Clothing in the ancient world

Clothing in the ancient world
The clothing of men and women and seveal social levels of Ancient Egypt are depicted in this tomb mural from the 15th century BC

The clothing used in the ancient world strongly reflects the technologies that these peoples mastered. Archaeology plays a significant role in documenting this aspect of ancient life, for fabric fibres, and leathers sometimes are well-preserved through time. In many cultures the clothing worn was indicative of the social status achieved by various members of their society.


Ancient Egyptian clothing

Women entertainers perform at a celebration in Ancient Egypt; the dancers are naked and the musician wears a typical pleated garment as well as the cone of perfumed fat on top of her wig that melts slowly to emit its precious odors; both groups wear extensive jewelry, wigs, and cosmetics; neither wear shoes - Thebes tomb c. 1400 B.C.

In Ancient Egypt, flax was the textile in almost exclusive use. Wool was known, but considered impure as animal fibres were considered taboo, and could only be used for coats (they were forbidden in temples and sanctuaries). People of lower class wore only the loincloth (or schenti) that was common to all. Shoes were the same for both sexes; sandals braided with leather, or, particularly for the bureaucratic and priestly classes, papyrus. The most common headgear was the klafta, striped fabric square worn by men.

Certain clothing was common to both genders such as the tunic and the robe. Around 1425 to 1405 BCE, a light tunic or short-sleeved shirt was popular, as well as a pleated skirt.

Clothing for adult women remained unchanged over several millennia, save for small details. Draped clothes, with very large rolls, gave the impression of wearing several items. It was in fact a haïk, often of very fine muslin. The dress was rather narrow, even constricting, made of white or unbleached fabric for the lower classes, the sleeve starting under the chest in higher classes, and held up by suspenders tied onto the shoulders. These suspenders sometimes were wide enough to cover the breasts and were painted and colored for various reasons, for instance to imitate the plumage on the wings of Isis.

Clothing of the royal family was different, and was well documented; for instance the crowns of the pharaohs (see links below), the nemes head dress, and the khat or head cloth worn by nobility.

Perfume and cosmetics

The doing of the embalming made it possible to develop cosmetic products and perfumery very early. Perfumes in Egypt were scented oils that were very expensive. In antiquity, people made great use of it. The Egyptians used make-up much more than anyone else at the time. Kohl, used as eyeliner, eventually was obtained as a substitute for galena or lead oxide that had been used for centuries. Eye shadow was made of crushed malachite, and lipstick of ochre. Substances used in some of the cosmetics were toxic and had adverse health effects with prolonged use. Beauty products generally were mixed with animal fats in order to make them more compact, more easily handled and to preserve them. Nails and hands also were painted, with henna. Only the lower class had tattoos. It also was fashionable at parties for men and women to wear a perfumed cone on top of their heads. The cone usually was made of ox tallow and myrrh and as time passed, melted and released a pleasant perfume. When the cone melted it was replaced with a new one (see the image to the right with the musician and dancers).


Queen Ahmose, Pharaoh Thutmose I, and daughter Neferubity - note the youthful sidelock on the child and the royal attire and wigs on the adults

Wigs were used by both sexes of the upper class. Made of real hair, they contained other decorative elements. In the court, the more elegant examples had small goblets at the top filled with perfume. Heads were shaven; shaved heads are a sign of nobility[1]. Usually children were represented with one lock of hair remaining on the sides of their heads (see the image to the right).


Wigs contained ornamental decorations. A peculiar ornament which the Egyptians created was gorgerin, an assembly of metal discs which rested on the chest skin or a short-sleeved shirt, and tied at the back. Some of the lower class people of this time also created many different types of piercings and body decorations; some of which even included genital piercings, commonly found on women prostitutes of the time.

Jewelry Jewelry|Jewels]] were heavy and rather bulky, which would indicate an Asian influence. The lower classes wore small and simple glassware; bracelets also were heavy. The most popular stones used were Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian, and Turquoise. They wore a large disk as a necklace of strength, sometimes described as an aegis. Gold was plentiful in Nubia and imported for jewelry and other decorative arts.

(Egypt) See also

Ancient Minoan clothing

As elsewhere, Cretan clothes in the ancient times were well documented in their artwork where many items worn by priestesses and priests seem to reflect the clothing of most. Wool and flax were used. Spinning and weaving were domestic activities, dyeing was the only commercial process in keeping with everywhere else in antiquity. Fabrics were embroidered. Crimson was used the most in dyeing, in four different shades.

Female Minoan dress

Fresco of three Cretan women in the open blouse that was typical in the later Minoan Culture - their skirts would have begun at the waist, were flounced, and of many colorful patterns

Early in the culture, the loincloth was used by both sexes. The women of Crete wore the garment more as an underskirt than the men, by lengthening it. They often are illustrated in statuettes with a large dagger fixed at the belt. Undoubtedly providing for personal safety was one of the characteristics of female clothing in the Neolithic era, because one also found traces of it in the peat bogs of Denmark up to the Bronze Age.

From 1750 BC, the long skirt was trimmed and began to resemble the blouse in appearance. The belt, a long or short coat and a hat supplemented the female outfit. The Cretan clothing for women was the first true bent garment in history. Ancient brooches, widespread in the Mediterranean, were used throughout the period.

Dresses also were long and low-necked such as that of the 19th century. They were so low that the bodice was open almost all the way to the waist.

Male Minoan dress

The loincloth worn by both men and women of Crete is shown in this fresco of a religious event where the women are light-skinned and the man is deeply tanned

Practically all men wore a loincloth. Unlike the Egyptians, the shanti varied according to its cut and normally was arranged as a short skirt or apron, ending in a point sticking out similar to a tail. The fabric passed between the legs, adjusted with a belt, and almost certainly, was decorated with metal. It was worn by all men in society.

In addition to Cretan styles, Cycladelic clothing was worn as pants across the continent. A triangular front released the top of the thighs. One could say it was clothing of an athletic population, because of this and the fact that the chest always was naked. It was sometimes covered with a cask, probably ritualistically. However, long clothing was worn for protection against bad weather and eventually a coat of wool was used by the Greeks.

Men had long hair flowing to the shoulders; however several types of headgear were usual, types of bonnets and turbans, probably of skin. Shoes were boots of skin, probably of chamois, and were used only to leave the house, where one went barefoot, just as in the sanctuaries and the palaces. People studying this matter have noticed the outdoor staircases are worn down considerably, interior ones hardly at all. It's known that later, the Greeks took off their sandals after entering a house - this habit already was in use in Crete. The boots had a slightly raised end, thus indicating an Anatolian origin, similar to those found on the frescoes of Etruria

Ancient Greek clothing

Ancient Greece is famous for its philosophy, art, literature, and politics. As a result, classical period Greek style in dress often has been revived when later societies wished to evoke some revered aspect of ancient Greek civilization, such as democratic government. A Greek style in dress became fashionable in France shortly after the French Revolution (1789–1799), because the style was thought to express the democratic ideals for which that revolution was fought, no matter how incorrect the understanding of the historical reality was.

Clothing reformers later in the 19th century admired ancient Grecian dress because they thought it represented timeless beauty, the opposite of complicated and rapidly changing fashions of their time, as well as the more practical reasoning that Grecian-style dresses required far less cloth than those of the Rococo period.

Ancient Greek clothing consisted of lengths of linen or wool fabric, which generally was rectangular and secured with a sash and a fibula, an ornamental clasp or pin. Typical of such garments were the peplos, a loose garment worn by women; the chlamys, a cloak worn by men; and the chiton, a tunic worn by both genders and all ages. Often the chiton is shown as pleated. Men’s chitons hung to the knees, whereas women’s chitons fell to their ankles. Amazons were depicted with their right breast bared so that the garment did not interfere with the weapons they wielded.

The basic outer garment during winter was the himation, a larger cloak worn over the peplos or chlamys. The chiton was a simple garment, but the peplos was more distinctively Greek, with its shoulder clasps. The himation has been most influential perhaps on later fashion. Women dressed similarly in most areas of ancient Greece although in some regions, they also wore a loose veil as well at public events and market.

During Classical times in Greece, male nudity received a religious sanction following profound changes in the culture. After that time, male athletes participated in ritualized athletic competitions such as the classical version of the ancient Olympic Games, in the nude as women became barred from the competition except as the owners of racing chariots. Their ancient events were discontinued, one of which (a footrace for women) had been the sole original competition. Myths relate that after this prohibition, a woman was discovered to have won the competition while wearing the clothing of a man—instituting the policy of nudity among the competitors that prevented such embarrassment again.

Ancient Roman and Italic clothing

In this image from the Tomb of the Triclinium at Tarquinia an Etruscan couple dressed in their finest clothing dance into the hereafter - c. 480 BC

The clothing of ancient Italy, like that of ancient Greece, is well known from art, literature & archaeology. Although aspects of Roman clothing have had an enormous appeal to the Western imagination, the dress and customs of the Etruscan civilization that inhabited Italy before the Romans are less well imitated (see the image to the right), but the resemblance in their clothing may be noted. The Etruscan culture is dated from 1200 BC through the first two phases of the Roman periods. At its maximum extent during the foundation period of Rome and the Roman kingdom, it flourished in three confederacies of cities: of Etruria, of the Po valley with the eastern Alps, and of Latium and Campania. Rome was sited in Etruscan territory. There is considerable evidence that early Rome was dominated by Etruscans until the Romans sacked Veii in 396 BC. In Ancient Rome, boys after the age of sixteen had their clothes burned as a sign of growing up.[2] Roman girls also wore white until they were married to say they were pure and virginal.[3]

Toga and tunics

Probably the most significant item in the ancient Roman wardrobe was the toga, a one-piece woolen garment that draped loosely around the shoulders and down the body. Historians believe that originally the toga was worn by all Romans during the combined centuries of the Roman monarchy and its successor, the Roman Republic. At this time it is thought that the toga was worn without undergarments.

Free citizens were required to wear togas[4] because only slaves and children wore tunics.[5]

The tunic was adapted into many styles and was the basic garment of adults in ancient Rome after the 2nd century BC

By the 2nd century BC, however, it was worn over a tunic, and the tunic became the basic item of dress for both men and women. Women wore an outer garment known as a stola, which was a long pleated dress similar to the Greek chitons.

Although togas are now thought of as the only clothing worn in ancient Italy, in fact, many other styles of clothing were worn and also are familiar in images seen in artwork from the period. Garments could be quite specialized, for instance, for warfare, specific occupations, or for sports. In ancient Rome women athletes wore leather briefs and brassier for maximum coverage but the ability to compete.[6]

Mosaic of ancient women dressed for sports - Roman villa near Piazza Armerina - Sicily

The ancient Roman women pictured to the right are engaging in exercise, games, and competitions. Their garments are adapted to the freedom of movement needed, remarkable to some as resembling very modern styles for the same activities.

Girls and boys under the age of puberty sometimes wore a special kind of toga with a reddish-purple band on the lower edge, called the toga praetexta. This toga also was worn by magistrates and high priests as an indication of their status. The toga candida, an especially whitened toga, was worn by political candidates. Prostitutes wore the toga muliebris, rather than the tunics worn by most women. The toga pulla was dark-colored and worn for mourning, while the toga purpurea, of purple-dyed wool, was worn in times of triumph and by the Roman emperor.

Togas could be wrapped in different ways, and they became larger and more voluminous over the centuries. Some innovations were purely fashionable. Because it was not easy to wear a toga without tripping over it or trailing drapery, some variations in wrapping served a practical function. Other styles were required, for instance, for covering the head during ceremonies.

Livia Drusilla (58 BC–29 AD) wearing a stola and palla - early 1st century - Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid
Augustus 63 BC–14 AD) wearing a toga and calcei patricii (shoes reserved for Patricians), a cupsa (container for documents) lies at his feet - late 1st century AD - Museo Nazionale Romano Rome

After the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire in c. 44 BC, only men who were citizens of Rome wore the toga. Women, slaves, foreigners, and others who were not citizens of Rome wore tunics and were forbidden from wearing the toga. By the same token, Roman citizens were required to wear the toga when conducting official business. Over time, the toga evolved from a national to a ceremonial costume. Different types of togas indicated age, profession, and social rank.

Roman writer Seneca criticized men who wore their togas too loosely or carelessly. He also criticized men who wore what were considered feminine or outrageous styles, including togas that were slightly transparent.

The late toga of adult citizens, the toga virilis, was made of plain white wool and worn after the age of fourteen. A woman convicted of adultery might be forced to wear a toga as a badge of shame and curiously, as a symbol of the loss of her female identity.

The ancient Romans were aware that their clothing differed from that of other peoples. In particular, they noted the long trousers worn by people they considered barbarians from the north, including the Germanic Franks and Goths. The figures depicted on ancient Roman armored breastplates often include barbarian warriors in shirts and trousers.

Symbolism and influence

Bust of Marianne, a French national symbol, adopting a Phrygian cap in imitation of freed slaves of Rome - Palais du Luxembourg, Paris

Roman clothing took on symbolic meaning for later generations. Roman armour, particularly the muscle cuirass, has symbolized amazing power. In Europe during the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), painters and sculptors sometimes depicted rulers wearing pseudo-Roman military attire, including the cuirass, military cloak, and sandals.

Later, during the French Revolution, an effort was made to dress officials in uniforms based on the Roman toga, to symbolize the importance of citizenship to a republic. Adopted by the rank and file revolutionaries, the 18th-century liberty cap, a brimless, limp cap fitting snugly around the head, was based on a bonnet worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome, the Phrygian cap.

The modern Western bride also has inherited elements from ancient Roman wedding attire, such as the bridal veil and the wedding ring.

This article incorporates information from this version of the equivalent article on the French Wikipedia.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 20
  3. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 23
  4. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 20
  5. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 21
  6. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 21


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