December 2015 Historical Sew Monthly – Roman

Roman garb

Roman garb

The December 2015 Historical Sew Monthly challenge is Re-Do, so for this challenge I’ll be going wayyyy back to May.

December – Re-Do: It’s the last challenge of the year, so let’s keep things simple by re-doing any of the previous 11 challenges.
May – Practicality: Fancy party frocks are all very well, but everyone, even princesses, sometimes needs a practical garment that you can DO things in. Create the jeans-and-T-Shirt-get-the-house-clean-and-garden-sorted outfit of your chosen period.

For my second ‘practical’ costume, I’m opting to make a costume which seemed very practical when my fellow SCA members wore it this summer; during a very hot stretch and long days outside, many women switched out of their later period costumes, and opted instead for loose robes from ancient Rome. While originally these robes might have been in wool, most of the ladies opted for linen (with a few choosing wool or cotton instead) and I decided in the interest of practicality (and staying cool under the hot sun… which will be back NEXT summer) to go with linen as well.

Background & wardrobe layers


For bottoms, Roman undergarments were a simple tied loin cloth, called ” the subligar, subligaculum, campestre, licium and cinctus”.

For women, tight band was wound and tied around the body supporting the bust. Worn under clothing, across the bust, it was called the fascia, while worn under the bust and over the clothing it was called the “strophium, mammillare, and cingulum”.

I’ve opted not to make any of these layers for this costume – I like modern undergarments well enough for the time being…


First layer

The first layer of clothing, worn closest to the skin for Roman women, was the tunica. These were long, and usually extending to the feet. There were two styles of tunica, the Peplos, and the Chiton. Tunica were brightly coloured, and made of either linen or silk.

For the average woman and slaves, this was the only garment worn outside of the home.

Men’s tunica was also embellished; a vertical broad purple stripe down the centre denoted a senator, two narrow purple stripes on either side of the tunica would be worn by an equestrian. A brightly-coloured tunica embroidered with palm leaves was worn by “the triumphator during his triumph” or by other dignitaries on rare occasions.  For women, a wide ornamental border may have been worn on the tunica, though it was optional.


The Peplos 

This under layer was made of two peices of rectangular cloth “partially sewn together on both sides”. The unsewn open sections were then folded down in the front and back, and it was fastened at the shoulders with large pins. The garment was sleeveless, and belted over or under the folds at or near the natural waist.

This is the garment I chose – and in order to keep this a cool garment in the summer heat, I opted to make this in linen.

The Chiton

More common was the tunica similar to the Greek chiton. Again, two pieces of cloth were sewn together almost to the top, though the fabric was far wider. The sewing left just enough room for armholes, and several pins or buttons were used to fasten the “sleeves” at the shoulders and down the arms.  This was also belted, though women belted it under the breasts, at the waist, or at the hips. With the wider fabric, the sleeve length was determined by the width of the fabric.

Mid layer

The next layer of clothing worn above the tunica is the ‘mid layer’.  Silk clothing was available to the rich, however was only worn by women, until the late empire as it was deemed “too feminine” for men until the 4th century.



Barbara F. McManus notes that when a Roman woman was married, she’d add the Stola to her wardrobe. This is a long, sleeveless tunic, “frequently if not always suspended at the shoulders from short straps”. She notes that this was most likely made of undyed wool, and was a symbol of her marriage.

The stola was frequently shorter than the under-tunic, in order to show the layers of the outfit. Showing layers was a display of wealth and status. Another show of wealth was a similar ornamental band on the stola like that which might have been added to the tunica.

Not all married women wore the stola, “since it was not a particularly fashionable or flattering garment, but wearing the stola was a way for a woman to publicly proclaim her respectability and adherence to tradition”.


Since I’m not married, and wouldn’t plan on portraying a married woman, I opted not to make a stola – plus one less layer will make this a much cooler outfit for summer heat!

Over layer

Over the lower layers, Roman women wore over layers when they went outside.


This was a simple square cloak worn covering the shoulders. It was popular as an over-garment in the early days of the republic. This garment was later replaced by the palla.



The palla was a simple rectangualr ‘cloak’.  Barbara F. McManus describes this worn “typically draped over the left shoulder, under the right arm and back across the body, carried by the left arm or thrown back again over the left shoulder”. It could also be pulled up over the head, or could be pinned at the shoulders creating a ‘coat’.

There was no specific size or shape for the palla, so it could be large and worn draped around the body, or small like a scarf.


A friend said that hers kept getting in her way, but in experiments with my own it seemed fairly manageable… though my own fussing about didn’t involve chasing small children, shooting archery, or teaching a class!

Hair styles

Since the clothing of Roman women was so simple, women instead turned to elaborate hairstyles and jewellery to distinguish themselves. Hair nets of finely woven gold wires, and carved bone hairpins were used to decorate and embellish elaborate hair styles.

I have no idea what my hair will be like by the time summer rolls around, so I’m not even thinking of this right now.



Barbara F. McManus noted a jointed ivory doll which wore a gold necklace, bracelets, and anklets, mimicking the fashion worn by “aristocratic women”. She noted that fashionable upper-class women wore “considerable amounts of jewellery”.


The basic design of a fibula was similar to a safety pin, and was a design that persisted “from a very early period to late antiquity”; used to fasten clothing rather than sewing. Many of these pins were beautifully decorated.

Examples of these pins have been found made of gold, adorned with amethyst or garnets.

I bought two pairs of fibulae from Master Arks – one a simple pair, and the other a bird-shaped pair, I’m wearing the simple set in the photo above. (Not that you can see it…)


Barbara commented that another common jewellery item was gold bracelets in the form of snakes.

Other jewellery

Barbara also notes that common jewellery from the first to third centuries CE included earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets and rings.  Like the fibula, examples have been found in gold decorated with gems (especially garnets) and cameos.

Pearls were prized and expensive for Roman women. Glass beads were used as well. Silver was used much less frequently than gold. Gold coins were often made into jewellery, including belts.


Since I won’t have much interest in finding the right footwear -that I can also wear for 12+ hours in feilds… I didn’t spend too much time reading about footwear. More information about it is on the Roman Empire website, but in general there were:

  • Calcei – Soft leather shoes – kind of a cross between a shoe and a sandal
  • Sandalia – Sandals – worn as indoor footwear – important to wear at all indoor social occasions.
  • Socci – Slippers – also indoor footwear, though it appears to be more casual.
  • Pero – a simple peice of leather wrapped around the foot
  • Caliga – a military boot/sandal
  • Sculponea – wooden clog worn by “poor peasants and slaves”.



The Peplos is just rectangles – in order to get the nice drape in front while keeping the garment up in the back, I made the front rectangle wider than the back.

I did consider making this just as a tube of fabric, folded over and pinned. In basting-experiments, the fabric I had leftover to use with this was just too short to use comfortably and attractively this way. It just didn’t fit the way I wanted it to. I decided that having the sides slit part way down would make the garment fit better, but instead of making the tube, and then slashing the folded side, I opted to make the garment in two parts instead.

I opted to use the width of the fabric as the length of the garment, which means that the sides of the garment needed to be hemmed. I double-rolled the fabric, and sewed it with my machine in a very closely matching colour thread so it wouldn’t show up too much. Then I used a double herringbone hand-stitch in gold and a slightly darker red buttonhole twist thread to sew up the sides – not all the way to the top of the garment. In all honesty, since this is such a simple garment the hand-stitching was really just to add some visual interest to the outfit; raising the bar a bit from a simple tube of fabric.

For the Peplos, I used a 100% linen which I hand over-dyed. This is the same fabric I used for my Viking Age mens tunic.


For the Palla, I used the full fabric, and just hemmed the ends. I used a very narrow double-roll hem, sewing it with my machine and a closely-matching thread.

For this garment I used a very fine 100% linen, which came in a fairly narrow width compared to what I normally get linen in. I bought it online from Fabric Mart.


I don’t have anything yet… if I don’t find something else suitable I’ll use one of my tablet-woven bands probably… 

Historical Sew Monthly


The Challenge: December Re-do challenge of the May Practicality challenge

The simple Roman Chiton and Palla would have been the every-day wear, plus has the added benefit of being super-practical for me when the hot weather returns!

Fabric: 100% linen

The red linen fabric is from, though I bought too bright a colour (Tomato Puree) and over-dyed it. This is also the same fabric I used for my men’s tunic back for the April challenge.

The yellow Palla fabric was from Fabric Mart, while they had a sale on linen in late August. I bought it specifically for this, as it was quite inexpensive, but had a narrower width than I would ideally like for garments. This worked perfectly for the Palla. The linen is gorgeous too – smooth and soft, with very few slubs. Lovely! I wouldn’t normally wear this colour, but I thought it would go nicely with the red.

Pattern: Just rectangles!

Year: Ancient Rome

Notions: thread, and most importantly, the lovely Roman brooches from Master Ark’s.

How historically accurate is it?: Good within acceptable restraints. I think originally these garments would be wool – for my purposes linen works better. Hems are all done by machine, for more authenticity this would be by hand, but I didn’t have the patience.

Hours to complete: Not long – the herringbone stitches probably took the most time.

First worn: Not yet, it’s far too cool out to think of these hot-weather clothes! I’ll likely wear these next July or August!

Total cost: not sure. The red fabric was leftover from another project, but probably represents about $30 of linen. The yellow I have forgotten too, but probably would be about $30-40 of linen. The thread was stash.


I did not do extensive research into this costume, and relied heavily on Barbara F. McManus’ website on Roman Clothing, as well as the Roman Empire website.


2 comments on “December 2015 Historical Sew Monthly – Roman

  1. […] Roman collection – since I only have one outfit, always forget about it, and don’t plan on costuming much more for it. […]

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