October 3, 2016

Addressing the Dressing IV: Clothes and Roman Culture

by Lyndon Unger

In the previous post, we looked at the word “modest” in the New Testament and walked through 1 Cor. 12:23 and 1 Tim. 2:9 and ended up closing the post with a little discussion of what “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” meant.  The question arose as to what braided hair with gold and pearls indicated in ancient Roman culture, and the comment was made there is an evangelical myth that such things indicated that a woman was a prostitute.  I suggested that such was not the case, and today’s post will be the first part of a two-part answer to that question.  In this post we’ll take a look at women’s clothing in Roman culture, and the following post will take a look at women’s hairstyles. Hopefully the next two posts will lay to rest some evangelical myths about hair and clothes in the New Testament era.

In Roman culture, one didn’t find the same sort of wild variety in clothing, and little changes in style. Dr. Kelly Olson (expert on ancient Roman fashion and Professor of Classics at the University of Western Ontario) writes, ” Rome was a sartorially conservative society, and the basic shape of female clothing…did not change for centuries.”[1]  All people, men and women, had clothing that was some sort of long tunic, though “women’s clothing was recognizably female”.[2]

Women had a fairly basic variety of wardrobe choices in ancient Rome.  It seems common knowledge that typical Roman men wore (essentially) one thing: the toga.


This wasn’t the case of Roman women (or at least, respectable ones…but more on that in a moment).

Instead of the toga, Roman women typically wore a stola.  Writing of female Roman clothing, Olson writes,

Matronae, the wives of Roman citizens, are said to wear the stola (a long slip-like garment worn over the underdress or tunic). The stola first and foremost indicated that the wearer was married in a iustum matrimonium (a legal marriage between two citizens) and it was therefore a mark of honor, a way to distinguish sexual and social rank in broad fashion. Literary sources also tell us that Roman women wore the palla or mantle, which was drawn over the head when out of doors, and bound their hair with woolen bands or fillets.[3]

The stola is the garment and the palla is over the head

The stola is the garment and the palla is over the head

Though the core style of garment was relatively the same, Roman women could differentiate themselves from other women in various ways. The first way was in the fabric they used. Women would make their stolla and palla out of costly fabrics that dyed various colors.[4] Women could also have their stolla or palla decorated with jewellery and other ornaments.[5] The dying and decorating of the toga was an activity seen as unbefitting of men; Tertullian wrote that the “instrumental mean of womanly ostentation, the radiances of jewels wherewith necklaces are variegated, and the circlets of gold wherewith the arms are compressed” was peculiar to women.[6]

Generally speaking, female clothing also was a way of displaying one’s recognition and embrace of a woman’s sexual and social status. Olson writes, “A woman muffled in certain kinds of all-enveloping clothing, for instance, showed herself chaste and upright.”[7]  Women could utilize their clothing to express their sexual and social status in a morally-virtuous way, but also in an immoral way.  In fact, there was a very distinct  way that a woman could advertise her penchant for immoral behavior.  Again, Olson:

In Roman antiquity prostitutes and adulteresses too were presumably immediately identifiable from their clothing: both wore the toga. By this ‘exclusion’ from the sartorial distinctions of the chaste matronae, such women could ideally be identified as those who rejected the moral code bound up in those clothes.[8]

As one reads through the literature, it becomes clear that the wearing of the toga was the most distinctive mark of a woman of low moral fiber.  Some low-class prostitutes were known for various gradations of nudity, but that sort of nudity was seen as characteristic of barbarians.  Roman culture was incredibly proud of its civilized nature; acting like a barbarian wasn’t what people of cultural refinement did.  Prostitutes who worked in “more cultured” establishments (i.e. brothels) were women of means; they were known for having elaborate hairstyles, expensive clothes and jewelry.[9]  As is the case in modern times, a moral cesspool requires a lot of cosmetic whitewash, and the most whitewashed people were sadly considered “fashionable” and emulated.

In fact, some women of ill-repute became well known enough that they even influenced fashion trends.  There are numerous citations in ancient literature of both young women and women of respectable status wearing revealing garments made of Coan silk, which was “diaphanous stuff that apparently left little to the viewer’s imagination.”[10]  It was a type of fabric that, due to its thin and transparent nature, was mostly utilized by prostitutes.  Yet, some women copied the style established by prostitutes and were mistaken for prostitutes, much to their chagrin.

Mistaken identity is always a problem.

I can't tell you HOW many times I've confused these two...

Though there are a few examples from ancient literature of women being wrongfully thought a prostitute due to the fact that they were wearing a Coan silk stola [11], the real mark of an adulteress or a prostitute was wearing a toga.  No remotely respectable woman would do that.  Alexandra Croom (ancient Roman cultural expert and Keeper of Archaeology: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums) writes, “There seems to be no evidence that prostitutes had to wear the toga, only that they were the only women who could.”[12] This doesn’t mean that prostitutes and adulteresses only wore togas, but the only women who wore togas were prostitutes or adulteresses.[13]

This lays a serious blow against the myth associated with the “modesty” passages in the New Testament that says specific hairstyles were the definitive mark of  a prostitute.  It’s hypothetically possible that such was the case in small geographic areas (i.e. the city of Corinth) due to cultural nuances.  That being said, there’s no surviving information that I’ve been able to uncover that would suggest such was the case in the apostle Paul’s day.  Also, the relevant experts in the field that I’ve consulted don’t mention such an idea anywhere.

Over the years, I’ve heard many a pastor or professor wax eloquent about how wearing “braided hair and gold or pearls” (1 Tim. 2:9) was clearly dressing like a prostitute, and that was the problem in Ephesus.  My research into relevant historical sources shows that this idea is an evangelical myth: there is very little evidence to support it.

That leads to two obvious questions:

  1.  What did ” braided hair and gold or pearls” indicate?


  1. What was going on in the early church if the problem wasn’t one of women  dressing like prostitutes?

That takes us to the next post: gaining an understanding of the significance and meaning of ancient Roman female hairstyle.

[1] Kelly Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society (Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), 11.

[2] Ibid, 10

[3] Kelly Olson, “Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (ed. A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure; Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 189.

[4] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 11.

[5] Ibid, 10

[6] Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum 1.2.1 [cited 3 January 2016]. Online: http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf04/anf04-06.htm

[7] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 11.

[8] Olson, Matrona and Whore, 192.

[9] Ibid, 195.

[10] Ibid, 197.

[11] Olson provides a few citations and writes ” These passages indicate that matrons and whores were supposed to be satorially distinct from one another but also strongly imply that such was not always the case.” Ibid.

[12] Alexandra Croom, Roman Clothing and Fashion (The Hill, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2010), 48.

[13] Olson, Matrona and Whore, 195.


Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him somewhere...you didn’t.
  • Maranatha

    Very interesting, the toga-theme! Thank you, Lyndon! That would mean, Roman prostitutes and adulteresses did “unconsciously” disobey Deut22,5 they did not even know (because this was not their belief and lawgiving). Today, one could remark “feminist symbolism” through specific male clothing and overtaking of mens professions by women as the same rebellion (spiritual adultery) against God like Roman women did those days.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    Those college toga parties make a lot more sense now.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    This explains those college toga parties.

  • bs

    “My research into relevant historical sources shows that this idea is an evangelical myth: it lacks even a shred of evidence to support it.”
    Lyndon what about P.Haun “For she [a wife] must reject garments shot with purple or gold. For these are used by hetairai [prostitutes] in soliciting men generally” or Clement of Alexandria “I like old Sparta, which permitted only hetairai to wear flowery dresses and gold ornaments, thus forbidding finery to respectable women and allowing it only to those who plied their trade as prostitutes.” both cited in Bruce Winter, Roman Wives Roman Widows p.107?

    • Lyndon Unger

      BS, I did not find that work in my research, and I cannot track it down online short of an Amazon link (https://www.amazon.com/Roman-Wives-Widows-Appearance-Communities/dp/B019L5NSMG/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1475533888&sr=8-2&keywords=Roman+Wives+Roman+Widows%2C+bruce+winter). I fully admit that I threw around 10 minutes of research into the whole affair…but that’s all the time I have today.

      The Clement reference only suggest that such was the case in “old Sparta” (which seems like a reference to Sparta in the past…likely several hundred years in the past since the historic heyday of Sparta was several hundred years before Paul’s time). Beyond that, I have not been able to track down the original source online. Maybe you can help with that?

      The Haun quote has some rather interesting elipses that I’d like to read, but I cannot find the work from which it comes. I’d love to check out that quote more fully. It’s definitely interesting.

      Seeing that I cannot verify the primary citations, they’re up in the air for me.

      That being said, those references didn’t come off the top of your head. You had to do some serious hunting to find them…unless you’re a professor of classics somewhere.

      May I ask why you’ve become obsessed with discrediting every article in this series?

      Did I step on your toes somewhere?

      • bs

        No Lyndon you did not step on my toes nor am I obsessed with discrediting your articles. I have been simply questioning your methodology in explaining texts primarily through word studies using etymology and usage in other places without acknowledging the place of context (the cultural assumptions shared by reader/hearer and writer/speaker).

        Bruce Winter gives as references: Clement of Alexandria _Educator_ 2.10.105 and the first quotation is from the papyrus letter Melissa to Clearete P.Haun II 13, lines 1-42 which he quotes in full on pp.72-73. There were no ellipses, only clarifying additions.

        I didn’t need to do much hunting — Winter’s work was a reference from a class on 1Peter concerning dress in the Roman empire. I would think a fairly “go-to text” on ‘you were what you wore’.
        Just a comment — Sparta could have indeed been in the distant past. But why would Clement say that if it were not relevant to him?

        • Lyndon Unger

          All interactions are on hold for now.

          I’m waiting for you to jump through the hoop you set for me.

          That’s back on the second post, in the long comment thread there.

          • Ira Pistos

            FYI, the comments on that second post are being hit by a troll.

          • Lyndon Unger

            Yeah. We saw that. He’s one of my biggest fans. Well, he loves me almost as much as he loves pickles.

          • bs

            OK Lyndon, I think I have jumped through the hoop you have set for me … or I have set for you??