How to Wear a Toga the Official Ancient Roman Way

What does it take to wear an ancient Roman toga with dig­ni­ty and grace?

Judg­ing from the above demon­stra­tion by Dr Mary Har­low, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Ancient His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leices­ter, a cou­ple of helpers, who, in the first cen­tu­ry CE, would have invari­ably been enslaved, and thus inel­i­gi­ble for togas of their own.

The icon­ic out­er gar­ments, tra­di­tion­al­ly made of wool, begin as sin­gle, 12–16m lengths of fab­ric.

Extra hands were need­ed to keep the cloth from drag­ging on the dirty floor while the wear­er was being wrapped, to secure the gar­ment with addi­tion­al pleats and tucks, and to cre­ate the pouch-like umbo at chest lev­el, in a man­ner as aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing as every oth­er fold and drape was expect­ed to be.

As for­mal citizen’s garb, the toga was suit­able for vir­tu­al­ly every pub­lic occa­sion, as well as an audi­ence with the emper­or.

In addi­tion to slaves, the toga was off-lim­its to for­eign­ers, freed­men, and, with the notable excep­tion of adul­ter­ess­es and pros­ti­tutes, women.

Wealth­i­er indi­vid­u­als flaunt­ed their sta­tus by accent­ing their out­fit with stripes of Tyr­i­an Pur­ple.

The BBC reports that dying even a sin­gle small swatch of fab­ric this shade “took tens of thou­sands of des­ic­cat­ed hypo­branchial glands wrenched from the cal­ci­fied coils of spiny murex sea snails” and that thus dyed, the fibers “retained the stench of the invertebrate’s marine excre­tions.”

Achiev­ing that Tyr­i­an Pur­ple hue was “a very smelly process,” Dr. Har­low con­firms, “but if you could retain a lit­tle bit of that fishy smell in your final gar­ment, it would show your col­leagues that you could afford the best.”

Giv­en the laun­dry-relat­ed rev­e­la­tions of some toga inves­ti­gat­ing stu­dents in Sal­is­bury Uni­ver­si­ty’s Depart­ment of The­atre and Dance study abroad pro­gram, above, a fishy odor might not have been the great­est olfac­to­ry chal­lenge asso­ci­at­ed with this gar­ment.

The stu­dents also share how toga-clad Romans dealt with stairs, and intro­duce view­ers to 5 forms of toga:

Toga Vir­ilis  — the toga of man­hood

Toga Prae­tex­ta — the pre-toga of man­hood toga

Toga Pul­la — a dark mourn­ing toga

Toga Can­di­da- a chalk whitened toga sport­ed by those run­ning for office

Toga Pic­ta- to be worn by gen­er­als, prae­tors cel­e­brat­ing games and con­suls. The emperor’s toga pic­ta was dyed pur­ple. Uh-oh.

Their youth­ful enthu­si­asm for antiq­ui­ty is rous­ing, though Quin­til­ian, the first cen­tu­ry CE edu­ca­tor and expert in rhetoric might have had some thoughts on their clown­ish antics.

He cer­tain­ly had a lot of thoughts about togas, which he shared in his instruc­tive mas­ter­work, Insti­tu­tio Ora­to­ria:

The toga itself should, in my opin­ion, be round, and cut to fit, oth­er­wise there are a num­ber of ways in which it may be unshape­ly. Its front edge should by pref­er­ence reach to the mid­dle of the shin, while the back should be high­er in pro­por­tion as the gir­dle is high­er 

behind than in front. The fold is most becom­ing, if it fall to a point a lit­tle above the low­er edge of the tunic, and should cer­tain­ly nev­er fall below it. The oth­er fold which pass­es oblique­ly like a belt under the right shoul­der and over the left, should nei­ther be too tight nor too loose. The por­tion of the toga which is last to be arranged should fall rather low, since it will sit bet­ter thus and be kept in its place. A por­tion of the tunic also should be drawn back in order that it may not fall over the arm when we are plead­ing, and the fold should be thrown over the shoul­der, while it will not be unbe­com­ing if the edge be turned back. On the oth­er hand, we should not cov­er the shoul­der and the whole of the throat, oth­er­wise our dress will be undu­ly nar­rowed and will lose the impres­sive effect pro­duced by breadth at the chest. The left arm should only be raised so far as to form a right angle at the elbow, while the edge of the toga should fall in equal lengths on either side. 

Quin­til­lian was will­ing to let some of his high stan­dards slide if the wearer’s toga had been unti­died by the heat of rous­ing ora­tion:

When, how­ev­er, our speech draws near its close, more espe­cial­ly if for­tune shows her­self kind, prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing is becom­ing; we may stream with sweat, show signs of fatigue, and let our dress fall in care­less dis­or­der and the toga slip loose from us on every side…On the oth­er hand, if the toga falls down at the begin­ning of our speech, or when we have only pro­ceed­ed but a lit­tle way, the fail­ure to replace it is a sign of indif­fer­ence, or sloth, or sheer igno­rance of the way in which clothes should be worn.

We’re pret­ty sure he would have frowned on clas­si­cal archae­ol­o­gist Shel­by Brown’s exper­i­ments using a twin-size poly-blend bed sheet in advance of an ear­ly 21st-cen­tu­ry Col­lege Night at the Get­ty Vil­la.

Prospec­tive guests were encour­aged to attend in their “best togas.”

Could it be that the par­ty plan­ners , envi­sion­ing a civ­i­lized night of pho­to booths, clas­si­cal art view­ing, and light refresh­ments in the Her­cu­la­neum-inspired Get­ty Vil­la, were so igno­rant of 1978’s noto­ri­ous John Belushi vehi­cle Ani­mal House?

Estne vol­u­men in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?

Relat­ed Con­tent 


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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