"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.

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