Fashion offers new window into ancient Roman society

Most of our knowledge of ancient Roman history comes from male historians writing about the lives and contributions of Roman men – emperors, gladiators, engineers, artists and politicians. Women have been treated as mere historical footnotes – until now.

Western Classical Studies professor Kelly Olson is giving voice to the predominantly silent and forgotten women of ancient Rome.

For her latest book, Masculinity and Dress in Roman Antiquity, she studies the fashion, jewelry and makeup of women in ancient Rome (753 BC-476 AD). In the process, Olson is pioneering the budding field of fashion in ancient times.

“Most studies in the field focus on a single piece of jewelry of a specific time period from one particular source say, an archaeological excavation,” she said.

Instead, Olson is studying 12 centuries-worth of fashion from a number of sources, such as paintings, statues, poetry, law treatises and philosophical works. These sources provide the only glimpses of female fashion in ancient Rome.

Her work is the first of its kind to track how fashion evolved in ancient Rome and how it differs from modern times. For example, unlike modern Western societies, ancient Romans considered jewelry to be good luck charms. They believed certain stones warded off evil and were endowed with magical properties.

Olson also discovered the most expensive stones in ancient Rome were pearls, not diamonds.

“Now, jewelry is selected by its sparkle; in ancient Rome, it was chosen by colour,” she said, speculating Romans did not have the technology to facet diamonds and make them sparkle.

But this history of fashion goes beyond trends and technology.

“Makeup and jewelry may seem trivial, but they give us a very intimate look into human society, including how attitudes of modesty, women’s freedom, self-expression, and creativity changed over the time,” Olson says.

Yet, as she is discovering, the ‘intimate look’ for the women of ancient Rome – accounts of their ordinary, everyday lives – can be very distant.

“If I were to study, for example, women in the 18th Century, I would have a wealth of personal resources – parish records, letters, and personal diaries, all written by women,” Olson explained. But few, if any such intimate and personal records written by women exist in ancient Rome.

Instead, Olson relies on sources – poems, sculptures, law manuals and philosophical works, for example – all created by men.

Her work helps us, for the first time, re-imagine these women’s lives through another woman’s lens. In studying these works, Olson is removing the perceived bias of men. Through her experience in the present, she is interpreting the lived history of their past.

Most works, according to Olson, viewed women with suspicion, paranoia and condescension. For example, some Roman philosophers objected to women beautifying and displaying themselves.

“Women in ancient Rome were not allowed to be lawyers or politicians or artists. Thus, they pumped their creative impulses into adornment,” Olson said. “Overly adorned women make Roman male authors nervous. They do not want women to have that kind power and it shows in their writings.”

But it’s not all bad.

Roman law considered jewelry to be a legal and portable source of wealth and power for women. There are laws describing how jewelry could be used as a social and financial safety net for women, and ways in which women could bequeath their jewelry to one another.

Roman artists celebrated women’s beauty and their adornment, capturing their admiration in poems, paintings and statues. Olson found there were no substances in ancient Rome used solely for make up purposes. Women used natural minerals or vegetable matter for make up; artists used these same materials to make colour, dyes and paintings.

“Its fitting, many Latin words for adornment are also used for art and painting,” Olson said. “Women literally became works of art.”

After years hidden in plain sight in a board set of texts, she is beginning to bring these works of art back to life.