The gap-sleeved tunica (tunica muliebris or woman’s tunic), a descendent of the greek ionic chiton, remains an iconic garment of the Roman Era and a fairly simple garment to construct.
From the surviving images it is often seen worn with the stola (an overgarment worn by women, who were married Roman, and likely, citizens) but it could also be worn alone or with an underdress (a sleeveless slip with split sides from about the knee down to allow for movement). The tunica muliebris went out of fashion in the late 1st century CE or early 2nd century CE along with the stola. The details of the garment often differ amongst scholars. From my research and the examination of various images, this is how I have decided to make mine. I’m not saying it is the right way (which we will likely never know what that was), or the only way.
Photo: Statue of Poppaea (30-65 CE) in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Greece) (Public Domain)
What You Will Need
2-4 yards of fabric (you will have to play around with the length to see what works best for you)
Thread & Needle
Sewing machine (optional)
Measuring Tape (optional)
What type of fabric?
Wool: light weight, suit weight, or gauze
Linen: medium weight or gauze
Other: cotton or silk (keep in mind that silk is a warm material and not ideal in the summer and very upperclass)
Why not light weight linen?
You can, however, it won’t drape as nice and it will be more puffy. High quality linen (light, medium, and gauze) will give you better drape. It will be costly though and the best kind usually comes from overseas.
*Note: It is totally acceptable to stay within your budget and use what works best for you. I’ve made tunicas out of tablecloths.
Should I buy white fabric?
Nope. Well, if you want to. The Romans were… colorful. And brilliant white was often associated with the toga, difficult to achieve, and as a sign of purity. However, it would work as an underdress (see below).
Depending on your social class and time period you can go for various colors. Some colors, like purpura, were occasionally reserved for emperors.
Several sources indicate that scarlet is upperclass and masculine, similar to purpura.
*Color meanings vary with time and are sometimes vague, however, some options are: violet, blues, pinks, yellows, greens (mixed commentary), and browns.
Tyrian purple (purpura)
Creating the Neckline
Lay your fabric out (a flat service is preferable but not necessary at this point).
Fold it in half.
Use a safety pin to connect the top corner of the folded side. You’ll want to use a safety pin to lessen the chance of bleeding on your nice pretty fabric. Of course, if your fabric is dark red it’s less of a problem.
Pull one side (top or bottom) on the open side until it’s about 4 inches longer than the other.
bring the edges together and connect them with a safety pin.
When you even out the open side, after pinning it, you’ll see the front drape.
*The closed side is pinned to keep the width.
Fold the fabric in half again, safety pin to safety pin.
Use safety pins to connect the shoulder points (about 3-4”)
If you measure anything, measure the width of the drape and the width between the points on the back. Regardless of how much fabric you have, this won’t change.
The extra fabric will be the front drape of the tunica. The bigger the difference the lower the drape.
The shoulder points and front drape after being pinned.
Fitting the Tunica
Put the tunica on to see where, or if, it needs adjustments.
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. Make sure to match it up with the other side.
I usually pin it where my bra straps sit.
To change the 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. Always leave the safety pin on the folded (or closed sid) in place.
Finishing the Body
Replace the safety pins with pins vertically on the front and back of the 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.
Cut down the fold so you have two rectangles (this is why you adjust the fit first).
After you have your two rectangles, fold or roll the edges and sew all four of each side.
Match up the bottom corners and sew up the sides until you are about 6 inches from the top.
Making the Gap-Sleeves
Rosettes or buttons? And why not fibula?
Fibula, although there is speculation and may have been used in ones without gap-sleeves and were likely used with the peplos. Also, fibula would not give the same look, have the strength at that size, and would likely rip finer fabric. Being that fabric was so expensive this seems an unlikely choice.
Buttons, which seem to be lacking in the archeological record, wouldn’t necessarily create the pleats that we see. This doesn’t discount their use, but how they would look and work is speculative.
Rosettes, which don’t damage the fabric, are very strong connectors, and have some visual support, seem a likely choice. Although, probably not the only choice.
There is a video tutorial on how I make rosettes on my YouTube channel.
From the underside of the fabric (the inside of the tunica), below where the fabric will be gathered, thread your needle through.
Bunch up about a half an inch of fabric (more for thinner fabric, less for thicker fabric), this is best started at the corners.
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.
When you’ve finished, bring your needle down through to the underside, make a few little stitches on the underside and make a knot. Repeat at the other corner.
Pick one of the shoulder points and repeat this process.
Because you are gathering fabric, bring together the corners to make sure that your second shoulder point lines up with the first shoulder rosette.
Connect the half way point between the corner rosette and the shoulder rosette. You can leave it there if you want three connections or you can measure it to have more.
3-4 on each side seems sufficient unless you are working with a lot of fabric.
Make rosettes in each place making sure that they match up on each side of the tunica.
Examples of finished rosettes on different types of fabric:
How to Wear It
With a stola (optional) – The stola was reserved for married women, however it is likely that they didn’t always wear it. Thus, unmarried women and girls would not wear it. The stola also went out of fashion probably around the end of the 1st century CE, but definitely by the 2nd century CE and has a connection to the gap-sleeved tunica.
Belted: visual images show it usually belted under the bust
Underdress (optional): a sleeveless underdress can be worn under it (split the sides up to the knee to help with mobility)
Length: anywhere between ankle length and the top of the foot
Covering: a palla (a long rectangle wrapped around the body) is optional but Roman women would wear them out of doors as a form of modesty
Different Looks by Fabric
Here shows how some of the different weight fabric types drape (left to right)
Light Weight Wool: Expensive but has a beautiful drape and is more period.
Linen Gauze: This is a European linen woven on a linen loom, also expensive but a lovely drape.
Medium Weight Linen: Fabric-Store.com, woven on a cotton loom, not as much drape but the weight pulls it down.
Light Weight Linen: More affordable, origins unknown, bulky appearance.
For More Information
Besides searching out the below resources, there are many articles that you can retrieve for free from academia.com and Google Scholar. Along with that, I highly encourage you to check out Dulcia’s Roman Closet’s Roman clothing section.
To get there go to Dulcia’s Roman Closet and select “More” from the drop down menu, then select “Roman Clothing.” There are many different areas to choose from depending on your interest and time period. Here is the link to their Introduction to Roman Clothing section.
Cleland, L., Davies, G., & Llewellyn-Jones, L. (2007). Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z (The Ancient World from A to Z) (1st ed.). Routledge.
Croom, A. (2010). Roman Clothing and Fashion. Amberley Publishing.
Dulcia’s Roman Closet. (n.d.). https://sites.google.com/view/dulciasromancloset
Olson, K. (2008). Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. Routledge.
Also see: Ancient Rome: Resources