Camilla Osorio: Italia America 2022

What Not to Wear: Regulating Women’s Dress Since 63 BC

Women cannot partake of magistracies, priesthoods, triumphs, badges of office, gifts, or spoils of war; elegance, finery, and beautiful clothes are women’s badges, in these they find joy and take pride, this our forebears called the women’s world

Livy, History of Rome (34.5)

This has been going on for millennia. Throughout history, women have been subjected to a multitude of rules and expectations that tell them what is right and wrong and what they can and cannot wear. From modern examples, it’s clear that society is still obsessed with what women wear.


Women in Ancient Rome: Who What Wear

Just like in modern society, race, class, religion, and sexuality had an influence on Roman society and all of those systems shaped clothing and fashion. Wealth and the clothing one could buy with said wealth shaped the social classes and hierarchies that are still present in the United States and around the world. Roman women were supposed to be presentable and wear clothes that correspond with their social status: matrona, lower class, freedwoman, or slave.

Statues like The Herculaneum Woman,  recovered from Herculaneum (Near Naples) give an idea of how the average wealthy Roman woman would have dressed.

It is important to note the limitations that statues provide. Statues are often depictions of wealthier women, since they’re the ones who can afford to pay for such art. This means that lower class women and children and their clothing are not represented in art.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another thing to note is that clothing on statues was not always accurate. On some art that depicts those who have died, they would dress a woman like a goddess, not with her everyday attire in order to symbolize her passing onto the ‘divine realm’ (Harlow 2012).

Rome developed their societal perspective on femininity and “a good woman” through the development of the roles women were expected to complete, if they didn’t fulfill their role, they weren’t considered a woman to a certain extent (Olson 2006). Women in the Roman empire had to know how to sew and make clothes for their entire families. Although there is a limited amount of evidence of everyday women’s lives at that time, there is a lot of evidence of what their roles were and how limited they really were. Women could not vote, have a position in government, or be recruited to the military. Women’s greatest attainment was motherhood (i.e. matrona): bearing multiple children and taking care of the house. Being a matrona was the most reputable and sought-after role for women (Olson 2008). Matronae wore a garment called the stola, the opposite of a man’s toga. The long sleeveless dress was worn over a tunic and a palla, a long shawl and was usually made out of wool (McElduff 2018). 

This is a marble statue of Empress Faustina the Younger, Roman Empress and wife to her maternal cousin Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

She is located in Glyptoteket Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is depicted wearing a palla with a stola underneath.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Outside of domestic life, women who were prostitutes, craftsmen, beauticians, and bartenders were viewed lowly. They simply wore tunics usually tied with a belt (McElduff 2018). Non-matrons attempted to wear the stola and were reprimanded. In the Code of Justinian, late-Roman laws created by Emperor Justinian I, it was illegal to dress like a nun if you were a prostitute. Dressing above your rank was illegal and on the other side of the spectrum, dressing below your status is potentially dangerous. If a woman was wearing an ancilla (slave attire) or a meretrix (prostitute attire) and was sexually assaulted, it was considered a lesser offense than if a woman wearing a stola was assaulted (Harlow 2012). Sounds like this was one of the earliest examples of slut shaming based on attire.

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a Christian author from a Roman province in Africa who was the first Christian author to produce a collection of Latin Christian literature. He wrote a long essay about women’s clothing and encouraged others to judge women who weren’t in respectable clothing. He states that clothing worn that is not in agreement with nature and modesty deserves glaring stares, pointing fingers, and critical nods (Tertullian 3.8-4.10). He doesn’t hold back criticisms from matronae either. Tertullian said a matron out in public without her stola should be punished as if for sexual misbehavior because the garment is a guard of dignity.

Located in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, this painting shows a banquet featuring a prostitute at the center. She is wearing a sheer transparent garment with her breast exposed.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The code of ethics followed by the Romans, called the mos maiorum, was oppressive and extremely gendered and classist. The code was meant to outline traditions as a social code of law. This code alongside other rules and guidelines of morality had an effect segregating women specifically with the garments they wore. In Rome, there was a belief that purity corresponded with chastity, which prevented women from being liberated and free from male control (Burbano 2016). Said chastity was shown through the correct clothing for women. Exposing your body and taking ownership of your sexuality was looked down on in Rome. Over 2000 years later and we still see the exposure of women’s bodies as a controversial topic.


Crimes of Fashion: Modern Day Rules

In the United States today, restriction on what women can wear is still up for debate. Fashion is the main outlet for self expression but laws and regulations prevent women from doing as such. Compared to Ancient Rome, women today are less exploited in order to be noticed within male groups. To a certain extent, clothing regulations keep women under a modern Code of Justinian due to the evolution of fashion. Women in the United States, especially Miami, are expected to dress a certain way in order to have sex appeal, with revealing clothing, high heels, and full glam (i.e. hair and makeup done). Modern day women are subject to attire that invites the objectification of women. The dress was directly passed down from Roman and Greek society and has been historically feminized. It has been protested against in a bid against the rigid attire rules in the mid-twentieth century when women decided to wear pants more commonly. 

Women in the 1920’s begun to wear pants but faced backlash by the public. They were arrested, discriminated against, and mocked but the women continued to wear them.

Later on, they were more commonly used during sports and other activities and then transitioned into daily wear.

Photo courtesy of VintageDancer

In cases of discrimination because of dress code, women bare the sole and unsought responsibility to avoid the sexualization and objectification of their body by male classmates and coworkers. If a woman wears heels at work, as she is expected to, it impacts the woman’s balance and comfortability, but her male coworkers are not subject to such a position. In a classroom, a female student is expected to adhere to a strict dress code that doesn’t allow shoulders to show, have anything shorter than the length of the tips of her fingers against her leg, and many other specific rules. Her male classmates are not held to the same standards and the female students are supposed to accommodate themselves to make male students pay attention to the lesson and not their bodies. In both examples, women are expected and confined to dress for men, showing that we’re not as evolved as we’d like to think from ‘archaic’ times.

Dress codes have been used by schools to justify sexist and classist policies under the guise of “distractions” and “modesty”.

Students protest restrictive dress codes in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Suhei Rivas


Looking to the Future

The same mindset has been around for a long time, the people who believed showing an ankle or a knee was impure are the same kind of people today who measure a girl’s skirt and don’t allow tank tops in class. The biggest paradox is that women are simultaneously sexualizing women while telling them to cover up. When women are made responsible for men’s thoughts, society is doing everyone harm. It’s long past time we start raising societal expectations of men and giving women less of the burden of making everything they wear a political statement, rather than a mode for self-expression. In over two thousand years we still haven’t figured it out but hopefully in time, we learn to let go of some of the Ancient Roman ideals because misogyny should no longer dictate what we put on our bodies. 

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