Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Roman Beauty?

In my last post, I wrote about what Kelly Olson said about the wearing of the toga praetexta by girls too young to marry. Olson's essay had other interesting tidbits, not just about what Roman women and girls wore, but to some extent on their outlook on female beauty. 

Hans Memling's Eve
One of these tidbits involved the strophium, the breastband Roman women and girls wore, instead of our brassiere or the early modern corset.  The strophium, a band of linen or fine wool wound over the breasts to support and compress them, makes pretty good sense for mature women, since when properly worn a strophium gives good breast support, as this SCA member found.

Roman nude (in Musée Saint-Raymond)
But support, it turns out, was not the only thing the Roman ladies had in mind in binding their breasts with the strophium, and what they actually had in mind makes sense of why their young daughters' breasts were bound too.

What they wanted from this breast-binding was smaller breasts.  Ms. Olson reports that the Roman ideal of beauty featured small breasts and generous hips, and the hope was to keep a girl's breasts small by introducing her to the strophium at a very young age:
On an examination of the evidence it is clear that the ideal shape of a woman was different in antiquity:   the modern erotic ideal of full breasts, small waist, and rounded hips has not in fact been a cultural constant.   An alluring Roman woman possessed small breasts and wide hips, an ideal that is borne out by artistic as well as literary evidence.  Thus Soranus directed nurses to swaddle a female infant tightly in the breasts and more loosely at the hips, 'to take on the shape that in women is more becoming.' (Sor. Gyn. 2.15 [84])

[Olson, Kelly, "The Appearance of the Young Roman Girl," in Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture, page 143 (University of Toronto Press 2008).
I was able to find on Wikimedia Commons an example of a Roman nude female sculpture demonstrating this ideal (see the photograph above on the left).  Interestingly, this taste for wide hips and small breasts lasted well into medieval times, judging by some of the nudes painted by Netherlandish painters in the 15th century, one of which I found on Wikimedia Commons and also posted here (see the photograph above on the right). 

I can't help but view Ms. Olson's statement about the Roman ideal of female beauty with amusement, because it also describes *my* figure, which to modern taste is far from perfect.  Maybe I was simply born a few...dozen... centuries too late. 

Ms. Olson also has some interesting things to say about the wearing of jewelery and cosmetics by Roman girls, which I'll save for another post.


  1. "Pear" is the most *natural*/common shape for women.

    1. Yes, the "pear" is the most common shape for adult women, at least. That doesn't explain why it was the Roman figure ideal, but it probably made it a lot easier for women to meet the ideal!

  2. So that's how a strophium works. I need one.

  3. Hi, Stella! Welcome to my blog.

    I believe the blogger whose pictures and post I linked to used wool for her strophium Wool has just enough stretch that it will conform well to the figure, and give a good blend of shaping and support. However, some people cannot tolerate the touch of wool on their skin--especially not skin in a sensitive area such as the breasts.

    However, it's possible to use linen for a strophium (I've also seen it called a mamillare. In fact, I made my strophium from linen. That works well also, but it gives stiffer support--more like a modern sports bra. It's also a little more difficult to knot. Although I don't intend to post pictures of it in use, I can blog about that. Maybe I'll do so this weekend.

  4. Saw your link on The Dreamstress' blog. What an interesting post -- and I'm not just saying that because I majored in Classical Civilization!

  5. @existimatio: Glad you liked it. Welcome!