High Fashion of Ancient Rome: Togas and Stolas
The toga is arguably the best-known garment from ancient Rome. Initially, the toga was worn both by male and female Roman citizens. Later on, however, the toga was used exclusively by men (high class female prostitutes and women divorced for adultery being the exception), while the stola was used by women only. There were various types of togas, each reflecting the wearer’s status in the civil hierarchy.
What Was the Origin of the Toga?
The toga was a gown worn by the Romans as an outer garment. While the origins of the toga are uncertain, it is clear that the Romans adopted it from the Etruscans. In Etruscan works of art , for instance, the toga may be seen as the only covering of the body. While the Romans too initially wore the toga on its own, they would later wear a tunic underneath it. The toga was traditionally made of wool, while the tunic beneath it was usually made of linen.
A fresco from a building near Pompeii, a rare depiction of Roman men in togae praetextae with dark red borders. It dates from the early Imperial Era and probably shows an event during Compitalia, a popular street-festival. Source: Brian0918 / Public Domain .
What Was the Shape of the Toga?
There are many questions about the toga that are still unresolved, as the information at present is still inadequate. For instance, the exact form of the toga is uncertain. Some ancient writers report that the toga was, in some sense a round piece of garment, whereas others state that it was semi-circular in shape. There is also the question of the manner in which the toga was worn, which changed according to time. The oldest mode of wearing the toga was simple, though it became more complicated as time went by. Based on the writings of ancient authors, as well as Roman statues wearing togas, scholars have been able to reconstruct the way this garment was worn, though without absolute certainty.
The Different Types of Togas
There are different types of togas, which were meant to represent the social status of the wearer. There were six main types of togas. The first was the toga pura , which was made of natural, undyed, whitish wool, and could be worn by any Roman male citizen. The second was the toga praetexta , which had a reddish-purple border woven onto the garment. This type of toga was worn by magistrates, freeborn youths, and some priests. A darkened toga, known as a toga pulla , was worn by those in mourning, whereas a toga candida , which was basically a toga pura whitened with chalk, was worn by those who became candidates for office.
Toga pura of ancient Rome. ( rachid amrous / Adobe)
The toga trabea was a toga with a purple border and was worn by the elites. Finally, there was the toga picta , the most sumptuous type of toga. Unlike the other types of toga, the toga picta had designs on them. Additionally, this toga was not only dyed but also embroidered and decorated. This type of toga was reserved for special occasions, for instance, for generals celebrating a triumph, for magistrates giving public gladiatorial games, and by the emperor on certain special occasions.
Toga trabea worn by the elites of ancient Rome. ( asferico / Adobe)
How Was the Women’s Garment Different?
While the female citizens of Rome initially wore the toga it eventually fell out of use. The only classes of women who were allowed, or perhaps even forced, to wear the toga were high-class prostitutes and women divorced for adultery. Therefore, when worn by these women, the toga became a symbol of shame and disgrace.
Instead, the respectable women of Rome were expected to wear stola, which was the female equivalent of the toga. Like the toga, this was an outer garment and was worn over the tunic. Unlike the toga, the stola was governed by fewer rules. For instance, while the different types of toga were meant to reflect the different statuses of its wearers, the stola was meant to reflect only one status, i.e. its wearer’s marital status. Additionally, the stola had a variety of colors and decorations, though these did not have any particular symbolic value attached to them and was a matter of personal preference. Furthermore, while wool and linen were the fabrics commonly used to make the stola silk was also an option for those who could afford it.
Ancient Rome Women’s Garment. ( Zadiraka / Adobe)
The Toga Falls Out of Favor
Although the toga may be considered to be the ‘national dress’ of Rome, it eventually fell out of use as daily wear, partly due to its impracticality. For instance, as time went by the toga grew in length, from 3.7 meters (12 feet) to 4.8-5 meters (15-18 feet), making it an incredibly cumbersome piece of garment especially for those involved in active pursuits. Additionally, being a woolen garment, it was bulky and hot which would not have been comfortable to wear during the summer.
Ancient Rome togas. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)
Top image: Etruscans Togas. (Yann Forget / Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
Updated on January 20, 2021.
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