Clothing has always been a social mark, the sign of one’s status, a way to differentiate the powerful from the mass, the wealthy from poor, the men from women and so forth.
These differences has been and still are subtle in some cultures or opulent in others. Even when they lack technology or rich materials, people have found a way to show who they are through clothing.
In ancient Rome, one piece of clothing that played a huge role in the social status of people was toga. Historians have been able to find interesting details about the way romans wore their Togas studying pieces of art that have survived until today. They have gotten their clues from statuary art, frescos and even written descriptions or rules.
Here is a short summary of what we know today of this piece of clothing name Toga.
Who and why
Toga was adopted by the Rome’s upper class around 300 BC and was inspired by the Greek himation. What made the difference between the two was the shape: Himation was a rectangle piece, up to 18 feet long, while Toga was a semicircle and it was much larger.
It looks like at the beginning, both men and women could wear Togas but by 200 BC, it was a male exclusive garment, and not all male, only adults.
Somehow, they found out that the use of Toga was to outspread and, as consequence, Roman Senate passed laws that restricted the wearing of this piece of material even further. According to those law, adopted in the middle of the first century, only Roman male citizens could wear a Toga.
At the beginning, women too could drape themselves in this garment. Then, under male pressure and as a result of being excluded from political life, women were forced to stop using it. The only exception were freeborn girls up to 12 years old.
But, by the time emperor Augustus ruled in Rome (27 BC to 14 AD) they too had to give up the precious Toga. At that time, any grown up woman with a Toga was considered a prostitute. The only women allowed and forced to wear it were the ones that were divorced for infidelity!
The toga was a garment worthy of the masters of the world, flowing, solemn, eloquent, but with over-much complication in its arrangement and a little too much emphatic affectation in self-conscious tumults of its folds. It require real skill to drape it artfully. It required unremitting attention if the balance of the toga were to be preserved in walking, in the heat of discourse, or amid the jostling of a crowd..
Jerome Carcopino, french Historian, cited in Survey of Historic Costume, fourth edition, p.70.
The pallium, the successor of the toga, was in use for a while but eventually disappeared under a scarf used only by the Byzantine emperors.
But Toga is not yet history. Magistrates and some professors still wear it in ceremonials or official occasions.
The evolution in style
During centuries, the fashion of Toga had evolved, from a simple white semicircle to a more refined cut and a more colorful one.
First togas were made of white wool fabric, cut as half circle, the curved part having an extra band of material in a different color. This was the simplest style but the base for future evolution. Then people started playing with the draping mode, discovering new ways to wrap it and tie it, shaping sophisticated and decorative folds. Some of the folds may have been used as pockets, others may have been made into hoods, but no matter the role, creating those folds required equally an artistic eye to make it appealing and an understanding of physics to balance the bulk of the material.
Soon, they realized that they went way too far. The simple, comfortable, easy to put on toga was so altered that became a daily chore and, with that many extra material for the folds, maybe heavy and hot. Therefore, around second century AD, romans changed the way they draped the toga, creating what it is called a balteus, a easier way to drape a toga, lighter and cooler. From this style later evolved others so that by the late roman empire, the toga was somehow transformed in something called pallium. This was a piece of fabric cut as a rectangle, draped around the shoulders, crossed in front, and held in place with a belt.
In the third century AD, toga was gradually abandoned and replaced by tunic, as main male garment. In the fourth century, a toga was worn only in ceremonials by the very high officials and the emperor.
Toga was worn daily among roman citizen. They won’t live the house without it if they were to meet with the emperor, perform public of official duties, or even going to a fight in the roman arena.
Some historians have identified 6 types of Togas as following:
- Toga Pura/Toga Virilis - it was all white and it was worn only by 16 years old boys.
- Toga Pretexta - white with purple borders, worn by prepubescent boys (14 to 16)
- Toga Picta - purple and gold, worn by the emperors and high rank officials
- Toga Trebea - white with a purple trimming, a short toga
- Toga Gobiana - one fold thrown over the head
- Toga Pulla/Atra - a dark toga, worn by a person in mourning
(these are the common types that have some exceptions attached to them as well, according with the time frame they were in use)