The ancient Greeks and Romans, like all peoples, developed their own distinctive styles of clothing. Styles were determined by the materials available, the activity for which the clothing was worn, tradition, and fashions adopted from other cultures. Styles changed much more slowly in the ancient world than they do today. Although fashions in color and decoration varied, the basic designs of Greek and Roman clothes remained unchanged for a thousand years. Near the end of the Roman Empire (in the late A.D. 400s), however, classical robes gave way to new types of clothing, including the forerunner of modern shirts and trousers.

Knowledge about ancient clothing comes from three sources: the remains of garments, literary works that mention clothing, and images of clothing in sculpture and painting. No garments have survived whole from ancient times, but scraps of fabric found in tombs show how the Greeks and Romans made their textiles. Ancient literary and historical writings give the names of garments and also contain clues about the significance of particular garments. For example, an author might mention the social class of the person who wore a certain style of cloak. Unfortunately, most written references give little information about what the garment actually looked like.

The best source of information about ancient clothing is ancient art. Many Greek and Roman carvings, statues, decorated vases, and paintings show clothed figures. The problem with these images is that the artist may have shown how he wanted the people to look, not what they really looked like. Some artworks almost certainly show people wearing costumes, such as theatrical or old-fashioned clothes, rather than real everyday clothing. Still, classical art and literature give us a good idea of how the Greeks and Romans dressed.


Ancient Greek garments were fundamentally different from modern European and American clothes in several significant ways. The most significant difference is that modern garments are made of pieces of cloth cut and sewn together to fit around the torso, arms, and legs, often quite snugly. Greek garments, on the other hand, consisted of a single piece of cloth draped loosely on the body. The garment was held in place by a belt, pins, buttons, or stitching, but it was never fitted to the body.

Basic Garments. Most of the time, the Greeks wore one or more of four basic garments. Greek men and women wore an undergarment called a perizoma, a loincloth that passed between their legs and around their waist or hips. Sometimes, athletes and soldiers wore only the perizoma.

The chiton was a large rectangle of material folded once and sewn together along the edge opposite the fold to form a tube. A man’s chiton was stitched across the top, with holes for the head and arms. A woman’s chiton, which was longer and wider than a man’s, could be sewn at the shoulders or fastened with pins rather than stitches. Over the chiton a woman might wear a peplos. The peplos was a larger rectangle draped around the body under the arms, loosely enough that it could be pulled up to fasten, like the chiton, with pins at the shoulders. A belt held the peplos in place. Often the fabric at the top of the peplos was turned out and down to form a loose outer fold over a woman’s upper body. Unlike the chiton, the peplos was not stitched. It was open along the woman’s right side.

Remember: Consult the Index at the end of volume 4 to find more information on many topics.

Men wore a loose robe or cloak called a himation, alone or over a chiton. The himation was a large rectangle of cloth draped over one shoulder and then wrapped loosely around the hips. Younger men, especially horsemen and travelers, wore a shorter cloak called a chlamys, which was pinned on one shoulder. A woman could wear a himation outdoors, perhaps pulling it around her head to form a hood. Married women also wore veils in public.

Because the basic Greek garments were so simple in design, they often served more than one purpose. A peplos could be turned into a himation, and both garments could be used as a blanket.

Materials and Colors. The women of each Greek household manufactured the fabrics for the clothing of the family members. For warm clothing, the Greeks used wool. Women took pride in their ability to turn sheep’s wool into fine yarn, which they knitted into cloth or wove on a loom. For lighter clothing, they used linen, which they weaved from the stems of the flax plant. The Greeks probably learned to make flaxen cloth after Phoenician traders brought Egyptian linen to Greece in the 700s B.C. Garments could also be made from silk, which was being imported to Greece from East Asia by the mid-300s B.C. or perhaps earlier.

Linen was difficult to color, but wool could easily be colored with dyes from animal and vegetable sources. Women liked to color their own garments with bright yellow dye from the saffron plant, while men’s cloaks were often dark red. The most costly dye was a deep purple made from sea snails found in Syria and Phoenicia. Women used colored wool to create patterned fabrics. Some patterns were shapes, such as squares or spirals, and others were figures of animals or people.

This Roman relief, from the Ara Pacis in Rome, shows a procession of relatives of the emperor Augustus. The woman at the far left is wearing the garment called a palla, and the man she is looking at is wearing a short tunic under a cloak. The children are wearing the traditional toga usually worn by male Roman citizens.

Changes in Fashion. By the 500s B.C., Greek fashions had become luxurious and elaborate. Women’s linen chitons had many fine, crinkly folds. Robes and cloaks were long and full and trailed on the ground. But around 480 B.C., the Greeks tired of complicated draperies and aristocratic* styles. Clothing became simpler and more democratic. Men wore shorter chitons. Women turned from the billowing robe back to the straight peplos.

In democratic Greece, people generally wore whatever they wanted, but they did follow certain customs. Elderly men and women wore longer chitons than young men. Philosophers wore dark-colored, shabby cloaks as a sign that they were not concerned with status and wealth. Farmers, craftspeople, slaves, and poor people wore narrow chitons, generally fastened only on the left shoulder so that the right arm was bare.

After the 300s B.C., Greek fashion once again became elaborate. Richly patterned and embroidered fabrics, some imported from Asia, gained popularity. The basic forms of the garments, however, did not change.

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class


In the A.D. 500s, some Romans showed their opposition to the emperor Justinian's rule through fashion. To set themselves apart from other Romans, they copied the hairstyle of the barbarian Huns. They let their beards and mustaches grow, shaved the fronts of their heads, and let their hair grow long at the back. They wore tunics with outrageously wide, long sleeves tightly fastened at the wrists. When these men clapped or waved their arms at public shows such as the circus, their puffy sleeves flapped and billowed. These showy barbarian fashions were a way of rebelling against imperial rule.


The Romans inherited their clothing styles from the Etruscans, people who ruled central Italy before Rome came to power. The Etruscans had borrowed Greek fashions, so early Roman dress was very similar to Greek dress.

Roman clothing differed from Greek clothing in two significant ways. First, Roman garments were more complicated than Greek garments. Every piece of Greek clothing was woven as a single rectangle, uncut and with minimal stitching. Roman garments, in contrast, used rounded and cross-shaped pieces of material, as well as rectangles. Some garments consisted of several pieces of fabric sewn together.

Second, Greek dress expressed the choices of the individual. A person could wear party clothes or a traveling outfit, for example, whenever he or she wanted. Roman dress was specialized. People wore certain clothes according to their social class, their age, and the occasion. The rules of proper dress were enforced not only by custom, but sometimes by law as well.

Basic Garments. Roman men and women wore the subligaculum, a linen undergarment similar to the Greek perizoma. Women might also wear a strophium, or brassiere. Made of linen or leather, the strophium was a band that supported and wrapped the breasts.

The basic Roman garment was the tunic. It consisted of two pieces of material, usually wool, stitched together at the sides with holes for the arms. Sometimes the tunic had short sleeves. The wearer slipped the tunic on over his or her head and fastened it with a belt, often pulling it up to hang in a loose fold over the belt. A man’s tunic reached to his calves, but a woman’s was generally longer and looser.

The most traditional and important outer garment was the toga. During most of Roman history, a male Roman citizen who did not wear a toga ran the risk of being mistaken for a workman or a slave. The toga was so much a part of the Roman identity that the poet Vergil called Romans the gens togata, meaning “toga-wearing people.”

The toga was descended from the Greek himation. Like the himation, the toga was made from a single piece of cloth. It was not a rectangle, however, but had one rounded or curved side. The toga was worn like the himation, draped over one shoulder and loosely fastened at the waist or hip. The curved side was worn at the bottom.

Ordinary citizens usually wore plain, white togas. Some Romans wore togas that had a decorated border, the width and color of which were determined by the wearer’s age and social class. Certain colors and patterns were reserved for the highest-ranking officials. For example, from the time of Augustus only the emperor could wear a purple toga. This is why becoming emperor is sometimes referred to as “taking the purple.”

Children of both sexes wore togas, but among adults, the toga was a man’s garment. Any woman who wore one was assumed to be a prostitute. Instead of the toga, women wore a square himation called the palla. Married women were expected to cover their heads in public. One Roman aristocrat divorced his wife because she went to the theater bareheaded.

Growth of Clothing Industries. During Rome’s early centuries, women made textiles and clothing in the home. By the 100s B.C., however, they could buy cloth in marketplaces. Home production no longer filled the needs of the growing population and the large armies, and a textile industry came into being. The Romans developed new and more efficient types of looms and set up cloth-making factories in conquered Asian and European lands.

The Romans also began to manufacture clothing. Rome and other large cities of the empire had workshops and factories that produced cloaks and other garments. Although mass production of fabric and clothing was a Roman innovation, other crafts and businesses related to clothing had also existed among the Greeks. These included the making of hats, sandals, and jewelry. Both the Greeks and the Romans had professional fullers, whose business was the cleaning of woolen clothes.

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized


Both the Greeks and the Romans regarded their clothing as one of the things that set them apart from other, barbarian* peoples. Among these barbarians were the people of the Persian Empire, who wore leather pants and sleeved jackets, and the Celts, who wore fitted pants and tight shirts. Yet with the passage of time, both the Greeks and the Romans adopted some foreign fashion elements. By the 400s B.C., a few Greek women and children were wearing Persian-style jackets, and a century later, Alexander the Great shocked the Greeks at home by encouraging his troops in Asia to wear “barbarian” dress.

Roman fashions changed considerably during the later years of the Roman Empire, from A.D. 250 to 600. The gap widened between everyday dress and special costumes for religious or ritual occasions. The clothing of royal and noble Romans became even more splendid than it had been. Garments of silk were ornamented with fringe and embroidered with gold thread. Meanwhile, the toga gradually fell out of fashion. The emperor, senators, and aristocrats still wore togas, but middle-class Romans replaced the toga with a round hooded cape. Roman Christians replaced the toga with the pallium, a man’s version of the square-edged palla.

During these centuries the long-sleeved tunic and the long trousers of the barbarians also came into common use. In the early A.D. 400s, several Roman emperors passed laws forbidding such barbarian fashions as boots, trousers, long hair, and leather garments. It was too late to stem the tide of change, however. By the end of the Roman Empire, the traditional sandals and robes of antiquity had been replaced by shoes, fitted pants, and shirts and dresses with sleeves—the forerunners of modern garments. {See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Dyes and Dyeing; Economy, Greek; Economy, Roman; Family, Greek; Family, Roman; Gems and Jewelry; Hairstyles; Patricians, Roman; Social Life, Greek; Social Life, Roman; Weapons and Armor; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)

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