Perhaps no single article of clothing is so famous, so iconic, and so well remembered as the Roman toga. Drunk frat boys can even create parties with a toga theme, and it seems almost instinctual that we all know how to make one out of our bedsheets. There were, of course, other elements to the Roman wardrobe, and just like today, industries around clothing-material, making clothes, and keeping them clean. So before we commit any party fouls, let’s look at the dress code of Ancient Rome.
Togas. Let’s start at the top with what we know, because I don’t want anyone to wet their pants in anticipation. These are like suits or dresses by our standards, as in to say, togas are a bit more formal than frats would have us believe. The toga has significant social er…significance (I need a thesaurus), and was worn as your social class allowed. Even the Romans knew the toga was a symbol of Rome. Virgil remarked, “Romanos rerum dominos gentemque togatam” (I. 282). Romans, masters of the world, the toga-wearing people.
Unlike the modern bedsheet, the real Roman toga took two people to put on, and was made to high quality standards. Wool was the material of choice, and togas came in a few variations. The most common was the toga praetexta, which was just an ordinary white toga with a broad purple stripe. The magistrates wore this and this is probably what you see in the movies. Just like suits and dresses, though, there were other togas for other occasions, like the toga pulla for funerals and mourning.
The other thing you see is the regular old tunic. This is like a t-shirt, or maybe a golf polo if you splurged on a nice one. Both women and men, common citizen, rich patrician, and slaves wore it. Speaking of, the female equivalent to the toga was the stola. It was similarly difficult to put on, and generally a more formal article of clothing.
As for the more interesting point, laundry. “Laundry is interesting?” you ask, “and where can I get whatever it is you’re smoking?” “Well it is interesting when you take a piss on your clothes to clean them” I respond.
When that toga finally started to be too dirty and smelly to justify wearing, the Romans took them to the local Fullo. Just like today, they treated the clothes in a cleaning solution (they didn’t have soap), rinsed, and dried them. But unlike today, what the Romans sometimes used as “soap” included urine.
First, the fullers put the clothes in big tubs (some of which are archaeologically preserved). Then some alkaline substance is added; from the evidence, urine from men and animals was one of the common ingredients used to clean clothes. Then workers or the fuller himself stomps on the clothes. No seriously, here’s a mural of fullers at work, stomping clothes.
Next they rinsed the clothes and dried them. In a fairly ingenious low-tech process, the fuller usually had a system of tubes and basins for rinsing, so they weren’t continually rinsing the clothes in dirty water.
Finally, they treated the garment. This could include brushing or carding, or adding sulfur to white clothes in order to make them brighter. According to Pliny, fullers were taken pretty seriously, and the Romans even had the “Metilian Law” to govern methods and responsibilities. Thanks to digs in Pompeii, the literary evidence can be supplemented by archaeological remains. Fulleries seem to have come in all sorts of sizes, and frescos help give us more concrete ideas of the fuller and the methods employed. Just be thankful soap got invented, otherwise we might have people cleaning our clothes by pissing and stomping on them.