Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Clothing of Roman Prostitutes--Still a Mystery

Wall painting from the Villa San Marco, Stabiae.
Is she a prostitute?  How could we tell?
More than two years ago, I did some reading in an attempt to learn what kinds of clothing were likely worn by prostitutes in ancient Rome.  The short answer to that question appeared to be that scholars don't really know what the prostitutes wore, because the written evidence on the subject is, at best, lacking in context and difficult to interpret.

I received a copy of one of the books I mentioned when I originally discussed this topic, Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (Faraone, Christopher A. & McClure, Laura, eds., University of Wisconsin Press, February 6, 2006), as a birthday present this year.  Thus, I've had the opportunity to review not only Olsen's article about the clothing distinctions between matrons and whores, but also to read the other articles in that book about prostitution in antiquity.

When I first wrote about this topic, a Roman-era reenactor commented to chide me for (apparently) accepting the idea that there was such a thing as sacred prostitution in ancient Rome. Having read Prostitutes and Courtesans, it's clear that, if anything, he understated the case.  The weight of modern scholarship maintains that there is no evidence for sacred prostitution anywhere in the ancient world, period. The belief that there was such a thing appears to have arisen from a variety of translation errors (and perhaps some overheated scholarly imaginations) during the Victorian period and afterward.  

With that idea in mind, I re-read Kelly Olsen's essay in this volume, "Matrona and Whore:  Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity" with a view toward ascertaining whether I had missed any useful information in it.  Unfortunately, Kelly's conclusions amount to saying that there is no way to be certain what Roman prostitutes wore.  As I read her essay, those conclusions are:
  • Roman society attributed specific symbolism to different types of costume; for example, the stola and palla denoted the proper Roman matron, and, due to Augustus's statute, the toga, when worn by a woman, denoted loose morals (either as an adulteress or a whore).  Male costume also carried symbolism of various kinds.
  • However, we have no evidence that women typically wore the costume symbolic of their rank and status, and some evidence that many of them did not. 
  • Thus, to quote from Olsen's conclusion, "Matron and whore were surely distinguishable from each other on the street but perhaps not as easily as our authors [i.e., the Roman authors whose remarks form a large part of our evidence for prostitutes' clothing] could have wished (and certainly they are exaggerating the similarities between matron and prostitute for rhetorical purposes)." (pages 200-201).
A logical conclusion from Olsen's research is that real women in ancient Rome varied their clothing choices deliberately, to evoke clothing symbolism that suited their individual purposes.  This topic is squarely addressed in a more recent article on Roman women's clothing, by Mary Harlow of the University of Leicester, titled "Dressing to Please Themselves:  Clothing Choices for Roman Women," in Dress and Identity (Harlow, Mary, ed, University of Birmingham IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature and Art 2, 2012).  A copy of Harlow's essay can be downloaded for free from this page.

In  the "Dressing to Please Themselves" essay, Harlow seeks to determine to what extent Roman women had and used free choice in selecting particular attire to present a particular image of themselves to the public.  Her conclusion, based largely upon the quantity of Roman cosmetic tools found by archaeologists and literary evidence of the wide availability of fabrics in different fibers (including silk, which was expensive and available in improper transparent weaves) and colors, is that women likely did alter their public image by varying their clothing and cosmetics--though the evidence of their having done so remains sparse:
Evidence demonstrates that within a relatively limited repertoire of styles a range of choice existed in terms of colour and textiles, and also that colour was very much part of the Roman visual world. The constant refrain against female adornment throughout the time span of the Roman empire suggests that women certainly were exploiting the market that was available to them despite any disquiet it might cause their menfolk. Roman writers were adept at manipulating the image of the dressed (and undressed) woman to suit their agenda and presumably women were equally as adept at manipulating their own draped clothing to suit their agenda, or at least give them power over their immediate social space. (page 43)
My conclusion, after reading the analyses of Olsen, Harlow, McGinn, and others, is that we cannot generalize about what Roman prostitutes wore for the same reasons we cannot generalize about what modern prostitutes wear--because individual women choose whether and how to signal their status by their clothing, or may decide to give false or misleading information about that status in different situations.  A woman may choose dress like a prostitute to conceal her identity, or for sexual stimulation, and a prostitute may dress like a high-class matron to conceal her status as a prostitute, or to attract a different sort of customer.  Moreover, prostitutes are not, to our knowledge, depicted in sculpture or fresco art, so we cannot even discern what the conventional "prostitute's toga" looked like.  Without further evidence, the clothing of Roman prostitutes likely will continue to remain a mystery.  


  1. They wore peach togas. Read a history book.

    1. Tell me the title of the book you saw that claim in and I'll read it. Peach is one color I have not seen attributed to prostitutes so far.

  2. Super late, about four years late lol, but it's a common theme in most art of prostitutes wearing shortened tunics often very brightly colored and little to no patterns and a brightly colored togas paired with it.
    Long flowing hair or low ponytails and very exaggerated makeup to highlight the features. Other than the toga and makeup, they didn't wear too much jewelry as that seemed to be a pirvilage only free women could enjoy depending on which time during the empire you look at.

    Most of this is going off of the paintings and poems/epics that mention them so it could be slightly exaggerated, but it doesn't seem too far out the question.

    then again you've probably long since found some good sources and more ^u^

    1. Actually no, I've been distracted and haven't thought much about this topic in a while. Can you identify any particular images that support your statement? Or any articles that discuss them?