Dress, Posture, and Self-Presentation: Women
INTRODUCTION TO THE STOLA
Just as it was for men in Roman antiquity, the dress, hair, and makeup of women attracted particular attention and criticism in Rome, which is not altogether unsimilar to the customs of today. Roman women were supposed to be presentable and to wear clothes that matched their status, whether as or as a lower class citizen, freedwoman (former slave), or slave.
In early Rome both men and women wore togas but at some point, the toga became a male-only garment. For most of ancient Roman history, respectable Roman women wore the stola — a long dress that reached down to the feet that was worn over a tunic. The stola was usually sleeveless and could be made out of a range of materials, though it had traditionally been made out of wool, like the toga. Roman women wore a cloak called the palla over it when they went out in public.
Statue of Livia Drusilla wearing a stola and palla
The Christian author wrote an entire treatise on women’s dress. It is very long and rather repetitive but the following gives you a taste of how he encouraged the judgement of women who did not dress ‘respectably’:
8 Clothing that is not in agreement with nature and modesty deserves glaring stares, pointing fingers, and critical nods. Really, if with Menandrean luxury a man can be trailing a refined dress behind him may he hear close by the words the comic author heard: “what is this madman spoiling a splendid cloak?” But now that the eyebrow of censorial watchfulness has disappeared, how much ground for criticism does the lack of distinction provide? 4 [You can see] freedmen dressed liked equestrians, slaves scarred with floggings in the dress of the nobility, captives dressed as freeborn, and red-necks as city dwellers, idiots as men of the forum, citizens as soldiers. The corpse-bearer, the pimp, and the trainer of gladiators: they dress like you.
9 Look at women too. There you may see what Severus Caecina stressed before the Senate: matrons appearing in public without stolas. 2 Under the decrees of the augur Lentulus, those who had disgraced themselves this way were punished as if for sexual misbehaviour, since the garment that was the witness and guard of dignity had been felt to be an impediment to practice fornication and so had sedulously been dropped by some women. 3 But now, committing lechery against themselves and making themselves more easily accessible, they have renounced the stola, the linen attire, the rustling bonnet, the hairy head-dress, yes, even the litters and portable chairs, in which they had been kept private and apart even in public. 4 But some put out their own lights, while others kindle lights that are not theirs […] 4.10 And when the manager of the public toilets fans her silken gown, and comforts with necklaces a neck that is less pure than the toilets, and uses bracelets — which, as parts of what was given to brave men, even matrons would indiscreetly have owned — to insert her hands that are guilty of every shameful deed, and fits on her maculate leg a white or reddish shoe, then why do you not look at these garments?
Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 3.8-4.10
Not every woman wanted to dress in a stola. The satirist attacked women who dared take off women’s traditional clothing and put on exercise gear and armour. These women even trained in Roman sports, which garnered them harsh criticism for not conforming to the expectations of their gender.
I don’t even have to speak of the purple wraps and the wrestling-oils used by women. Who has not seen one of them striking a stump, piercing it through and through with a foil, lunging at it with a shield, and going through all the proper motions? — A respectable mother truly qualified to blow a trumpet at the ! Unless, indeed, she is nursing some further ambition in her bosom, and is practising for the real arena. What modesty can you expect in a woman who wears a helmet, loathes her own gender, and enjoys feats of strength? Yet she would not choose to be a man, knowing the superior joys of womanhood. What a fine thing for a husband, at an auction of his wife’s goods, to see her belt and armlets and plumes put up for sale, with a leg-guard that covers half a left leg; or if she fights another sort of battle, how charmed you will be to see your young wife disposing of her greaves! Yet these are the women who find the thinnest of thin robes too hot, whose delicate flesh is chafed by the finest of silk tissue. See how she pants as she goes through her prescribed exercises; how she bends under the weight of her helmet; how big and coarse are the bandages which enclose her haunches; and then laugh when she lays down her arms and shows herself to be a woman! Tell us, you grand-daughters of Lepidus, or of the blind Metellus, or of Fabius Gurges, what gladiator’s wife ever assumed accoutrements like these? When did the wife of Asylus ever gasp against a stump?
Juvenal Satire 6.245-67
How do Juvenal’s ideas of women “dressing wrongly” match up to contemporary ideas of what women should and should not wear? Has the policing of women’s clothing changed in the past 2000 years?
Citations and Further Reading:
Olson, K. (2006) ‘Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity’. In
Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, ed. by Faraone, C.A. & McClure, L. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 186-204.
Olson, K. 2008. Dress and the Roman woman : self-presentation and society. Routledge.
- Menander was a Greek Comedy writer who lived around 342/41 – 290 BCE. ↵
Plural: matronae. A matrona was was a dignified married woman in Rome. She could be old or young, but she had achieved the goal Roman women were told to seek out: marriage and children. She was responsible for overseeing the household maintenance, including instructing slaves. Although the word ‘matron’ comes from the Latin word mater meaning ‘mother’ and does not hold any direct connection to wealth, the term was often associated with financially comfortable households
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a Christian who came from New Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He wrote both in Latin and Greek (though mainly in Latin) on various religious and doctrinal matters and was a rabid opponent of paganism. He was of Berber (Amazigh) origin.
Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis was a Roman poet who wrote a number of vicious and judgmental satires against various types of hypocrites as well as outsider groups in Rome. We know little about him for certain, and he may have been exiled for a period for offending an emperor. His Satires have been very influential in a range of European literary traditions.
Floralia was a Roman religious festival which featured prostitutes in sexy performances.