Women's Clothing in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, making cloth for garments was one of the principal occupations of women. They did this by spinning and weaving wool to make rectangles of cloth. Such fabric lent itself to the basic garments, tunics, and shawls. Women also decorated their material with patterns and embroidery. Other fabrics besides wool were available to many, depending on wealth and location: silk, cotton, linen, and flax. Some garments required pinning or sewing. On their feet, women might wear nothing at all, sandals, or other types of footwear.

Although fabric tends to disintegrate over time, some ancient scraps have survived:

" The oldest example of textiles yet identified by archaeologists is at the Dzudzuana Cave in the former Soviet state of Georgia. There, a handful of flax fibers was discovered that had been twisted, cut and even dyed a range of colors. The fibers were radiocarbon-dated to between 30,000-36,000 years ago."

However, most of what we know about what people in the ancient world wore comes not from such rarities, but instead from letters, literary references, and art. If you've seen a Knossian fresco, you've probably noticed bare-chested women in very colorful garb. (For information on the motifs on these garments, see "Aegean costume and the dating of the Knossian frescoes," by Ariane Marcar; British School at Athens Studies, 2004) While color remains for such frescoes, statues have lost their painted finish. If you've seen a Greek or Roman statue of a clothed woman you probably noticed the long, sinuous garments and the lack of a form fit. Mesopotamian statues show one bare shoulder. Here is some information on the clothing of Greek and Roman women as well as a picture of objects an Egyptian woman might have worn.

Consider the small pictures shown beside the articles as supplemental since most of the articles have other illustrations.

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A Quick Look at Clothing for Roman Women

Galla Placidia
Cleaning Roman Dress for Women.

The basic clothing for Roman women consisted of the tunica interior, stola, and palla. This applied to respectable Roman matrons, not prostitutes or adulterers. Matrons could be defined as those with the right to wear the stola.

Roman lady on a couch (1814)
Roman lady on a couch (1814). NYPL Digital Gallery

Most people wore a tunic, tunica in Rome, and chiton in Greece. The tunic was the basic garment. It could also be an undergarment. Over it 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. More »

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Dress of the Women From 'A Day in Old Athens,' by William Stearns Davis (1910)

Image ID: 817499 Greek women at home.
Image ID: 817499 Greek women at home. © NYPL Digital Gallery

The dress of the women is like that of the men. They had a chiton, which probably involved a certain amount of real sewing, although most of the needlework done by Greek women was in the form of embroidery.

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Ancient Greek Clothing

Ancient Greek Clothing
© NYPL Digital Galery

Most of the work of making clothing was done by the carders/spinners/dyers/weavers and the people who cleaned the garments. Sometimes and in some garments, folding the garment into elaborate pleats made it less than simple, but as far as sewing goes, it was non-existent or minimal. A large part of women's work was making the clothing, but that meant spinning and weaving, not taking measurements and wastefully cutting fabric. The Ionian Chiton was similar to the Dorian, but it was lighter, thinner, and designed to be worn with outer garments.

This article provides a look at very basic pictures selected to help you make your own Greek woman's costume.

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Minoan Women

Fresco From Knossos Palace
Fresco From Knossos Palace. CC Cavorite at Flickr.com

This set of pictures of frescoes is not devoted to women's clothing, but you'll see pictures of women engaged in various activities and speculation about the gender of the bull-leapers.

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Egyptian Clothing for Women

Ancient musicians and singers, Tomb of Nevothph, Beni-Hassan-el-Qadin. (1844-1889)
Ancient musicians and singers, Tomb of Nevothph, Beni-Hassan-el-Qadin. (1844-1889). NYPL Digital Gallery

View an illustration of several of the articles an ancient Egyptian might wear. You'll see that ancient Egyptian clothing for women includes the open footwear or sandals popular in the ancient Mediterranean, the linen skirts, and aprons.

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Annotated Short Bibliography on Clothing in Ancient Greece

Dancing figures from Greek sculptures and vases showing Bacchanalia. (Early 18802)
Dancing figures from Greek sculptures and vases showing Bacchanalia. (Early 18802). © NYPL Digital Gallery

Clothing in ancient Greece varied from one period to the next and from one region to another, but there were also certain fundamentals. Basic clothing was wool or linen. Although fabric could be purchased, Greek women spent much of their days spinning and weaving. Poor women might sell the end results of their spinning and weaving. If the topic interests you, this page will provide you with references for more details.

Roman Sandals and Other Footwear
Roman Sandals and Other Footwear. NYPL Digital Library

A list of nouns about clothing and ornaments in Latin with English translation. More »

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Woman Wearing the Palla
Woman Wearing the Palla. PD "A Companion to Latin Studies," edited by Sir John Edwin Sandys

Other articles have more information related to the clothing worn by ancient women. Try these pages for starters:

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Women's Clothing in the Ancient World." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/ancient-womens-clothing-117823. Gill, N.S. (2017, February 28). Women's Clothing in the Ancient World. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-womens-clothing-117823 Gill, N.S. "Women's Clothing in the Ancient World." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-womens-clothing-117823 (accessed April 21, 2018).