Along with the stola, the palla was the most common piece of clothing worn by women in ancient Rome. It was a very simple garment, yet its simplicity allowed it to be used in a great many ways. The basic palla was a large, rectangular piece of woolen cloth. It was worn wrapped around the body, either over a tunica, or shirt, or a toga if the wearer was unmarried, or over a stola, a long gown, if the wearer was married. Despite its apparent simplicity, the palla has a rich history that stretches back into ancient Greece, and it was adapted into a variety of forms and uses.
As with many of the Roman clothing styles, the palla was an adaptation of a Greek garment. The himation, a large rectangular woolen cloth draped around the body, was worn by both men and women in Greece beginning in the sixth century B.C.E. The garment was soon adopted by the early Romans. For men, the garment was called a pallium, for women a palla. In both Greece and Rome the palla or pallium was put to a variety of uses. It could be used as a blanket at night, thrown on the ground for use as a carpet, wrapped around the body after a bath, strung up to use as a sail on a boat, or draped on a horse for display. All of these uses and more were recorded in ancient Greece and Rome.
Midway through the Roman Republic (509–27 B.C.E. ) the pallium went out of use as a garment for men, replaced by the toga, which became the standard male garment. (The pallium remained in use as the characteristic garment of scholars and philosophers, however.) Yet the palla remained an important garment for women, and it was woven and decorated in a variety of fabrics and patterns. Wool was the most common fabric used to make the palla. Types of wool ranged from plain, coarse wool to varieties that had been pounded or washed in ways that increased their softness or changed their texture. Pallas were also made of linen, cotton, and silk, though the latter were worn only by the wealthiest women, for silk had to be imported from the Far East.
Pallas could be of a single, simple color like white, brown, or green, but many women chose to wear much more decorative pallas. Vibrant colors were achieved through the use of exotic dyes, and some weavers excelled at creating intricate patterns similar to plaids. There were many ways of wearing the palla, but the most common was to hang one end of the palla over the front of the left shoulder, then wrap the palla behind the back, under the right arm, and either across the left forearm or over the left shoulder. Other methods might involve tying the palla around the hips, or draping it across the shoulders. Pins or clasps might be used to secure it in place. The palla could also be draped over the head, thus obeying a custom that said well-bred women should keep their head covered in public.
The palla could be used to suit almost any purpose. This is why the palla, or something much like it, has been used by humans in all manners of cultures across human history. Variations on the palla survive today as the shawls and wraps worn by women in Western society.
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Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Yates, James. "Pallium." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Pallium.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).