Before the Romans developed their long-lasting rule on the Italian peninsula, several other groups of people organized towns and farms into small-scale societies. Yet even the most notable and longest lasting of these pre-Roman societies, known as the Etruscans, remains somewhat of a mystery to historians. This is what we know: sometime before 1000 B.C.E. people began to move to the central part of present-day Italy from areas north and east; around 800 B.C.E. more people arrived in the area from Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey. These people, known now as Etruscans, brought with them traditions and costumes from ancient Greek, Mesopotamian (centered in present-day Turkey), and Asian cultures, and they developed a thriving culture of their own. Modeled on the Greek system of loosely linked city-states, the Etruscan culture thrived for several hundred years. Beginning in about 400 B.C.E. , however, they came under frequent attack from territories to the north and south. They were brought under Roman rule in 250 B.C.E. , and by 80 B.C.E. their culture had been virtually destroyed.
Historians have long thought of the Etruscans as mysterious because they left so few written records. We don't know how they built their society or why it fell apart. We don't know much about the ways that they lived and especially about how the poorer people lived. But we do know quite a bit about the way they dressed, wore their hair, and ornamented themselves. The evidence that survived concerning the Etruscans—paintings, sculpture, and pottery, most of it recovered from burial tombs of the wealthy—indicates that the Etruscans had well-developed costume traditions that combined influences from Greece and Asia. Their costumes had a great influence on the Romans who came to dominate Italy, and the rest of the region, in later years.
Wealthier Etruscans dressed very well indeed. Their clothes were made of fine wool, cotton, and linen, they were often very colorful, and they were based on Greek models. Women, for example, typically wore a gown called a chiton under a shawl called a himation. Both of these garments would have been dyed in bright colors, and evidence indicates that Etruscan women loved to wear elaborately patterned garments. Men wore a loin skirt that covered their genitals and often wore a Greek-style tunic. The lacerna, a short woolen cloak, was also very common. By the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. a distinctive garment called a tebenna became the most common male garment. Similar to the Greek chlamys, the tebenna was a long cloak that was draped over the left shoulder and then wrapped around the torso under the right arm. It was often decorated with clavi, stripes of color that indicated the wearer's status or rank in society. The tebenna is thought to be the model for the Roman toga, and Romans also adopted the use of clavi.
One of the highlights of Etruscan costume was its striking jewelry. The Etruscans developed a gold-working technique known as granulation, which involved soldering tiny grains of gold on a smooth background to create a glittering effect. Etruscans wore bracelets, necklaces, earrings, clasps and pins, and other types of jewelry. They also wore makeup and complicated, braided hairstyles. Early Etruscan men wore beards, though later a clean-shaven face became the norm.
Many of the costume traditions of the Etruscans were lost to history, but many others lived on in the traditions of the Romans.
Bonfante, Larissa. Etruscan Dress. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
The Mysterious Etruscans. http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/index.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).