The most important textile in ancient Greece and Rome, was wool. Linen, made from flax, was also widely known, but due to the cost involved in importing it during earlier times before Rome conquered most of the middle eastern Mediterranean countries, notably Egypt, it was used virtually exclusively for undergarments such as shorter tunics, which required less cloth. Wool was available in abundance, sheepfarming being very popular in the mountainous areas of both the Hellenic1 mainland and Italy. The weaving of the textiles was a domestic art, widely practised in both Greece and Rome, at least until the end of the Republic shortly before the advent of the Common Era. Women were the weavers, and in fact, according to Cicero (De oratore 2. 277) to accuse a man of weaving was to suggest that he was effeminate in his ways (and worse, perhaps even in his preferences – see Sex in ancient cultures). Later in the time of the Empire, this changed and weaving became mainly the domain of male labour, although making clothes was still something women did. Augustus insisted on wearing only homespun clothes, but considering the temperament of Livia, one has to wonder whether she in fact did any weaving herself, other than webs of intrigue.
Cloak to toga
The wool cloth was (initially) woven at home, usually in the form the garment was to take. The traditional drape (toga) which was in widespread use in both Greece and Rome, which was also the hallmark of the freeborn citizen, changed little in almost a thousand years of use, and was essentially the basic garment worn by both men and women. Methods of draping the toga changed according to the unknowable and illogical direction of the fashion instinct, as a result of which the size of the cloth used for a toga also changed as time passed. Initially the toga was probably not as elaborate an affair as the toga of the high classical period of the Roman principate, and it probably started off as little more than a large piece of wool cloth that was worn as a cloak over a tunic, which was probably the garment worn most frequently, also originally manufactured from wool, albeit a more delicately woven cloth. The cloak would be worn clasped at the throat and would probably also have doubled up as a blanket at night.
Cloth was left undyed, especially in earlier times, with perhaps a decorative border added depending upon the wealth of the wearer. Later the borders came to signify rank and status, with the toga praetexta having a purple praetexta2 (= border) at the top edge of the cloth, the width varying depending on the rank of the wearer. In later times, the border became more elaborate, being woven into the cloth and consisting even of patterns. A general celebrating a triumph at Rome would wear a purple toga woven with some gold thread, called the toga picta (= ornamental toga) or trabea triumphalis (= triumphal robe), while mourners would wear a toga of dark wool, the toga pulla (black / dark / gloomy toga). The pontifex maximus (chief priest, supreme pontiff, head of the colleges of priests) wore a striped toga which was highly coloured, using vegetable dyes. A candidate for public office would wear a toga whitened with pipe clay,3 hence the toga candidatus (= clothed in white, and our modern word candidate derives from this, as well as the notion of being “candid”, i.e. open and frank (honest??)). It also made the candidate much more visible, in that he stood out among the crowds of dun coloured togas around him. Initially the toga was worn by both men and women, but during the course of the Republic (c. 510 BCE - 27 BCE) women stopped wearing the toga. Later only prostitutes would wear a toga, probably as symbol of their freedom from the authority of any man (see Roman marriage), not being married, and certainly no man wishing to claim potestas over a prostitute.
Toga and tunic
The languages of the Greeks and Romans beautifully reflect the two types of garment commonly in use in both areas, describing the two types as garments which are either wrapped around (Gr. periblēma,4 L. amictus),5 or stepped into (Gr. endyma, L. indumentum), being obviously the toga which is draped around, and the tunic (when it was used) which is stepped into, and requires no effort from the wearer to keep on, whereas wearing a toga requires constant attention in order to keep it on. Tunics (Gr. chiton, L. tunica) were not necessarily worn beneath the toga, but were certainly worn when the toga was not. Initially sleeveless, in the late Empire tunics had slevees, the dalmatic (which was also the origin of the monk's cowl) having wide, flowing sleeves, and the other form having narrow sleeves. In the later Empire, a combination of both a tunic and a toga was the norm for men.
The tunic developed very easily into the Greek himation (Latin pallium or palla), which resembled our modern notion of a dress or frock, in that it was either two pieces of cloth stitched together leaving openings for the head and arms, or one piece of cloth folded over, with an opening made for the head and either stitched at the sides or in its simplest form belted, the sides overlapping to cover the body sufficiently. This garment developed into a beautiful form of female dress, and in later times it was made from lighter cloth and even silk for the more wealthy matrons, clasped at the shoulders with beatifully worked clasps of gold inlaid with gems, depending of course on the wealth of the person involved, and even the material beautifully embellished with colour or patterns. It was almost always belted at the waist, again using beatifully worked decorative belts if money allowed. A cloak would also be worn with the palla when stepping out, and in inclement weather, a heavy, hooded cloak.
The toga as multifunctional dress
When the toga had developed to the elaborate, extremely large piece of clothing it became during the Principate (c. 31 BCE – 280 CE) men had no use for additional cloaks, the toga supplying sufficient cloth to cover up in inclement weather. In any event, the wool cloth of the male toga and all cloaks would have been sent to the fuller after weaving, who would clean and shrink the cloth in a mixture of water, urine6 and fuller’s earth (a type of fine kaolin or clay), by treading the cloth in basins filled with the mixture and then rinsing it thoroughly in clean water, a process also used by wash houses for commercially washing garments. The shrunken wool cloth, together with the natural lanolin content would serve to keep out most splashes and raindrops, provided one did not stand in the rain getting a good old soaking.
Legions and leggings
The legions were supplied with proper cloaks, to provide warmth which the armour of the higher ranking officers and leather protective wear of the lower ranks (see Roman class system) would lack. The legions were also the only people to wear what resembles our modern trousers, being kitted out for use in winter with thick woollen hose that reached to just above the knee. Soldiers were also supplied with woollen neck scarves, each legion having its own colour (which is probably also the origin of the modern regimental tie). It is believed that Julius Caesar brought from Britain the idea of the sagum, a closely woven thick wool cloak (almost like heavy felt) which was virtually waterproof, with which he equipped his legions. For obvious reasons, horseriding with a toga was out of the question, and the horserider would wear a tunic and a proper cloak, later actually properly hooded.
Underwear - or not
Underwear was not the elaborate and lacy affairs of today. Men usually wore a loincloth to support and most probably protect, the nether organs, much like today’s thong or g-string, except that it was obviously fastened rather than using elastic waistbands. Slaves at manual labour wore only these loincloths. Women ordinarily apparently did not wear any underwear below the chest unless they were menstruating, although they did wear supporting cloth bands around the breasts (the strophion (Gr) or mamillare (L)), especially as they grew older and gravity started to take its toll.7
The starkness of classical style dress was ornamented by use of especially jewellery,8 and for women, highly elaborate coiffures and cosmetics. Wigs were common among women, and human hair, especially blonde hair was highly prized. The hairpieces were styled into remarkable works of art not to be repeated until the court of Marie Antoinette made high coiffures all the rage again. Interestingly, fur of any kind was not used at all in clothing, due to the connotation with the barbarians who would use leather and fur, not having the technology to weave wool and flax. Leather was used by the Greeks and Romans for purposes only of shoes, sandals and military equipment (body armour for non-commissioned officers and the ranks, greaves and vambraces, gloves) as far as clothing is concerned.9
1 Greece was not a single country, but a collection of democracies that from time to time co-operated with one another, often being at one another’s throats.
2 From the verb praetexto = to border, to adorn with a (decorative) border.
3 Probably to signify his honesty and probity.
4 Literally, “which goes around”.
5 A word denoting the entire sense of “the manner in which a garment is worn”.
6 Collected from the public latrines, maintained by the so called “crossroads colleges”, organised gangs of citizens responsible for the public water supply normally situated at the crossing of the roads in the areas where they lived, and also responsible for the general upkeep of the roads, safety and public amenities, all falling under the authoirty of the aediles curules.
7 Afrikaans pun: tolle = knockers.
8 Both men and women wore elaborately designed rings, for instance.
9 Which means that whoever did the costume design for the movie Gladiator did not know what they were doing, clothing the general Maximus in the opening secenes in a cloak edged with fur.
Thanks to La Petite Mort for suggesting that I write this. It's all her fault.
And thanks to The Debutante for her suggestions, reminding me that prostitutes wore the toga, and that Augustus was rabidly addicted to traditional family values.