the essentials of modern aromatherapy.

Roman underwear was an actual thing

the famous "bikini girls" – some
in subligacula, some in subligaria
Those mosaics of ladies in bikinis aren't costumes for female gladiators or dancing girls, but examples of legit Roman underwear. The tube top bra (strophium) didn't exactly lift and separate, but it kept the girls in check; undies could be a string bikini (subligacula) or a loincloth (subligaria). Both sexes wore underwear for exercising, working, riding, or any time for comfort, modesty, or warmth. Commando or not, most people wore an extra tunic beneath their clothes (I use the word “under-tunic” in my books, but there was no real difference except maybe the material). Tunics were fastened at the shoulders rather than sewn, so you could undo them and roll the fabric around your hips for an insta-loincloth.

Roman clothes were colorful and comfortable

fresco from Pompeii showing brightly
colored clothes on men and women
The Romans produced fabrics from wool, linen, hemp, nettle, silks, and cottons – even ordinary folks could afford soft, well-fitting clothes rather than the drab shapeless sacks often depicted, and for the upper classes it was walk walk fashion baby. Far from a sea of white togas and gowns, Romans used colors and stripes to make literal fashion statements announcing their office, rank, marital status, job, or even sports affiliation (team colors weren't invented for football!). Ovid advised men to wear "well-cut clothes", implying that tailoring was available. Indeed, fashion was for everyone in Augustan Rome: "The men take a page out of the women's book," Ovid observed, "and wives can barely outdo their husbands in luxurious attire." Swag.

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. She is currently finishing revisions on the sequel to SoR and working on a contemporary paranormal set in Glasgow.