How to Make a Roman Tunica

In about a month, Hermanos de Sangre is hosting a Roman party at Highland War. Since the pinned-together muslin I’d been using as a makeshift stola has been cut up for a new gomlek, it was clear I actually have to make something that’s actually passably Roman.

I’ve decided to make a 1st century AD tunica that’s actually somewhat accurate. If I wanted to pass for an upstanding Patrician woman, I’d need at least two tunicas and a stola (for a matron) or a child’s toga (if I decided for some reason to try to pass for a maiden, for which I am laughably too old by Roman standards). It’s going to be hot, and wearing three layers does NOT sound like a great solution, so I’m going plebeian. I’m going to make a single tunica of bright red cotton (a color that would only be worn by a low class woman), trim it will cheap brass buttons, and belt it with some woven wool trim that’s been lying around anyway. Mine happens to be a cotton duvet cover which I’ve stashed into my fabric stores for just such an occasion. The alternative would have been using it on a bed, and it’s WAY too bright for that nonsense.

The first step is to cut two squares of fabric equal in width to the measurement from shoulder to floor. This should be almost exactly the same as the distance from one wrist to the other at full extension.

Some sources I’ve found say the sides are sewn, and some say they’re open. It seems to depend on the use of the garment: a bride’s garments are not stitched, for example. I’ve had no trouble maintaining a reasonable amount of modesty without sewing the sides of my makeshift tunica, but I went ahead and did side seams this time. Sew each side from the bottom edge to ten inches below the top edge (leaving wide arm holes).

Hem the bottom edge, the sides above the seams, and the top edge. I’ve used a rolled hem due to the fraying nature of cotton. I’d recommend the same for linen and most silks, both common fabrics for Roman women.

Next, the top closures. Broaches were used in period, but I’m using six brass buttons at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The diagram suggests a pretty flat closure, but the front neck opening uses more fabric than the back, so that it hangs in front and not in back. Therefore there is more fabric in the back along the sleeves, causing the bunches to fall open slightly and show the arms.

Now all that’s left is to put it on and cinch it with a belt! A simple garment that’s perfect for hot weather and takes no time at all to put together.

My tunica came out looking like this (sorry for the amazingly bad cell phone photo):

What’s period about it?

    • Material: cotton was imported to Rome from Egypt. Other common Roman materials included wool, linen, and silk (for women). My belt is hand-woven wool in a Roman geometric pattern.
    • Color: bright red shows up all over Roman art, and was frequently used for the tunics of plebeians like me. Red, orange, and pink dyes were derived from madder, which was cheaply available in ancient Rome, making this color widely available. Richer reds were more expensive, since their dyes were made from fermented insect corpses. The poor WIN. A Plebeian might also be spotted in white, light yellow, medium to light blue, or a range of greens, which were also cheap to produce, mostly derived from local plants mixed with manure.
    • Construction: My tunica is made from two squares in a period fashion, with straight seams. The finished edges on the top and arms are hand-stitched.

What’s NOT period about it?

    • Closure: I used buttons rather than broaches, for stability and ease of wear.
    • Dye: This was chemically dyed through modern processes. This makes the color a little bit richer and a LOT more colorsafe than period processes.

2 thoughts on “How to Make a Roman Tunica

  1. have you read alex croom’s roman costume and fashion – she argues for the use of a gathering teachnique that ends up looking like brooches/buttons, and drapes afr better – you get that lovely swagging you see between closures on statue draperies

    • I haven’t seen it, but I was able to get the swagging (and a stable drape overall) by matching the front and back unevenly: the back is fairly taut shoulder to shoulder but the front is made to drape, which leaves a shorter length from shoulder to wrist on the front than on the back. Pinning the back center and the front center together creates a nice drape at the arms. It’s not as evident with my cotton, which is fairly firm fabric, as it would be with linen, and a greater width overall would be ideal, but for a scrounge piece, it’s not bad.

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