Monday, April 13, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Kelly Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. London/New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xv, 171; fig. 30. ISBN 9780415414760. $35.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Carly Daniel-Hughes, Concordia University

An assiduously researched monograph, Dress and the Roman Woman makes a welcomed contribution to the growing interest in dress and adornment in the Roman world.1 While classicists may have once overlooked such practices as unworthy of sustained study, scholars like Kelly Olson explore them in order to gain a deeper understanding of the lives of ancient women (2). This book builds on Olson's earlier work on Roman women's dress, reiterating her insights that for the Romans dress was linked with ethics.2 Though her monograph can be placed alongside other recent studies of Rome's vestimentary culture, this surprisingly slender book represents the fullest and most recent examination in English of women's dress and adornment at Rome. Dress and the Roman Woman should become an immediate standard resource for scholars of Roman social history and women's history, and in particular, required reading for historians of Roman dress. Olson draws together literary sources from across literary genres, portrait sculpture and frescoes, as well as cosmetic artifacts, in order to outline the richest picture of women's practices of dress and adornment from 200BCE-300CE with a focus on the city of Rome.3 The goal of this study is to examine this material and outline the range of meanings that male authors and women themselves attributed to practices of dress and adornment.

The breadth of Olson's analysis will surely make the monograph widely appealing, though her admittedly mosaicist methodology might be seen as a liability in some instances. Her approach finds her lifting quotes out from her texts (a critique of which she is aware, see 4), and leaves her unable to consider in full detail the rhetorical contexts of the literature that she examines. (Yet, as I will note, Olson remains cautious about the prescriptive nature of all of the sources she examines). For instance, Olson includes many references to De pallio and De cultu feminarum, treatises on men's and women's dress by Tertullian of Carthage, which certainly remain among the most alluring literary sources for scholars of Roman dress. Yet Olson explicitly focuses her study on dress at Rome where both of these texts were written for Carthaginian audiences. Tertullian's pithy oration, De pallio, is even addressed to "the eternal Princes of Africa, men of Carthage" (principes semper Africae, viri Carthaginienses), indicating the provincial setting of this oration and the ethnic construction of Christian masculinity being advanced in it.4 Thus we might inquire: to what degree are Tertullian's remarks illustrative of practices at Rome? (De cultu feminarum, I would argue, is less problematic given the strong correlations between Tertullian's construction of Christian women's dress there with what we find in authors writing about women at Rome).

On the whole, however, setting various kinds of sources in juxtaposition with one another allows Olson to draw out larger patterns as well as discursive tensions in treatments of dress. Her analysis not only considers how Roman woman clothed themselves, but also how women's clothing could communicate values and sustain particular ideologies. She concludes that Roman society had developed a complex, and largely unchanging, sartorial vocabulary in which women's visual displays of dress and adornment were tied to ethics and power (5). As Olson aptly states: "For the Romans, aesthetics were ethics" (113). She adds that though this sartorial vocabulary appears in literary contexts where male authors use it to deride women, clothing and adornment were also media for women's self-expression and creative pleasure (96 and 111). She illustrates that Rome's aesthetics of dress were "male-constructed and male-defined" and generally prescriptive rather than descriptive. But Olson adds that dress and adornment provided a symbolic system in which women from various social classes willingly participated. Roman women dressed in order to showcase their prestige in a cultural context that privileged the visual (96 and 110).

A short introduction establishes Olson's methodological approach and briefly locates the study in terms of previous work on ancient women's dress (2-4). From here the book opens onto to its densest chapter, "The Clothing of Women", in which Olson considers the garments and accessories that were said to adorn Roman women. A daunting amount of material is organized in different heuristic categories: the young girl, matron, widow, bride, slave and lower class women, as well as prostitute. Women's fabrics and their colors, jewelry, and shoes are treated briefly in separate sections. Olson sustains a theoretically productive suspicion about the rhetorical agendas of her various sources, literary and pictorial. In particular, she notes the disconnect between literary depictions of women's dress, especially of the Roman matrona, with portraiture and paintings of Roman women. Roman authors insist that matrons should wear the stola, a garment with a v-shaped neckline that was worn over a tunic, and the vittae, ribbons that were tied into the hair. Yet the visual record of such items, most especially the vittae, are rare (38). Indeed, the item of dress that more often distinguished the high-standing woman was the palla, a wrap or mantle that could be, but was not always, used to veil the head (34-36). Olson concludes that literary presentations indicate an ideal dress code, perhaps even an antiquarian one, "drawn from the clothing of the flaminca Dialis", who was the high priestess known for "marital fidelity" (41). Items of dress could be used rhetorically to indicate a woman's character; a chaste woman, for instance, could be called stolata, stola-clad, where a prostitute might be called togata, toga-clad, but such descriptors signified moral dispositions rather than routine habits of dress (50 and 113). Olson thus illustrates that sartorial discourse could be deployed by male authors to articulate moral ideals and fix social boundaries, which in reality were more fluid (51, 95, and 114).

The second chapter outlines the "cosmetic arts", what Latin writers called medicamentum, a term that signified both improvement and remedy, even poison, indicating the ambivalence of Roman authors' views of such practices, and reflecting the fact that some cosmetic substances were lethal if ingested (59-60 and 69). Here the reader is treated to an amazing list of techniques Roman women might have employed in "improving" their face, skin, and hair (the largest study of this topic in English, see 58). Though women could shade their eyes with kohl, and darken their eyebrows (a single brow was deemed most alluring), white and blemish free skin was upheld as the paramount cosmetic goal (62-63 and 79). Olson notes that poor sanitation and diet as well as harsh skin treatments, the most devastating certainly being white lead, could combine to ravage a woman's complexion (65). Authors such as Pliny and Ovid list countless products to combat harm done to the skin: powders and creams formed from ash or fat, honey, and various vegetables or herbs in combination. Failing these remedies, women might use alutae, little patches of soft leather that covered over any unsightly imperfection (65).

A woman's hair is also repeatedly figured as an important marker of beauty and prestige, as Olson notes, hair was "for some the seat of female attractiveness and a locus of feminine sexuality" (71). She might have extended her point by noting explicitly the common and repeated notion in Greek and Roman literature that a woman's head and mouth metonymically indicated her genitalia.5 And the hair, in particular, was cast as the privileged and visible site of a woman's sexuality. As Olson notes vittae were modeled after fillets that decorated sacrificial animals (36-39). Thus on a matron's head, they too suggested inviolability, but in that case denoting her sexual exclusivity. Similarly Varro imagines the tutulus, a conical tower of hair said to be worn by matrons (see 40), as a metaphor for the citadel of the city: a matron's twisted hair protects her head, guarding her sexuality just as the citadel guards the city against hostile intrusions.6 Olson importantly challenges the earlier presumption that civic elites and imperial women changed their hairstyles frequently (a claim that she argues is not born out by the portraiture, see 71). Elaborate hairstyles, of looping curls in a conical tower, or voluminous ropes of braids drawn up the back of head, might have been embellished with wigs, perhaps necessary for women whose hair suffered burning from curling irons and harsh dyes. These styles were held up by pins and could be decorated with gems (73 and 76). Other topics briefly discussed in this chapter include Roman aesthetics of the body and perfume, apparently enjoyed by both Roman men and women (78).

The monograph then delves into the "anti-cosmetic tradition". Olson notes that Roman writers often presented a woman's display of cosmetic skill as an indicator of her deceptive spirit, love of frivolity and luxury, and disdain for Roman mores. These complaints, she points out, are repeated with little variation across the centuries from the Hellenistic playwright Plautus to the Christian writers Tertullian and Jerome (80). Latin writers variously sought out adornment as a sign of a treacherous and false woman. Given the link between ethical disposition and dress forged in sartorial discourse, Olson makes the critical observation that women who did not embody the ideal garments of a modest woman were seen as "rejecting the moral code bound up in these clothes" (88 and 95). The adorned woman was thought to seek unwarranted visual attention, willingly making herself into an object for male visual pleasure (92). The ideal woman should display modesty pudicitia by means of simple and unaffected dress, Roman moralists claimed. Yet this sartorial discourse was ripe with contradiction: a woman who totally avoided the cosmetic arts, cultus or care of the body, was also disdained. A Roman woman was asked to negotiate a tenuous balance. She was not only to be modest pudicus, but also elegant munditia. She should employ the art of cultus with subtlety and measure, always indicating care for her appearance but never seeming to court erotic attention (93). Olson's discussion reveals precisely the ambiguity that made adornment and dress useful in invective. The blurred distinction could readily turn a woman's cultus, care for the body, into an indication of her ornatus, ornamentation of the body, should a Roman writer seek any multitude of grounds for her indictment. In addition, dress was also deployed rhetorically to construct identity, as I would argue is in evidence in the Christian writers like Tertullian and Jerome who feature in Olson's study. In De cultu feminarum, for instance, Tertullian argues that Christian women display a more pure pudicitia than their "gentile" counterparts.7 Indeed both Tertullian and Jerome exploit this symbolic system so that Christian women might exhibit a distinctive morality through their modesty of dress and adornment.

In the final chapter, Olson examines evidence for women's participation in the beauty culture of the Roman world. She demonstrates that women could have purchased jewelry and fine clothing with their own funds. Wearing such finery was a visual display of power. Cosmetic implements were engraved on tombs because beauty rituals demanded the use of a retinue of slaves, thus such images signified a woman's wealth and status in this life (99). Roman authors often chided women for too much grooming, yet in practice carefully stylizing the body was an important preoccupation for elite women. Olson suggests, for example, that the mysterious imperial age conventus feminarum mentioned in Seneca and Suetonius may refer to a council of elite women who policed women's dress and adornment precisely because these practices served to distinguish ranks of women (101). Further, though Roman writers remained ambivalent about the benefits of adornment, they too insisted that elite Roman women should be visibly demarcated from non-elites and foreigners by means of dress (103). Certain Roman women surely exploited this connection between dress and status by negotiating this sartorial vocabulary in ways that highlighted their station and secured their prestige (104). Olson concludes her study by demonstrating that literary sources reveal that a Roman woman would also beautify herself for her own enjoyment and desire for "self-construction" (109-110). In fact some sources depict a woman's beauty as a kind of artistic expression: her face is likened to a painting or her acts of beautification to "construction", rendering the arts of dress and adornment media by which she could "communicate the self to others" (110).

Olson's study could be expanded in regard to better understanding women's self-construction. How exacting might such a construction be? Olson considers how dress could communicate status, wealth, power, and individual style, but what else might dress signal? For instance, she notes that some women donned hairpins with figures of Eros, perhaps in an attempt to secure "this deity's favor" (following Kleiner and Matheson, see 75). Might we consider how dress indicated women's piety and adherence to particular gods? Could her dressing be religiously inflected, an act of constituting religious subjectivity? In what ways did women calibrate their dress to indicate piety, periods of chastity, and the like? (Of course this question raises some important theoretical concerns about the extent to which our sources give us access to women's own conceptions of their self-presentation). Further, limiting her study to Rome, Olson naturally does not consider whether a woman's dress was ethnically marked. But her study raises questions about local variance and how dress might have differed in the provinces, which indicate the need for future comparative analyses that engage Olson's findings. Ultimately, Dress and the Roman Woman is a rich study that greatly advances our knowledge of Roman women's dress and adornment and how these practices might have shaped women's lives.

Table of Contents

1 The Clothing of Women
2 The Cosmetic Arts and Care of the Body
3 The Dangers of Adornment
4 Self-presentation, Status, and Power


1.   The premier studies include, J.L Sebesta and L. Bonfante, eds. The World of Roman Costume. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994 and A.T. Croom Roman Clothing and Fashion. Gloucester: Tempus, 2002. Second Edition. Some more recent treatments of this topic that build on and critique the above are as follows, L.Llewellyn-Jones, ed. Women's Dress in the Ancient Greek World. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2002, L.Llewellyn-Jones Aphrodite's Tortoise: The Veiled Women of Ancient Greece. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2003, and J. Edmondson and A. Keith, eds. Roman Dress and the Fabric of Roman Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008 (which features an article by Olson on the dress of young girls, and extends her treatment of that subject in this book).
2.   See for instance, K.Olson, Matrona and Whore: The Clothing of Women in Roman Antiquity, Fashion Theory 6.4: 387-420.
3.   All figures in the monograph appear in black and white, disappointing in the case of mummy portraits and frescoes where color figures would have been more illustrative, particularly in the initial chapters).
4.   See the dissertation turned monograph D.Wilhite Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian's Context and Identities. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007, especially chapter five.
5.   See for instance, Mary Rose D'Angelo, Veils, Virgins, and the Tongues of Men and Angels In Howard Eilberg-Schwartz and Wendy Doniger (eds) Off with Her Head: the Denial of Women's Identity Religion, and Culture, 131-164. Berkeley: University of California Press; cf. Lucian Herod. 5 which describes the moment that the groom lifts the bride's veil, as the breaking of a seal, a symbol of the rupture of the bride's hymen. See also the discussion by Llwellyn-Jones (2003), 239.
6.   Ling. 7.44; cf. J.L. Sebesta, Women's Costume and Feminine Civic Morality in Augustan Rome Gender and History 9.3: 537.
7.   See Ter. Cult. 1.2.1 and 2.2.1.

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