When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.
The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet weather, and the clammy fort’s select guests were forced to bring their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a garment known as the paenula — a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or sometimes leather or felt — and wrapped a type of large shawl, called a laena, around their neck
The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used, writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.
To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today’s excavators.
Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. “It’s an explosion of sources,” exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.
Soft and Comfortable
These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.
These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.
Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts combed out sheep’s wool to make the fibers more uniform. “Extremely professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality,” reports archeologist Annette Schieck. “The fabrics were very soft and comfortable.”
Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and Syria are “still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be worn,” Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient garb.
New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz, Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more comfortable.
Monogram or Logo?
Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved fruitless.
The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.
The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new direction, though. “This has definitely thrown us off a bit,” Mitschke says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of textile design after all.
Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world’s equivalent to modern fashion labels. It’s possible that previous clues and signs in this direction weren’t sufficiently appreciated. For instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it simply the owner’s monogram — or could it be the logo of a fashion designer?
Despite scholars’ best efforts, the Romans’ relationship to underwear remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period, show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is scarce.
Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants, since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.
Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in human history, attained such popularity in Rome.
Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly able to leave their homes without assistance.
But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some updating, says archeologist Schieck. “In many cases we owe much of our insight into the practical application of historical clothing to reenactors,” she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men in England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the country’s first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman road in the country.
Bits of Roman legionnaires’ uniforms found near a hill called Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army wasn’t nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who’d just barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game of pick-up soccer.
The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays and earth tones.
“Red was a feminine color reserved for women,” Schieck explains. Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon. This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still, women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for a different reason — when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of fish.
But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.
The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such replacement dyes in “Ars amatoria,” his instructional volume on love. “Don’t ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex,” the poet wrote. “With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it’s crazy to bear your fortune on your back!”
Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics even caused an imbalance in Rome’s budget, with considerable sums flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire from going bankrupt.
Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.
Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly men were unacceptable.
Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against metrosexual proclivities: “Don’t delight in curling your hair with tongs, don’t smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone,” advised the poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: “Leave that to (eunuchs). Male beauty’s better for neglect.”