I’ve been a costumer for many years. Although I’ve made theatrical costumes and the like, most of my costuming efforts have been extended towards making recreations of historical garb. I’m pretty good at it; I have a kingdom level award for my costuming efforts in Society for Creative Anachronism. In this entry, I’m going to discuss how to get decent-looking Roman clothing, as opposed to looking like a refugee from a college toga party.
Historical Roman Clothing
The Romans wore fairly simple clothes. The tunic was the basic garment for all Roman men. Women also wore tunics of various types. Over the tunic, Roman male citizens wore togas, military men wore cloaks, and tunics could be layered for warmth or style. Married women wore stolas, a kind of loose over-dress, and covered their heads with a pallium, a kind of shawl or veil that also covered the arms.
Roman clothes were of course all sewn by hand. Unless one’s hand-stitching is excellent, most of us are better off using a sewing machine. Please don’t consider this cheating. If you look at extant ancient clothes from various archaeological digs, you will see that seams are often sewn with machine-like precision. This is because women started hand-sewing at a very young age and had a lot of time and practice. Save yourself loose seams and other frustrations and use a sewing machine if your hand skills aren’t up to the challenge.
You can read about the finer details of Roman attire at Rome Exposed: Roman Attire
The most important factor when recreating Roman clothes is the material. Roman tunics were made of wool, linen or sometimes imported silk. Roman togas were made of fine wool. Cloaks, stolas, palla, all also mainly made of wool. How coarse or fine the material of a garment was depended entirely upon the social status of the wearer. For our purposes, we will assume that most people want to recreate clothing of the upper classes. The first rule here is beware the broadcloth.
Broadcloth was originally a medieval fabric made of wool, woven on extra-wide looms. Today most broadcloth is sturdy, inexpensive cotton available in a rainbow of colors. You can’t make decent Roman clothing out of broadcloth. It will always look wrong. It looks wrong because the “hand” of the fabric is wrong. Broadcloth doesn’t drape correctly for a tunic, a toga, or any other Roman garment. The problem with the hand lies in the number of threads per inch/cm in the weave, the thickness of each thread, and the qualities of the fiber. If you must go with cotton, and many of us must for reasons of cost and availability, pick a soft cotton or cotton blend that falls into attractive folds when you gather it up.
Linen: Your Fabric Best Friend
If you can at all manage to afford it, save up for linen. Linen is historically more accurate, has better hand, wears better and becomes softer with each laundering, eventually becoming softer than even the most expensive long-staple cotton. Linen is available online in a variety of weights for everything from the most sturdy military tunic to the most sheer fabric for a daring woman’s palla. Fabrics-store.com is a great source for linen.
Wool: Not as Scary and Scratchy As One Might Think
Wool is more of a challenge. Romans used wool more than any other fiber. But modern suit wool is for the most part woven too densely to use for Roman attire. The wool that the Romans used was softer, lighter, and more loosely woven than most fabric available today. Tropical weight wools and other soft, light wools can come close and there are always blends. Once again, the important thing here is the hand and the drape, not the exact fiber content. You’ll get better results with a wool/rayon blend of the appropriate weight and hand than 100% wool that hangs badly. Good wool is even more expensive than linen and more expensive than a great deal of silk available today. If you want truly authentic Roman wool, you’re probably going to have to weave it yourself.
Silk: Avoid Slub
Lots and lots of modern silk has little nubs woven into the fabric. These nubs are called “slub”, and represent imperfections in the fabric. Today, we think these imperfections make our wool, linen or silk look more natural and authentic. In Roman times, someone would have been beating their slaves for producing such shoddy work. You can find silk without slub, though it might take a little extra work. Smooth silk is usually less expensive than the rough “wild” silk or heavily slubbed silk anyhow, so there’s a little good news!
Cotton: Not So Much
Cotton was a high end luxury fabric available only to late period Romans in very small quantities, imported from India. If you want to use cotton as itself and not as a substitute for another fabric, choose Indian cotton if you can find it. Once again, don’t be afraid of sheer or light weights. Roman and Egyptian linen loose-woven on weighted looms came in much softer and more sheer weights than the linen and cotton that we commonly buy.
Color: A final Note
The other factor that brings down the quality of historical costuming is color. Today we have all sorts of aniline and acid dyes to dye our fabrics a dizzying array of colors. Many of these colors are not possible without post-Victorian processes. This is not to say that all fabric before the Victorians was dirt brown, yuck green, or beige. Romans had a wide variety of color available to them from natural dye sources. Go for the less harsh shades, avoid hard pastels, magenta and other electric colors, and you should be fine. Also be aware that Roman royal /Tyrian purple is actually a deep crimson purplish red and not the grape color.