• Weird History

What The Ancient Romans Actually Wore

List RulesVote up the Roman clothing facts that are the most surprising.

Picture a citizen of the Roman Empire. What are they wearing? Most likely, you imagined someone wearing a white toga, sandals, and maybe some kind of laurel on their head. But most ancient Romans didn't really dress that way in their day-to-day lives.

Many of us get our ideas of how Romans dressed from pop culture - movies like Spartacus or Gladiator, or TV shows like Rome. But no movie or TV show can perfectly recreate a historical era no matter how big their budget, and many don't try very hard. Additionally, there's the simple fact that the Roman Empire existed a long time ago; only a fraction of the material goods from that time has survived to the present. The information we do have about Roman wardrobes is only a small piece of the whole picture. As a result, our modern ideas about Roman wardrobes are skewed. 

But archaeologists have actually figured out a lot about how Romans dressed. Newer information might not have made its way into the movies yet, but perhaps that will change. In the meantime, here are some facts about what the Romans actually wore.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ancient Roman Women Exercised In Two-Piece Outfits That Resembled Bikinis

    Roman women had their own version of activewear that was similar to the modern bikini. The top was called a strophium, or "breastband," and was often made of linen. The bottom was called a subligaculum. (Men wore a perizoma, AKA a loincloth.) These outfits were worn for athletics, not for swimming. A Roman woman might participate in sports like running, discus-throwing, the long jump, or an ancient ball game that was one of the earliest team sports

    Archaeologists have recovered some of these garments. One thong-like subligaculum is on display at the Museum of London. A detailed mosaic showing these garments (pictured) can be seen at the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina in Sicily. 

    Surprising sartorial fact?
  • Photo: U.Name.Me/TeKaBe / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    It Took 10,000 Shellfish To Make 1 Gram Of Purple Dye For Patrician Togas

    In Roman times, clothing dyes came from natural sources. The dye used to make a classic purple tunic worn by a Roman emperor was extracted from the glands of a variety of sea snail called the banded-dye murex, which is native to the Mediterranean. These sea snails live in deeper water and were harvested via traps suspended from floats. Once enough shells were collected, they would be left in the sun to putrefy and were then crushed, leaving a distinct purple liquid. The name for this shade of purple was "Tyrian Purple," AKA "Royal Purple" or "Imperial Purple."

    The Romans learned this technique from one of their first rivals, the Phoenician civilization, a seafaring and trading people based in the eastern Mediterranean. The name "Phoenician" is a Greek word for them that literally means "purple." 

    It's estimated that 10,000 shells were needed to produce 1 gram of purple dye. The dye manufacturing site at the ancient city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon included a waste dump of crushed shells about 40 meters high.

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  • Photo: David Jackson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 UK

    Romans Wore Socks With Sandals

    Wearing sandals is a sensible choice for a Mediterranean climate during the warmer months of the year. But the Romans conquered plenty of regions with less hospitable climates, like Great Britain and parts of southern Scandinavia, and it does still gets cold in Rome. When Romans needed a warmer option, they simply wore socks with their sandals. These socks were knitted with a divided toe to be worn with a sandal. The pictured socks were excavated in Egypt and date from 300-500 AD. 

    Divers excavating an underwater Roman fort in the River Tees near Darlington, UK, discovered a razor handle carved to resemble a human foot, and it's clearly wearing sandals with socks. The look also appeared on a bronze statue recently discovered in Southwark. 

    This would prove that some people in human history did in fact find this sandals-with-socks look to be cool, or at least acceptable. Looks like your dad was right.

    Surprising sartorial fact?
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Yes, There Was Underwear Under Those Togas

    In general, Roman undergarments were similar to what they wore when playing sports. Roman men and women both sometimes wore a subligaculum, also called the sublicar, underneath their tunics. Roman women also wore the strophia, or an alternative support garment called a mamillare. Roman women also sometimes wore an under-toga like a slip called a supparus or supparum. Most of these garments would have been made from either linen or leather. It's also likely that many Romans simply went commando. 

    Since nudity was somewhat taboo in Roman society, people from the lowest social strata, such as peasants or gladiators, are often depicted in Roman art wearing nothing but their underwear.

    Surprising sartorial fact?