What to Wear – The Ultimate Style Guide to Roman Dress Sense: PART I – the toga

PART I: The Toga

This post comes far later than expected owing, in part, to an unexpected increase in workload this week (who knew?). I will endeavour to make up for lost time with armed with a large dose of tea and some cheese on toast (fifty percent of the way to bread and circuses).

On to the subject this week to be released lion-like, into the Colosseum of the internet for your entertainment and delectation: the toga.

Toga. ~ noun. A loose garment made out of a single piece of cloth. Worn by the citizens of Rome.

Used and abused by students (among others) as another theme for parties, with the dubious claim of honouring Dionysus ever since…

In all seriousness, I think it would be fair to assume if you asked the average plebeian (or even patrician), on the modern street about the ancient Romans, the toga would feature quite high in the list of things that spring to mind.

The word ‘toga’ is thought to derive from the verb ‘to cover’ tegere, and conveyed much about what it meant to be Roman in contrast to ‘others’ … barbarians, Egyptians or Parthians. To be Roman meant you were distinct from these groups and Roman males marked that distinction in dress.

We’ve had the basic outline but the  Oxford English Dictionary (unsurprisingly,) goes a little further in its definitions:

It consisted of a single piece of stuff of irregular form, long, broad, and flowing, without sleeves or armholes, and covered the whole body with the exception of the right arm. ‘toga praetexta,’ a toga with a broad purple border worn by children, magistrates, persons engaged in sacred rites, and later by emperors. ‘toga virīlis,’ the toga of manhood, assumed by boys at puberty.

The first part of that definition comes loaded with further questions and implications. Why did the toga emerge as the outfit for the Roman citizen on formal occasions. Was everyone entitles to wear a toga and if not why? How did one go about putting a single piece of cloth on in the morning, and importantly for us how and why was the toga to become the defining element of stereotypical Roman-ness, therefore influencing the emergence of the legendary cultural event; ‘the toga party’

The significance of the toga then, is beyond one of ‘simple’ aesthetics. It runs deeper into representing the wearer on a socio-political and cultural levels; an outward symbol of status, wealth and yet simultaneously participation in a wider system of power and politics.

A prime example of this, is the portrayal of toga-wearing well-to-do Romans in classical art. Below, one well known Augustus models a fine representation of the garment in question. The multitude of folds and the reams of material add to the general effect of the figure of ‘the Roman’ for ancient and modern people alike.

Statue of Caesar Augustus. From the Louvre.
Statue of Caesar Augustus. From the Louvre.

Statue of Caesar Augustus. From the Louvre.

But there is another side to the vast pieces of material that make up a single toga. The first being that in the Italian heat, the toga, by all means must have been at least a little uncomfortable to wear. So far as we know, the toga wasn’t worn with pins and fastenings to keep everything in place which (…. and I can speak from some personal experience with the afore mentioned toga parties) makes the whole shebang really quite difficult to move around in.

The toga then, was not something that your average Roman man would wear to work. But, rather, it would be worn by a Roman who could afford to have time and energy put into putting on and wearing a piece of clothing that, not only was likely erring on the side of the uncomfortable (in hot weather at least), but also restricted movement especially as on arm had to hold all the extra folds too.  I speak of course of the rich and politically influential.

The toga was a specific expression of an elite Roman masculinity. A man, vir, embodied not only biological difference between the sexes but meant one was entitled and expected to inhabit a specific cultural and social niche. After 31BC and the primacy of Augustus as the first citizen (read emperor) of Rome the toga became a part of the vehicle by which Romans were expected to revive past ideals. Men were expected to wear the toga in the forum. A state of affairs summed up by Virgil:

“… harsh Juno who now torments the land, and the sea and sky with fear, will now respond better judgement, and favour the Romans masters of the world, and the people of the toga,…”

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book I: 257-259

“The toga virilis signified a bodily state: sexually capable and male; but also a Roman citizen body, a normative political construct for which male sexuality was only the first prerequisite.”

(Christ, 1997)

It’s almost hard not to make a comparison to the Sumptuary Laws that were (are) a feature of different societies throughout history. Certainly we are not short of anecdotes that show that the way a man wore his toga or clothes during the empire was worthy of comment. Caligula ordered one poor Ptolemy to be executed for wearing a purple cloak which was so admired by everone else that Caligula felt outdone, not helped by the Emperor’s own wardrobe malfunction.

“ He invited King Ptolemy to visit Rome, welcomed him with appropriate honours, and then suddenly ordered his execution — as mentioned above — because at Ptolemy’s entrance into the amphitheatre during a gladiatorial show the fine purple cloak which he wore had attracted universal admiration… Caligula indignantly rushed from the amphitheatre. In so doing he tripped over the fringe of his robe and pitched down the steps…”

Suetonius. Lives of the Tweleve Caesars, Caligula 35

Dress in the Roman world then was also not purely white. The toga pura, as the name suggests, being the only exception. The toga and the Romans cannot be separated, and it is difficult to think of another example of a piece of clothing so tied with a sense of identity (over such a vast area as the Roman Empire). However, it would be wrong to think of the toga as homogenous and un-changing. Just as the Empire did change, the toga evolved with it. The very fact that Augustus felt the need to bring in recommendations about proper Roman dress and rules about toga wearing demonstrates that Roman society had changed its attitudes from the ‘ancestral ideal’ that Augustus was so aiming for.

Interestingly, for a Roman woman, stolata, if she was found to be a meretrix or had made a cuckold of her husband she was forced to wear a toga (Martial 2.39). This is something that I’ll cover in more detail in the next post about Roman women and what they wore.

If this blog post were a toga I would merely have got to the first crease in the fabric of what is a huge subject. If any of this as piqued your interest, or you have a point to add or an alternative argument to put forward please leave a question in the comments.

If you liked what you read and would like to keep more up-to-date on the developments of Rome, as well as the super-fun world of a history blogger-waitress-sandwich connoisseur, remember to follow me on twitter or sign up for e-mail updates.

Next week: PART II of What to Wear – The Ultimate Style Guide to Roman Dress Sense: Women

Thanks for reading.

Emma pinxit

Christ, A. T. (1997). The Masculine Ideal of “the Race That Wears the Toga.” Art Journal, 56(2), 24–30

Vout, C. (1996). The Myth of the Toga: Understanding the History of Roman Dress. Greece & Rome, 43(2), 204–220.

Harrill, J. A. (2002). Coming of Age and Putting on Christ: The Toga Virilis Ceremony, Its Paraenesis, and Paul’s Interpretation of Baptism in Galatians. Novum Testamentum, 44(3), 252–277.

BBC Bitesize Costume Gallery: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/drama/drama_wjec/galleries/costumes1.shtml


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