"Rome" TV Wardrobe Not Built in a Day

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2005
April Ferry had some 4,000 costumes to make for Rome, the lavish
HBO television series premiering Sunday. And the veteran costume
designer knew she had to get every one right, down to the last thread of
each toga.

"We created everything from scratch ... and it had to look absolutely authentic," Ferry said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. She is currently working on a new feature film after spending 19 months creating the costumes for Rome.

The clothes worn by the ancient Romans may seem like simple garments, but they were loaded with symbolism and strongly reflected the social hierarchy of the time, scholars say.

The toga—a cloak worn wrapped around the body—even had legal connotations and could be worn only by citizens of Rome.

"The Roman dress signified rank, status, office, and authority," said Larissa Bonfante, who is an ancient Rome scholar at New York University (NYU) in New York City. "It was an important means of communication."

Striving for Authenticity

Rome is set in 57 B.C., during a time of transition. The Roman Republic, eventually to be replaced by the Roman Empire, was beginning to crumble.

At its height, the Roman Empire stretched southward from modern-day Scotland to Sudan and eastward from Spain to Syria. The people within the empire came from diverse cultural traditions, which was reflected in the way they dressed. The inhabitants of the city of Rome, however, had to adhere to a strict dress code.

Because fabrics from the period have largely disintegrated, most of what scholars know about how Rome's inhabitants dressed comes from ancient writings, paintings, sculptures, and archaeological evidence.

The textiles available to the ancient Romans consisted of woolens and linens, often produced locally, scholars say. Cottons and silks were imported from India, Egypt, and China.

In her quest for authenticity, Ferry travelled to India to find the fabrics used to make many of the costumes for Rome. "They had the most authentic, handmade-looking things," said the designer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her costumes for the 1994 Mel Gibson western Maverick.

Her dyeing and aging department spent 14-hour days making sure the new materials looked ancient. But they stopped short of collecting urine from large open-air latrines, as ancient Roman launderers did. The fluid, NYU's Bonfante says, was used as a fixative for dyes.

According to Ferry, ancient Rome was far from the white marble wonderland portrayed in some movies. Most Roman women dyed their clothes, partly to hide the grime of the city.

"Ancient Rome was such a dirty city that, walking down the street, the bottom of your clothes would get dirty instantly," Ferry said.

What to Wear

In the capital, clothing for both men and women was divided into underclothes (indutus) and outerwear (amictus), according to David Symons, author of Costume of Ancient Rome.

Men's underclothes consisted of a linen or woolen loincloth knotted around the waist. In the early days of the Roman Republic it was probably the only garment worn under the toga.

The tunic, a kind of long shirt of linen or wool, was adopted later as an undergarment. It is not clear whether the tunic replaced the loincloth or was additional to it, ancient-Rome scholars say.

Roman women also wore tunics under their clothes. As outer clothing, married women would wear the stola, a long gown that partially covered the feet and was sometimes decorated with a colored band at the neck.

The most socially significant garment was the toga.

Worn by upper-class men, the toga was a flowing and solemn garment. Unlike the Greeks, who retained the straight edges and right angles of woven cloth, the Romans made their togas from a semicircular piece of woolen cloth.

"That's why it draped so beautifully," said Bonfante, the NYU professor.

The toga was the official dress of elected magistrates, and it remained the regular form of dress for the upper class into the early days of the empire.

Before being wrapped around the body, a toga generally measured 16 to 18 feet (5 to 5.5 meters) long and 6.5 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters) wide. Some dandies, though, were noted for wearing even larger togas.

"Julius Caesar was very much the good dresser and known for wearing silk, so I have him looking very spiffy," Ferry, the Rome costume designer, said.

Purple Border

The toga praetexta had a wide purple border along its straight edge and was worn by boys up to the age of 15, when they assumed the all-white toga virilis.

Senators and other distinguished citizens also wore togas with a purple border.

"This purple-border toga was also worn by the priesthood," NYU's Bonfante said. "It has a magically protective quality, and it was especially meaningful."

But the toga was an expensive and cumbersome piece of clothing, and during the republic it grew steadily more bulky. It was almost impossible to put it on single-handedly. Even with help it was difficult to drape correctly.

"It was such a pain in the neck to keep on," Ferry, the designer, said. "If you wrapped your toga in the morning, you would have to wrap it [again] two or three times during the day. They didn't have safety pins, zippers, or even buttons at that point."

No wonder, then, that the toga gradually fell out of favor. Several emperors in the first and second centuries A.D. tried to keep tradition alive by issuing decrees insisting on its use on certain occasions.

But by the third century A.D. the toga was out of fashion. Worn only by extreme conservatives or on specific ceremonial occasions, it was replaced by easier-to-wear cloaks.

It Takes a Legion

It took something of a legion to create Rome's wardrobe, and it wasn't built in a day, either.

"I made 4,000 costumes. We had lots of extras playing people from all different classes," Ferry said. "When I started, I thought, Oh my, can I do this?

"My regular crew was about 16, but sometimes when we had a thousand extras, we had 45 people working in the costume department," she added.

Still, the long hours and frantic production did nothing to dim Ferry's enthusiasm for recreating historic Roman garb. "It's the best project I've ever worked on," she said.

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