If you had to choose one garment to represent the costume traditions of ancient Rome, that garment would be the toga. It can be seen on statues and paintings of Roman men from the earliest founding of the city of Rome in 753 B.C.E. until the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. During the years of the Roman Republic (509–27 B.C.E. ), Romans were often called gens togata, or people of the toga. The toga remains familiar to people today because it has been so widely used in Hollywood films, from early epics such as Ben-Hur (1959) to rowdy comedies such as Animal House (1978), which made the toga party a popular college ritual. The toga is undoubtedly the best-known garment from the ancient world.
The toga has its roots in garments worn by the Etruscans and the Greeks. The Greeks had worn a lengthy cloak called the himation, and the Etruscans, early inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, had adapted this into their tebenna. But the true toga was a Roman invention. In the early days of the republic, when Roman society first became quite organized and identifiable, the toga was a rather small elongated oval of woolen fabric and was easily worn over the top of the tunica, or shirt. Though there were many different ways of wearing the toga, the most common way involved holding the toga behind the back and draping one end of the toga forward across the left shoulder, so that the end hung between the legs. The remainder of the toga was crossed under, and sometimes around, the right arm, across the chest, and then back over the left shoulder. It was possible to lift a portion of the toga over the back of the head, forming a type of hood.
During the early republic, the toga was practically required for any but the lowest of Roman workers. It was always worn by more notable citizens and was forbidden to slaves and foreigners. Though women wore togas at first, they soon abandoned the garment for the palla, a type of cloak.
Though the basic shape of all togas was roughly the same, there were important variations in color and decoration that offered clues as to the wearer's place in society. The common toga was known simply as the toga virilis, and it was left in the natural color of wool. When campaigning for public office, candidates wore a toga candida, which was bleached to a bright white. Though the toga was typically worn over a tunica, candidates sometimes went bare chested beneath the toga candida to show off their battle scars. The toga picta, favored by later emperors, was a ceremonial toga, covered in ornate embroidery that was first worn by victorious generals in public ceremonies. Though most togas were light in color, the toga pulla, which was worn by mourners, was a dark shade, such as black, dark brown, or gray. Children might wear a toga praetexta, which had a broad purple border; the toga praetexta was also worn by magistrates, local judges. It was modeled closely after an Etruscan tebenna. Finally, priests wore a toga trabea that had red stripes and a purple border. The toga trabea worn by other religious figures had slightly different coloring. In addition, different types of togas might have clavi, which are stripes that run the length of the garment.
Roman costume in general grew more complicated over time, and the toga was no exception. First, the toga grew greatly in size. From an easy to wear cloak, the toga grew to a size of about eighteen feet long by about eleven feet wide. Draping the toga about the body became a difficult chore. While wealthy Romans were helped with their wrapping by servants or slaves, the common Roman person had to struggle with it on his own. Not wearing a toga wasn't an option. All Roman citizens were required to wear the toga at public ceremonies, and going without the toga in public was considered disrespectable.
The size of the toga caused other problems as well. As the togas grew larger, they got heavy and hot. The wearer's left arm was usually enclosed in fabric, and the right arm was usually used to hold the toga in place. It was difficult to do anything while wearing a toga, especially anything active. Finally, distinctions about how long togas were supposed to be, and how the front folds were supposed to drape, became very important but required that the wearer constantly worry whether their toga style was in fashion. A Roman writer and an observer of Roman costumes named Tertullian (c. 155–c. 220 C.E. ), quoted in Michael and Ariane Batterberry's Fashion: The Mirror of History, said of the toga: "It is not a garment, but a burden."
Eventually, sometime after about 200 C.E. , the toga was discarded as a common garment. Common people simply didn't have the time or the money to keep their togas in proper condition for public wear, and others grew tired of trying to accomplish their daily tasks while wearing the cumbersome cloak. The toga was still worn for ceremonial occasions, but most Romans wore the simpler tunica, sometimes with a range of other, simpler outer garments.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1947.
Smith, William. "Toga." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Toga.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.