Clothing in ancient Rome
Wool, the most commonly used fibre, was most likely the first material to be spun. The sheep of Tarentum were renowned for the quality of their wool, although the Romans never ceased trying to optimise the quality of wool through cross-breeding. The production of linen and hemp was very similar to that of wool and was described by Pliny the Elder. After the harvest, the material would be immersed (most probably in water), it would be skinned and then aired. Once dry, the fibers would be pressed mechanically (with a mallet) and then smoothed. Following this, the materials were woven. Linen and hemp both are tough and durable materials.
Silk and cotton
Silk and cotton were imported, from China and India respectively. Silk was rare and expensive; a luxury afforded only to the rich. Due to the cost of imported clothing, quality garments were also woven from nettle.
Wild silk, that is, cocoons collected from the wild after the insect had eaten its way out, also was known. Wild silk, being of smaller lengths, had to be spun. A rare luxury cloth with a beautiful golden sheen, known as sea silk, was made from the long silky filaments or byssus produced by Pinna nobilis, a large Mediterranean seashell.
These different fibres had to be prepared in different ways. According to Forbes, their wool contained around 50% fatty impurities, flax and hemp were about 25% impure, silk was between 19 and 25% impure, while cotton (the most pure of all the source fibers) contained only 6% impurities.
The Romans had to turn their material with a manual spinner. Iron alum was used as the base fixing agent and it is known that the marine gastropod, Haustellum brandaris, was used as a red dye, due to its purple-red colorant (6,6'-dibromoindigotin); the color of the emperor. The dye was imported from Tyre, Lebanon and was used primarily by wealthy women. Cheaper versions were also produced by counterfeiters. A more widely used tint was indigo, allowing blue or yellow shades, while madder, a dicotyledon angiosperm, produced a shade of red and was one of the cheapest dyes available. According to Pliny the Elder, a blackish colour was preferred to red. Yellow, obtained from saffron, was expensive and reserved for the clothing of married women or the Vestal Virgins. There were far fewer colours than in the modern era.
Archaeological discoveries of Greek vases[clarification needed] depict the art of weaving, while writers in the field of antiques mention the art of weaving and fibre production. Some clothes have survived for several centuries and, as clothing is necessary, examples are numerous and diverse. These materials often provide some of the most detailed and precious information on the production means used, on the dyes used, on the nature of the soil where the materials were grown and, therefore, on trade routes and climate, among many other things.
Historical research in the area of ancient clothing is very active and allows researchers to understand a great deal about the lifestyle of the Romans. The materials used were similar to those used by the ancient Greeks, except the tilling process had been ameliorated and the tilled linen and wool were of a far superior quality.
Hides, leather, and skins
The Romans had two main ways of tanning, one of which was mineral tanning, or "tawing" – making hide into leather without the use of tanning, especially by soaking it in a solution of alum and salt. The Romans used tools that resembled those that would be used in the Middle Ages.
The leather was not given to the soldiers by the military commanders or overseers, but rather from the soldier's wives and family before the soldiers left for a campaign.
Although leather sometimes was used for protection against poor weather, its primary use was in footwear and belts.
Animal skins were worn over the helmet with bearskins being popular among legionaries and feline among with Praetorians. Ancient Roman taxidermists would retain the entire body and the head, with the front legs tied to fasten over the armor. The animal's head would fit over the soldier's helmet, and mostly was worn by the Roman aquilifer, who carried the symbol of Rome into battle.
The Romans rarely used goatskin for their leather, preferring pig or sheepskin, although the ideal would be the preferred leather was that most readily available – cattle skin. The thickest and most durable leather was used for shoe soles – they had to be durable to endure war.
Types of clothing
The act of putting on outer garments such as the toga or pallium, was described as amicire, which led to any individual outer garment sometimes being identified as an amictus without it being thought necessary to specify which outer garment was referred to. The equivalent term for the donning of undergarments,such as the tunica, was induere (indutus).
Looms and their effect on clothing
In general, individual clothes were woven on vertical looms during antiquity. This contrasts with the medieval period when cloth was produced on foot-powered horizontal looms that later was made into clothes by tailors. Evidence for the transition between these two distinct systems, from Egypt, suggests that it had begun by 298 AD but it is likely that it was very gradual. The weaver sat at the horizontal loom producing rectangular lengths of cloth which never were wider than the weaver's two arms could reach with the shuttle.
After the 2nd century BC, besides tunics, women wore a simple garment known as a stola and usually followed the fashions of their Greek contemporaries. Stolae typically comprised two rectangular segments of cloth joined at the side by fibulae and buttons in a manner allowing the garment to drape freely over the front of the wearer. Over the stola, women often wore the palla, a sort of shawl made of an oblong piece of material that could be worn as a coat, with or without hood, or draped over the left shoulder, under the right arm, and then over the left arm.
Roman girls often wore nothing more than a tunic hanging below the knees or lower, belted at the waist and very simply decorated, most often white. When a girl went out she sometimes wore another tunic, longer than the first, sometimes to the ankles or even the feet.
The basic garment for both sexes, often worn beneath one or more additional layers, was the tunica or tunic. This was a simple rectangle sewn into a tubular shape and pinned around the shoulders like a Greek chiton. Women might also wear a strophium or breast cloth. Garments to cover the loins, known as subligacula or subligaria, might also be worn, especially by soldiers. The Vindolanda tablets found in Great Britain confirm this fashion at the time of the Roman Empire, when a subligaculum might be made of leather. Farm workers wore loincloths.
The dress code of the day[clarification needed] was complex and had to reflect one's position accurately in the social order, one's gender, and one's language.
The variations of clothing worn in Rome were similar to the clothing worn in Greece at the same time, with the exception of the traditionally Roman toga. Until the 2nd century BC, the toga was worn by both genders and bore no distinction of rank – after that, a woman wearing a toga was marked out as a prostitute. The differentiation between rich and poor was made through the quality of the material; the upper-classes wore thin, naturally colored, wool togas while the lower-classes wore coarse material or thin felt. They also differentiated by colours used:
- the toga praetextata, with a purple border, worn by male children and magistrates during official ceremonies
- the toga picta or toga palmata, with a gold border, used by generals in their triumphs
- trabea – toga entirely in purple, worn by statues of deities and emperors
- saffron toga – worn by augurs and priestesses, white with a purple band, also worn by consuls on public festivals and equites during a transvectio
Red Borders – worn by men and women for festivals
- laena – worn by the king and the flamens at sacrifices
- crocota – saffron robe worn by women during ceremonies to Cybele
Roman clothing of Late Antiquity (after 284 AD)
Roman fashions underwent very gradual change from the late Republic to the end of the Western empire, 600 years later. In the later empire after Diocletian's reforms, clothing worn by soldiers and non-military government bureaucrats became highly decorated, with woven or embellished strips, clavi, and circular roundels, orbiculi, added to tunics and cloaks. These decorative elements usually comprised geometrical patterns and stylised plant motifs, but could include human or animal figures. The use of silk also increased steadily and most courtiers in late antiquity wore elaborate silk robes. Heavy military-style belts were worn by bureaucrats as well as soldiers, revealing the general militarization of late Roman government. Trousers — considered barbarous garments worn by Germans and Persians — achieved only limited popularity in the latter days of the empire, and were regarded by conservatives as a sign of cultural decay. In early medieval Europe, kings and aristocrats dressed like late Roman generals, not like the older toga-clad senatorial tradition.
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- Rodgers, Nigel. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, Lorenz Books, ISBN 978-0-7548-1911-0