Ancient Greeks and Romans wore similar clothing, usually made at home. One of the principal occupations of women in ancient society was weaving. Women wove garments generally of wool or linen for their families, although the very wealthy could also afford silk and cotton. Research suggests that fabrics were often brightly colored and decorated with elaborate designs.
In general, the women wove a single square or rectangular piece of clothing that could have multiple uses. It could be a garment, a blanket, or even a shroud. Infants and young children often went naked. Greco-Roman clothing for both women and men consisted of two main garments—a tunic (either a peplos or chiton) and a cloak (himation or toga). Both women and men wore sandals, slippers, soft shoes, or boots, although at home they usually went barefoot.
Tunics, Togas, and Mantles
Roman togas were white woolen strips of cloth about six feet wide and 12 feet long. They were draped over the shoulders and body and worn over a linen tunic. Children and commoners wore “natural” or off-white togas, while Roman senators wore brighter, whiter togas. Colored stripes on the toga designated particular occupations or statuses; for example, magistrates’ togas had purple stripes and edging. Togas were relatively unwieldy to wear, so they were reserved for formal or leisure events.
While togas had their place, most working people needed more practical clothing on a daily basis. As a result, most ancient people wore one or more tunics, large rectangles of cloth known as a peplos and/or a chiton. Peplos are heavier and usually not sewn but pinned; chitons were about twice the size of the peplos, made of a lighter fabric and generally seamed. The tunic was the basic garment: it could also be used as an undergarment.
Instead of a toga, some Roman women wore an ankle-length, pleated dress known as the stola, which could have long sleeves and fastened at the shoulder with the clasp known as a fibula. Such garments were worn over the tunics and under the palla. Prostitutes wore togas instead of the stola.
The Layered Effect
A typical outfit for a woman might start with a strophion, a soft band wrapped around the mid-section of the body. Over the strophion could be draped the peplos, a large rectangle of heavy fabric, usually wool, folded over along the upper edge to create a double layer in front called an overfold (apoptygma). The top edge would be draped to reach to the waist. The peplos was fastened at the shoulders, armhole openings were left on each side, and the peplos might or might not be cinched with a belt.
Instead of a peplos, a woman might wear a chiton, made of a much lighter material, usually imported linen which sometimes was diaphanous or semi-transparent. Made with twice as much material as the peplos, the chiton was wide enough to allow sleeves to be fastened along the upper arms with pins or buttons. Both the peplos and chiton were floor-length, and usually long enough to be pulled over a belt, creating a soft pouch called a kolpos.
Over the tunic would go a mantle of some sort. This was the rectangular himation for the Greeks, and pallium or palla for the Romans, draped over the left arm and under the right. Roman male citizens also wore a toga instead of the Greek himation, or a large rectangular or semicircular shawl that would be worn pinned on the right shoulder or joined at the front of the body.
Cloaks and Outerwear
In inclement weather or for reasons of fashion, Romans would wear certain outer garments, mostly cloaks or capes pinned at the shoulder, fastened down the front or possibly pulled over the head. Wool was the most common material, but some could be leather. Shoes and sandals were ordinarily made of leather, although shoes might be wool felt.
Throughout the Bronze and Iron ages, women’s and men’s fashion choices varied greatly as they fell in and out of style. In Greece, the peplos was the earliest developed, and the chiton first appeared in the sixth century BCE, only to fall out of favor again in the fifth century.