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Ancient Rome


Russell, Douglas Costume History and Style; Chapter 5 pp.66-87


At first glance Romans often look very like the Greeks, and as has been noted, Greek ideals did have a strong influence on Roman culture. But as with architecture and sculpture, the Romans in their dress were more interested in images of grandeur and power as well as comfort and variety than in the Greek ideals of grace and beauty. Thus Roman clothing had the draped lines of the Greeks without their simplicity, subtlety, and beauty. The women's clothing was closest to the Greek with the chiton transformed into the stola and the himation into the palla. Although sometimes the sleeves of the stola were still pinned rather than sewn, the Roman ladies were much more apt to have the lines of the stola cut in a T-shape for comfort and practicality. Fabrics were still primarily linen or wool, but by the Empire Period, wealthy ladies were dressed in costly silk im­ported overland from China. The most char­acteristic quality of Roman female dress was the size, variety, and complexity of the Roman matron's coiffure. Here decoration, display, individual ingenuity, and the vagaries of per­sonal taste created coiffure confections that sometimes defy analysis. We know that Roman women were adept with curling irons, hairnets, dyes, switches, hairpins, and even blonde wigs made from the tresses of captured German women. Imperial female hairstyles epitomized the Roman sense of display.



Rome was the great cultural bridge between Greek civilization and that which was to develop in northern and Western Europe. It was through Rome that most information about the Greeks was filtered in medieval and Renaissance times. In the archaeological revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was Roman, rather than Greek classicism that was the major source of inspiration in clothing, furniture, and interior design. Even in the twentieth century when we have moved beyond the beaux-arts tradition with its eclectic use of Roman columns, capitals, pediments, and domes, we are still surrounded by Roman eagles, Roman mottoes, Roman practicality in building and engineering, and Roman ideals of business, finance, administration, and government. Roman dress, though similar to the Greek, was based on symbolism combined with a certain pragmatic practicality and lacked the beauty and fluid grace of Greek clothing at its best. Under the Republic it remained austere, simple, and symbolic. Under the Empire, however, it added richness and the symbols of grandeur and power until late imperial dress took on an almost Eastern magnificence in color, texture, and ornament. Roman dress took the beauty of draping that was the ideal of the Greeks and placed it at the service of symbolism and power imagery.

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