Sunday, April 18, 2010

Apron Dress Forerunners?

A reader of this blog recently sent me a pointer to this photograph of a second-century C.E. Roman sculpture.  It shows what looks, at least at first glance, like a woman wearing a pleated-front apron dress that resembles this one from the Trelleborg Museum.

I probably should not have been surprised to learn about this second century sculpture. I already knew that the stola, the traditional, sleeveless wool overdress of respectable Roman matrons, had straps.  It may well be the forerunner of the Viking apron dress. A version of it turns up in the image, to the right, of what may be a servant woman from a mural at Pompeii (thanks to Audrey Lucero, a friend of mine from the MedCos list, for turning up this image), and this page provides a wealth of links to images showing stola straps. (Thanks go to Laura Storey for collecting these.)

However, the woman in the second-century sculpture doesn't seem to be wearing an apron dress, or a stola, at all.  The pleated panel with trimming along the top hem appears to end at least an inch before her armpits on both sides of her body.  It looks more like a "front cloth" or apron on straps than it does like a stola or any kind of apron dress.

But if the garment the woman in the second century sculpture is wearing is an apron, why is it so elaborately pleated?  Certainly the garment, whatever it was, is meant for ornamentation, not labor.  Was there a fashion for pleated aprons during the second century C.E. in the "Eastern Roman Empire" (whatever the antiquities dealer selling this sculpture means by that term)?   Did the sculptor merely depict a stola or other tubular overdress somewhat incorrectly?  Is the eastern provenance of the sculpture significant?  Perhaps what we now think of as Eastern Europe was famous for pleated linen goods long before the women at Birka started wearing pleated shifts.

Lastly, it is interesting to see that the woman in the sculpture is wearing a lunula pendant.  Such pendants are commonly found in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in roughly Viking age contexts; however, I had not previously known that this type of ornament goes even farther back in time than the Viking age.

There are some fascinating images here.  I should keep them in mind as I continue to dig into evidence of how apron dresses were made and worn, and who wore them.


  1. Cool!

    Of course, the Romans prized amber and traded with the Baltic peoples for it. Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy ... they all knew about amber and the trade routes. I wouldn't be surprised (just very interested!) to learn that other kinds of symbols and ideas and objects were traded as well.

  2. Thanks for the URL!

    Amber, and other goods, were certainly traded from the Baltic areas to the Romans. To me, the interesting question would be what the Vikings might have been trading to get those pleated linen shifts (however they happen to have been pleated).