How did ancient Romans dress? Ask anyone who studied ancient Rome in elementary school, and you’ll hear that Romans used to wear togas. But in reality, if we could travel back in time and walk down an ancient Roman street on an average day, we’d see almost no togas at all.
Why not? To begin with, women never wore togas; their dress was a much simpler, sort of A-line dress called a stola–so right away, that limits toga-wearing to the remaining 50% of the population. And as for the men, they all knew well that the Roman toga was a heavy, cumbersome garment that simply could not be worn while doing any sort of manual labor. Since most Romans were farmers, that naturally meant that most Romans didn’t wear one. Instead, ordinary Roman men tended to wear simple tunics, cut straight and shorter than a toga, which enabled them to move around with ease.
Togas therefore became reserved for special, formal occasions. Senators wore them to official meetings of the Senate; less important people wore them at their weddings and when they died, they were dressed in them for the funeral. As the witty Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in the 1st century A.D., “nowadays, nobody wears a toga unless he’s dead!”
When you see an ancient statue of a Roman wearing a toga, you’ll notice that the person invariably has at least one, and sometimes both arms raised. No, that’s not merely an artistic pose: men in togas actually had to keep their arms held at an unnatural angle, because if they straightened them at their sides … the toga would literally fall right off.
After all, togas were long pieces of cloth that were draped around a man in a certain way. The draping and folding was so complicated that Roman men needed help to get dressed–and this was a typical task for household slaves. When there was talk of freeing the slaves, slave-owning Senators sardonically muttered among themselves that this was impossible, since they wouldn’t be able to get dressed in the morning without them.
When visiting Rome’s many museums of antiquities, this sort of information about Roman history can prove invaluable. If you know nothing of ancient Rome beyond the little you remember from your elementary-school lessons, the statues will probably mean relatively little. But when armed by the kind of knowledge you can get from a knowledgeable guide, your tour takes on a whole new meaning!