[Cynnabar] Fwd: [Mid] Rethinking Roman Textiles and Fashion

Ann Asplund asplund.ann at gmail.com
Wed Sep 14 16:33:22 UTC 2011

For my roman friends!

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bev Roden <bevroden at gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 11:26 AM
Subject: [Mid] Rethinking Roman Textiles and Fashion
To: spot at midrealm.org, Flaming Gryphon Newcomers
<fg_newcomers at yahoogroups.com>, sca-middle at midrealm.org, Midlaurel
<midlaurel at minstrel.com>
Cc: Mary Savelli <msavelli at dnaco.net>, Karen Johnson <karenjohnson at neo.rr.com>

Greetings from Alexis!

Blog link forwarded from another list. The blog, Rogue Classicist, has
lots of interesting topics. If you are at all interested in the
Classical World, check it out!

Rethinking Roman Textiles and Fashion
Posted: August 19, 2011 by rogueclassicist in Uncategorized

Very interesting item from Spiegel, although there does seem to be
some ‘playing to the crowd’ in this one:

When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a
Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled
chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled
the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.

The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet
weather, and the clammy fort’s select guests were forced to bring
their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a
garment known as the paenula — a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or
sometimes leather or felt — and wrapped a type of large shawl, called
a laena, around their necks.

The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used,
writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer
insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts
are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those
historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced
from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.

To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the
legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the
soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their
dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today’s

Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. “It’s an
explosion of sources,” exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the
Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of
Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at
work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.

Soft and Comfortable

These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites
for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed
impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in
Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which
allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with
an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.

These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome
developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established
factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom
building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous
color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these
techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until
the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.

Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts
combed out sheep’s wool to make the fibers more uniform. “Extremely
professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality,”
reports archeologist Annette Schieck. “The fabrics were very soft and

Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and
Syria are “still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be
worn,” Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor
fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient

New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat
long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments
from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz,
Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces
of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more

Monogram or Logo?

Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which
places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a
garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their
garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the
search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved

The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign
concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like
garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly
beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.

The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new
direction, though. “This has definitely thrown us off a bit,” Mitschke
says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of
textile design after all.

Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world’s
equivalent to modern fashion labels. It’s possible that previous clues
and signs in this direction weren’t sufficiently appreciated. For
instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds
a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it
simply the owner’s monogram — or could it be the logo of a fashion

Despite scholars’ best efforts, the Romans’ relationship to underwear
remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa
Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period,
show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile
evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is

Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman
clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for
example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants,
since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm
workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.

Unwieldy Togas

Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of
value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more
mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in
human history, attained such popularity in Rome.

Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth
burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the
wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a
house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were
also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The
free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly
able to leave their homes without assistance.

But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some
updating, says archeologist Schieck. “In many cases we owe much of our
insight into the practical application of historical clothing to
reenactors,” she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don
historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men
England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in
Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the
country’s first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called
the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old
Roman road in the country.

Bits of Roman legionnaires’ uniforms found near a hill called
Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these
troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army
wasn’t nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood
historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the
mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who’d just
barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game
of pick-up soccer.

The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute
nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention
of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays
and earth tones.

“Red was a feminine color reserved for women,” Schieck explains.
Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed
with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon.
This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still,
women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for
a different reason — when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of

Cheap Knockoffs

But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such
luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen,
counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.

The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such
replacement dyes in “Ars amatoria,” his instructional volume on love.
“Don’t ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex,” the
poet wrote. “With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it’s crazy
to bear your fortune on your back!”

Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy
merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume
and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics
even caused an imbalance in Rome’s budget, with considerable sums
flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established
maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire
from going bankrupt.

Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers
in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long
since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from
nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.

Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the
streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were
tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that
would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly
men were unacceptable.

Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against
metrosexual proclivities: “Don’t delight in curling your hair with
tongs, don’t smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone,” advised the
poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: “Leave
that to (eunuchs). Male beauty’s better for neglect.”

"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have
one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day
~ E. B. White (1899 - 1985)

From:  Bev Roden <bevroden at gmail.com>
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