This is the first part of a three part series on how to get the Roman (woman’s) look (pardon the cis language). Part I focuses on basic female Roman garb (the gap-sleeved tunica – one of the simplest pieces to make). Part II looks at how to up your style through the use of cosmetics and simple hair styles (with a focus on inexpensive and modern alternatives). Part three will focus on accessories, which are a game changer.
The essence of this three part series is to provide multiple ways to get the Roman look by using what is available, feasible, and accessible. This is an offshoot of “Quick, Cheap, & Easy Roman.”
A Note About Roman Clothing
Making the Gap-sleeved Tunica
How to Wear It
Two Women, Fragment of a wall fresco, Roman, 1-75 CE
Intimate portrait of a girl and woman (mother & daughter?) elegantly dressed with jewelry. Credits: Ann Raia, 2007.
A Note About Roman Clothing
The good part about Roman clothing is that it’s fairly simple to make. However, there is a complexity that comes into play when it comes to the different styles, rules about who could wear what and when, and then the theories about how the clothes were worn. Some items were strictly regulated, some were not. Even some hairstyles like the tutulus were regulated.
I highly recommend the following books:
Croom, A. (2000). Roman clothing and fashion. Tempus.
Olson, K. (2008). Dress and the Roman woman: self-presentation and society. Routledge.
D’Ambrosio, A. (2001). Women and beauty in Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
Sebesta, J., & Bonfante, L. (2001). The world of Roman costume (Wisconsin studies in classics). Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.
✦ A long rectangular tunica that has a slimmer fit, sewn at the shoulder (without sleeves), and split to the knee for ease of movement. A few examples do show sleeves.
✦ Worn under the Stola, if the Stola was worn, but it is worn without the stola as well
✦ The stola was the dress of the Matron and sign of status, it was a slip like dress, often seen with “spaghetti straps.” Unmarried women and girls would not wear it. It is unclear what unmarried women would wear.
✦ There were a few styles of stola worn but the gap-sleeved tunica appears to remain consistent in appearance.
The Gap-Sleeved Tunica
✦ Descendent of the Greek Ionic Chiton (ky-ton)
✦ Two rectangles attached at several points on top to make the sleeves and tied below the bust.
✦ The gap-sleeved tunica went out of fashion around the the end of the 1st century CE along with the Stola.
✦ It is one of the easiest items of Roman clothing to make and for many it embodies the romantic ideal of women’s Roman clothing.
As Seen in Artwork
Supplies You Will Need
✦ 2- 4 yards of Fabric
How much? fold it in half and hold it on top of your shoulders, a good length, I’ve found is somewhere from mid forearm to mid forearm.
Thin fabric you can use more (it will be less transparent once you belt the tunica, as for thick fabric you’ll want to use less as it will get bunchy.
Note: I suggest avoiding patterns but not color
✦ Thread (options: cotton quilter’s thread, linen thread)
✦ Sewing Needle
✦ Scissors (fabric scissors will make your life easier)
✦ Straight Pins
✦ Safety Pins
*Optional: sewing machine & measuring tape
Fabric Color Choices
Should I buy white fabric?
If you want to. The Romans were… colorful. And brilliant white was hard to obtain and often had associations with chastity.
Some good color options (but you do you)
Depending on your social class and time period you can go for various colors (i.e. color varies with the times, your persona, and who was in charge)
Colors suggested in literature
violets, blues, pinks, yellows, greens, browns… basically pastels
Tyrian purple (purpura)
You can wear it but here are the details
Purpura was very expensive and occasionally reserved for the emperor.
Scarlet, according to a few sources, was upperclass and masculine.
Photo Source: U.Name.MeDerivative work: TeKaBe, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Fabric Types & What is Feasible
Fine Wool (suit weight or gauze)
Fine Linen – medium weight or handkerchief (Light weight linen will be more bulky unless it’s high quality, but high quality is more expensive)
Nice (And PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE) Options
Lower cost linen or a linen/cotton blend: medium weight will hang better
Cotton by the yard: go with what feels right (keep in mind that fabric is often starched)
Cotton sheets (if poly blend, be careful around flames): This is also a perfectly acceptable option
*Silk is a very warm material and was also rare & very expensive in this time period.
Making A Gap-Sleeved Tunica
I. Lay your fabric out (a flat service is preferable but not necessary at this point)
II. Have the salvage on the top and bottom and the cut sides at the ends. it will cut down your sewing time.
III. Fold it over from cut side to cut side with one layer about 4″ shorter than the other layer.
IV. Use a safety pin to connect the top corner of the folded side. You’ll want to use safety pins as it will make adjustments to the neckline easier.
V. Line up the corners on the open side and safety pin those together.
VI. The front drape will appear at this point
VII. Fold the fabric in half again, safety pin to safety pin.
VIII. Use safety pins to connect the shoulder points on each side near the middle (this is usually wear bra straps or shirt spaghetti straps sit)
IX. It’s a remarkable small distance, about 3-4” from center (folded). This will depend on your body.
X. You can then add a safety pin at the point between the end and shoulder point.
*If you measure anything, measure the width of the shoulder points. Regardless of how much fabric you use, this won’t change.
Fitting the Tunica
XI. Put the tunica on to see where, or if, it needs adjustments at the shoulder points.
* It should be straight across the back with the drape in the front center.
* Move the safety pins at the neck point as needed until you find a fit that works for you. I usually pin it where my bra straps sit.
* Make sure both shoulder points are equal distance from the edge of the fabric.
* To change the front neckline drape (either lower or higher) move the safety pin on the open side (the overage) and redo the corner safety pin on the open side.
Finishing The Body
XII. Replace the safety pins with straight pins vertically on the front and back on each side so they match up. You can also use tailor’s chalk to mark the points. This will make your life easier further in the process.
XIII. Cut down the folded side (this is why you adjust the fit first).
XIV. Trim off the bottom if necessary, the length should be anywhere between ankle length to the top of the foot (or shorter for convenience).
XV. With your two pieces, finish by rolling/folding and sewing the edges (optional).
XVIII. Match up the bottom corners and sew up the sides until you are about 4 – 6 inches from the top (these are your arm holes)
*There is debate over if it is sewn all the way up or not.
Making the Gap-Sleeves
Rosettes or buttons? And why not fibula?
Fibula were used during the time. I have doubts that they were used on the gap-sleeve tunica. They would not give the look we see, nor have the strength at that size. There is also the strong likelihood of damaging the fabrics. However, I don’t doubt they were used for the peplos.
Buttons are rare in the archeological record according to multiple sources. They also wouldn’t necessarily create the pleating effect. This doesn’t discount their use and recent evidence I came across has given me a new perspective, such as the use of buttons over rosettes.
Rosettes are a form of pleating up fabric at each connection point. The fabric is then secured in that shape making what appears to be a rose. They seem the most likely option as they don’t damage the fabric, are very strong connectors, have some historical support, and seem the better option for the gap-sleeves. However…
Bracteate: Round gold “buttons” with a rounded (or pointed) dome and a bar across the back to attach them to clothing. Made in Afghanistan in the 1st century (CE?)
(© The Trustees of the British Museum).
Theory: If these were placed over the rosettes it would give the same look and provide the “button look” we see. Attaching gold plaques to clothing was not uncommon but is rarely discussed in Roman literature (that I’ve seen).
Since you are gathering fabric, make sure the distance is equal.
*Check this each time you make a rosettes, both before and during.
I. From the underside of the fabric (the inside of the tunica), below where the fabric will be gathered, thread your needle through.
II. Bunch up about a half an inch of fabric (more for thinner fabric, less for thicker fabric), this is best started at the farthest corners or the base of the sleeve.
III. Wrap the thread around 2 times and go through the base in a different place. Do this about 3 – 5 times going in at different spots.
IV. When you’ve finished, bring your needle down to the under side of the rosette.
V. Make a few little stitches on the underside and make a knot.
VI. Repeat at the other corner.
VII. Pick one of the shoulder points and repeat this process.
VIII. Repeat the process at the other shoulder point bring the furthest rosette to the shoulder rosette and mark the spot to make a rosette half way between.
IX. Line up the other side and bring together the corners to make sure that your second shoulder point lines up with the first shoulder rosette. X. Connect the half way point between the corner rosette and the shoulder rosette.
XI. You can leave it at three connections or you can measure it to have more. 3-4 on each side is usually sufficient. Make rosettes in each place while making sure they match up on each side of the tunica.
How to Wear The Tunica
When people say they look like “a sack of potatoes” or that “Roman is not flattering,” the number one reason, I’ve seen, is that they aren’t tying the tunica right.
Use a flat strip of fabric about 1/4” to 1/2” wide by 1 yard long (+/- ) depending on your under bust). Whether you use a flat rope, inkle weaving, or a round rope – the 1/4” width, I’ve found, to be in the ideal range. Using a wider tie is not only uncomfortable, in my experience, but changes the look and the drape of the tunica. The style is often seen tied under the bust, even if you don’t have much of a bust (and some did wear a strophium – breast band), it still provides the silhouette.
Distributing the fabric equally around the body by pleating (or pinching) it into the belt is also very important.
palla was a long rectangle anywhere from 3 to 5 yards long (four seems to be the most manageable) that was worn for decency. It could be worn over the head like a veil, as in, a decent woman wouldn’t go out of the home without a head covering. It is nice for sun protection or warmth in the modern age.
A Complete Outfit
From the skin out
I. Strophium (breast band)
III. Gap-Sleeved Tunica
IV. Stola (as described previously – Optional)
VI. All of the above (I don’t wear an underdress in the summer or a stola – they are not mandatory)
The Difficulties in Determining Women’s Shoes:
✦ The few images of feet show a leather thong sandal
✦ The outfits are often so long that the shoes are often hidden
✦ Extant finds from Rome and Roman territories tend to be from a later time period. Later, when the tunicas become shorter, the shoes become more elaborate. This is pretty common as shoes are very much a status symbol.
The best option, especially starting out, is to get a simple pair of leather thong flip flops.
If you need more support, Børn makes a leather flip flop sandal that is super comfortable, albeit expensive (DSW.com can be a great place to find deals).
*Make sure you are comfortable. That is more important than accuracy. You don’t want your back and/or feet feeling horrible before the event is even over.
*Keep in mind that shoes, for any time period/location, are the hardest part of your persona to acquire.