One of history’s intriguing puzzles: the world-famous Roman toga, a prestige garment, could only be worn by freeborn males who had reached the age of fifteen, when manhood officially began for Romans. The sole exception to that rule? The fashion-forward female prostitutes of Rome, who proudly wore the toga as well. How this contradiction came to be is lost to us, but one can easily see why the hookers took to it. Like the garb of a nurse, the toga made services on offer instantly recognizable.
The typical toga, an off-white hemisphere of wool, contained yards of material. Its thickness and weight would have done a good job of keeping streetwalkers warm on windy street corners, and could also have served as a comfy ad hoc trysting spot.
Even in later imperial centuries, the most sophisticated era of Roman times, togas would have been difficult to clean, post-tryst. Since no effective soap existed (and Romans disdained the early “soap” used by the barbaric German tribes), woolen garments were “washed” in stale urine and potash, then given a sulfur treatment to whiten them.
Another minor mystery: American universities have long maintained fraternities and sororities galore, all of them using Greek letters and names. Traditionally, frats have long been fond of throwing what they call “toga parties,” named after a garment that was distinctively Roman. The Greek, elite or not, wouldn’t be caught dead in a toga. Instead, males wore the himation, a billowy, bedsheet-shaped piece of wool, casually tied or wrapped around the waist and over one shoulder, allowing air to circulate and room to dangle, if you know I mean. Since the Greeks tended to scoff at the notion of briefs, unpremeditated frontal nudity was commonplace. In sharp contrast, Greek slaves and working-class men doing hard physical labor wore loincloths, separating them from men of leisure.
Our humble but ubiquitous T-shirt also had its beginnings in ancient Greece. Men, especially the manual laborers, often wore a sleeveless muscle tee that varied in length. Their tee was called a tunic; at times, it was referred to as a gymnos.
The word gymnos, however, had dual meanings. The Greek gymnasium took its name from gymnos, which could mean “dressed only in the gymnos,” since it sometimes served as workout gear back then. But most of the time and in most contexts, gymnos meant “naked.”
The classic woolen toga exemplified a man of leisure but it also served as an identity badge for Roman prostitutes.
The root also shows up in gymnosophists, the name that Alexander the Great and the Macedonians gave to the naked philosophers they bumped into during their lengthy stay in India. Although the Greeks used the terms brahman andgymnosophistinterchangeably, the former was an orthodox priestly caste. The latter men were equally skeptical of Brahman beliefs and of the Jain philosophy of nonviolence. They were rebels who lived “sky clad,” out in nature rather than in towns. Like the Spartans, these naked sages praised the simple life, calling nudity healthy, efficient, and a great method of building endurance. Even today, those beliefs remain embedded in the male psyche, as most women would affirm.
The trouble with togas? Keeping that white wool clean. Lacking soap, ancient dry cleaners used human urine to do the job.