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.

Funerary fresco of doctor Patron, from Porta Capena at Rome, Detail of procession of priestesses
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

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. More »

Tranquility by John William Godward
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Most people wore a tunic—a 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 »

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.

Ionian Chiton
Marjorie & C. H. B.Quennell, Everyday Things in Archaic Greece (London: B. T. Batsford, 1931).

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. More »

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. More »

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Clothing in Ancient Greece

High Angle View Of Elegant Statue Against Cloudy Sky
Mathurot Watanakomen / EyeEm / Getty Images

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.

Ancient leather open topped sandals - Carbatina
Tadulia / Getty Images

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

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Close-Up Of Multicolored Fabric For Sale In Store
Peerayut Aoudsuk / EyeEm / Getty Images

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

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