Textiles, Dress and Identity in the Roman World

Module code: AH3079

Module co-ordinator: Mary Harlow

A lot of evidence survives for the study of Roman dress: fragmentary textiles, texts and iconography in a variety of media. The question is how do we put this material together to create the Roman wardrobe?

Dress can signify any number of identifiers: status, ethnicity, religious affiliation, occupation, group or gang membership etc. In the modern world we read these signs almost as second nature but in order to study them in the past we need to use a series of approaches.

In this module you will learn how to identify specific garments from the Roman world and the associated social codes which were linked to them. These codes may have implications of status, class and gender and may also define citizens from non-citizens, insiders from outsiders. Dress, then, has much to tell us about Roman society and social codes.

It is also important to understand the economics of clothing and cloth production. We will examine the chaine opératoire from raw material (flax and fleece) through the processes of spinning, weaving and finishing to the final product. In so doing we will also consider the nature of the textiles.

Dress is experiential and the way in which clothes are worn effects the way individuals move. The fragmentary and fragile nature of surviving examples from the Roman world do not allow us to experience the reality of ancient dress but we can use a number of approaches that can get us closer. You will study examples of traditional textile production and use anthropological studies of communities who wear draped clothing to gain some insight into the Roman experience.

We cannot make direct connections between the past and the present but we can use anthropological case studies to make us think outside our comfort zones. You will also work with (and create) reconstructions.

Topics covered

  • Textile production in the Roman empire
  • Dress as a marker of status, gender etc.
  • Archaeological textiles
  • Dress in art
  • Regional variations of dress and its representations


  • 10 two-hour seminars/workshops


  • two source analysis activities (20% + 20%)
  • project, 3,000 words (60%)