Your Own Toga

Last updated XVI Augustus 1999.

The toga was the most formal article of clothing for a man in Ancient Rome, equivalent to the tuxedo in modern-day Western culture.

Material: The Toga was made of lightweight wool.

Color: During the Republic, the Toga was white and known as the toga alba or toga pura. Candidates for office used to bleach theirs so blindingly white as to stand out – this was called a toga candida. Once elected to the curule chair, the toga praetexta was worn – it was white with a thin purple border, which was the toga worn by all Roman Senators. This same style was worn by children, but with a narrower stripe, before they passed through the ritual of adulthood, when young men donned the toga alba, known in this context as the toga virilis. A general returned from a successful campaign would have a parade (or triumph) and wear an all purple toga, the toga picta, possibly with a gold border. For a funeral, the toga pulla, an all black affair was worn. Finally, there was a multi-colored red and purple striped toga with a purple border worn by augurs and perhaps the pontifex. Later, during the Empire, togas became more complicated and varied.

Shape: For an average-sized man, a toga would be about fifteen feet long and seven to seven-and-a-half feet wide in roughly an oval shape with the top half more squared than oval.

Putting it on: Most Romans who wore the toga were wealthy enough to own a slave to help them don it. The length of the toga was stretched against the back of the wearer parallel to the floor and the left end thrown over the left shoulder. The right end was gathered into a roll and brought under the right arm. This mass was then thrown over the left shoulder and onto the back. Some of this material was left to drape over the left arm, which is always kept out when standing to hold the material in place. Some of the left hand material may have been tucked into a simple cord belt.

Cold Weather: Simple loin cloths may have been worn, although it would probably have been difficult to remove them to, say, relieve oneself, without having the toga arrangement fall apart. Again, having a slave handy would have been helpful to restore order. It is known that some such as Cato the Younger went without any undergarments at all. Those who did could wear a simple sleeveless tunic which fell to just above the knee and was kept close to the body with a simple cord about the waist. In very cold weather, a large cloak was worn over the toga as well.

What About Pockets? There are no pockets per se, but the folds of the toga as they come from under the right arm and are swept over the left shoulder were called the sinus and could be used to store some small items.

Significance: In general, in its original form, the toga represented that a man was a full-fledged citizen of Rome and not a foreigner. It was also the clothing worn by Roman ambassadors and officials as they traveled about the world and as such represented Rome's authority. Of course there were other details of meaning as indicated above.

Whatever Happened to the Toga? The toga was not easy to wear. As noted, one had to keep one's left arm out, one needed help to put it on and it didn't exactly keep one warm. As the Empire aged, it was worn less and less despite attempts by some Emperors to preserve the tradition. By the time of Justinian's Empire with its capital at Constantinople, it was only being worn by one man, and that as part of his official government position. We can be sure he changed into something else the minute his official duties were over.

What about Women?

The only women who ever wore togas were girls (but this ended by the early Empire), and disreputable women, which is to say prostitutes, and those found guilty of adultery. During the Early Republic, women's clothing covered most of the body, similar to the traditional garb of nuns. Apparently the wife of C. Sulpicius Gallus was divorced on the grounds that she had gone about in public with her head uncovered, although this may have been a pretext.

Women wore something called the tunica which after the first century BC was called the stola. The stola was something like a one-piece dress with wide, kimono-like sleeves. It was made by sewing together two equal-sized cutouts of cloth to form the front and back. Stitches covered 60% of the length from the bottom. At the top, the two pieces were not joined, but folded over to form a sort of cuff. The part above the shoulders were stitched together or attached via brooches. This scheme left holes for the neck and arms. The stola went all the way to the ground, the lowest portion being a border called the instita, which covered the feet, probably sewn on and a different color from the rest of the garment, and a means of ornamentation. The instita was probably also a sign of respectability as prostitutes would go about with feet uncovered, probably a titillating site for Roman males not used to seeing the feet of Roman women in public, and further enhanced by jewelled anklets.

Around the neck was worn the palla, a sort of long, square shawl of woolen cloth. It could be used to cover the head, but Augustan sculptures (e.g. the Ara Pacis) seem to indicate that this was optional, at least by the Imperial period. Around the waist was sometimes worn a zona, a girdle or wide belt, just below the bust.

Removing the stola would reveal a series of undergarments. Closest to the skin was a light, sleeveless under-tunic, the intusium (a kind of shift) and possibly a fascia or strophium which was sort of a brassière. Possibly this latter was only worn during exercise periods in the gymnasium baths, however, from which renderings still exist.

Just as today, womens fashions seemed to change all the time. In Epidicus, a play by Plautus in the second century BC, a character is made to say

What are they at, sir, these women that invent new names for garments every year? The Looseknit tunic, the Closeknit tunic, the Linenblue, the Interior, the Goldedge, the Marigold or Crocus tunic, the Shift – or Shiftless – the Mantilla, the Royal or the Exotic, the Wavy or the Downy, the Nutty or the Waxy – and not a kernel of sense in all of it.
Thus it seems that the cut and shape of the stola may have remained the same for centuries, but that the color and material texture varied considerably.

The most frequent fabric used was wool, but texture and weight would vary with heavier weights being used in winter and lighter in summer. And there were other fabrics. In particular, silk was indirectly imported all the way from China over the famous Silk Road and was so rare as to be worth its weight in gold. Wearing this silk which was often quite thin and transparent could be considered scandalous and even un-Roman. One of the most infamous emperors, Elagabalus wore silk all the time while his more virtuous successor Alexander Severus hardly wore it at all.

In terms of colors, Roman matrons could choose from white, apparently a favorite, as well as sea-green (cumatile), saffron, Pahian myrtle, amethyst, pale rose, Thracian crane, acorn, almond, purple, dark rose (nigrantis rosae) brilliant scarlet (nimiae eius nigritiae austeritas illa nitorque) and even the color of congealed blood, said to be blackish at first glance, but gleaming when held up to the light. Most of these colors came from vegetable and mineral dyes whereas those of a purple, blue and red tints were derived from the snail (murex), a dye first employed and heavily traded by the Phoenicians. Probably because of its rarity, the murex-dyed garments, especially in combination with gold, were considered the height of extravagance and were even singled out at one time in the Oppian law prohibiting extravagance.

Apparently there were even color analysts as the poet Ovid recommended white for women of dark complexions and black for those who were fair.

Also, although it's not clear just which colors they were, apparently some were associated with prostitutes.

Where to Read More: There are many fine books which discuss these topics further and in some cases even include pictures:

Julilla also has some additional information on the toga at her costumes page although somewhat at variance with what you have read here.

Toga worn in the Imperial style pictures: Nova Roma

On the more general topic of Roman Daily Life, you can find a bibliography at this site's Daily Life page.

Copyright © 1994-2014 by Richard M. Heli.
Permission granted to reprint so long as this notice is preserved in its entirety and I am informed prior to the re-use. Published since June 1994.