Roman Slave Construction & Draping

I need to have my friend’s slave tunic ready for a final fitting tomorrow evening, so today I’ve been making sure the garment lays correctly.

I started with two 50″x90″ rectangles of fabric. I tried a 45″ wide fabric but it wouldn’t have enough drape on my friend’s large frame. Since more drape is better than less (especially since the translucent fabric affords no privacy without a couple layers), we went for the widest fabric we could find.

I stitched the left side (as worn) from top to bottom and the right side from the bottom to about 2/3 of the way up. I also stitched the top edge from about the middle to about 10″ from the right edge. Something like this:

From there I pulled out my trusty dress form and expanded it (although there’s nothing I can do to make the torso longer, and the torso on my dress form, being designed for an average-sized woman is significantly shorter than that of a very tall man. But it gives me something person-shaped to test drape.

This takes me to my next challenge. The source sketch shows a very even gathered look under the belt, and gathers at the shoulder which give the top section a similar gathered look.

When I tested a machine-gathered shoulder, it looked really bad, and the low side wasn’t at the right angle to continue the gathered look all the way around the waist, because it draped too low. This was due to the width of the fabric, but a narrower fabric wouldn’t have enough volume below the waist.

This tells me that one or more of a few things is wrong with my assumptions about this garment:

  1. The garment a flared below the waist (which would disagree with the cuts of ALL the rest of Roman clothing from this period)
  2. The garment was arranged with some subtle tucking at the low side, much in the way that kilts and saris employ simple tucking to achieve the right look
  3. This sketch is not a good representation of what a Roman one-shoulder tunic might have looked like.
My money is on #3 based on what I know of Roman costume and what I’ve learned in the process of creating this piece. Indeed, a little extra research shows one-shoulder slave tunics made with very minimal fabric tied or pinned at the shoulder, often without a belt, and it looks like the fabric doesn’t even go all the way around the waist. Some were so short they must have afforded no modesty at all, if the paintings are to be believed. That said, #2 is the easiest to correct from this stage of the process, so I can use some modern techniques to achieve a very period-looking design and actually make the garment easier to wear.
My first step was to create hidden unpressed knife pleats at the left hip. These pleats are very deep, mimicking how the opposite side looks with a belt. IN addition to creating a more even gather around the waist, this also takes some of the volume out of the draped side. By folding the remaining excess behind the pleated section, I make the drape lie over the pleats, hiding the cheat and looking quite natural. When worn with a belt (as it will be eventually), you can’t tell that there is a pleated section, and you can’t tell where the pleats start or end. Victory!
The only remaining challenge is a permanent solution for the shoulder. Period references show Greek garments that were definitely gathered, but Roman garments seem to have been bunched (unsecured). A slave wouldn’t want to be struggling to keep his tunic properly bunched on his shoulders, so for practicality I’m looking at securing options that will give the garment the right look. Creating an unpressed accordion pleat gives the right visual effect but sits very tall on the shoulder. With the accordion pleats pinned in place, and a standin belt (the part of rope belt here being played by satin ribbon), the garment looks very close to how it’s supposed to:
That means all that’s left is to permanently secure the shoulder, and have my friend over for a final fitting to determine where we want the hem.

I’m thinking that for ultimate ease of wear, a mild elastic could be added to the waist on the inside only, so the garment would fit perfectly even before it was belted. I think if I made this garment for Halloween or for a child, I’d definitely do that. If I’m adding cheats, why not?

What’s period about it?
  • Material is a thinly woven cotton, which was available in the Mediterranean during the height of the Roman empire.
  • One-shouldered styles were featured in art from the period.
What’s not period about it?
  • The cut requires an asymmetrical treatment of seams and hem, not typical to the period. My feeling is that sketches showing a one-shouldered tunic with a straight hem are simplified, modernized, or have been drawn by people who are not burdened with an abundance of spatial skills.
  • My pleating may not be period. I haven’t found research to support it, but the pleating I used is among the simplest and earliest methods, so if the Romans were pleating, these are the kinds of pleats they probably would have used. I definitely have found Greek garments that looked like they had knife pleats, but not in small sections as I did.

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