Types of Ancient Roman and Greek Dresses for Women

engraving of ancient dresses for women

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01
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The Palla

woman in palla

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The palla was a woven rectangle made of wool that the matron put on on top of her stola when she went outside. She could use the palla in many ways, like a modern scarf, but palla is often translated as a cloak. A palla was like a toga, which was another woven, not sewn, expanse of cloth that could be pulled over the head.​

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The Stola as Roman Dress for Women

tombstone bust of woman with stola

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The stola was emblematic of the Roman matron: adulterers and prostitutes were forbidden to wear it. The stola was a garment for women worn under the palla and over the undertunic. It was usually wool. The stola could be pinned at the shoulders, using the undertunic for sleeves, or the stola itself could have sleeves.

The picture shows a tombstone bust with a stola over a palla. The stola remained popular from Rome's early years through its imperial period, and beyond.

03
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Tunic

woman in tunic inspired by ancient dress

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Although not reserved for women, the tunic was part of the ancient costume for women. It was a simple rectangular piece that might have sleeves or might be sleeveless. It was the basic garment that went on under the stola, palla, or toga or could be worn alone. While men might belt up the tunica, women were expected to have fabric extending to their feet, so if this was all she wore, a Roman woman would likely not belt it. She may or may not have had some form of underwear under it. Originally, the tunic would have been woolen and would have continued to be wool for those who couldn't afford more luxurious fibers.

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Strophium and Subligar

Sicilian mosaic of women exercising in bikini-like clothing

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The breast band for exercise shown in the picture is called a strophium, fascia, fasciola, taenia, or mamillare. Its purpose was to hold the breasts and may also have been to compress them. The breast band was a normal, if optional, item in a woman's underwear. The bottom, the loincloth-like piece is probably a subligar, but it was not a normal element of underwear, so far as is known.

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Cleaning the Dresses Women Wore

Fresco of ancient laundering process

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At least the major clothing maintenance was done outside the house. Wool clothing required special treatment, and so, after it came off the loom, it went to the fuller, a type of launderer/cleaner and went back to him when soiled. The fuller was a member of a guild and seemed to work in a kind of factory with slave underlings doing many of the necessary and dirty jobs. One task involved stamping on the clothing in a vat—like a wine press.

Another type of slave, this time, domestic, had charge of folding and pleating the clothing as necessary.