The toga is a type of robe that consists of a roughly semicircular cloth draped over the shoulders and around the body.
The toga was draped, rather than fastened, around the body, and was held in position by the weight and friction of its fabric. No pins or brooches were employed. In classical statuary, draped togas consistently show certain features and folds, identified and named in contemporary literature.
The sinus (literally, a bay or inlet) appears in the Imperial era as a loose over-fold, slung from beneath the left arm, downwards across the chest, then upwards to the right shoulder. Early examples were slender, but later forms were much fuller; the loop hangs at knee-length, suspended there by draping over the crook of the right arm.
The umbo (literally "knob"), was a pouch of the toga's fabric pulled out over the balteus (the diagonal section of the toga across the chest) in imperial-era forms of the toga. Its added weight and friction would have helped (though not very effectively) secure toga's fabric onto the left shoulder. As the toga developed, the umbo grew in size.
The most complex togas appear on high-quality portrait busts and imperial reliefs of the mid-to-late Empire, probably reserved for emperors and the highest civil officials. The so-called "banded" or "stacked" toga" (Latinised as toga contabulata) appeared in the late second century AD and was distinguished by its broad, smooth, slab-like panels of pleated material, more or less correspondent with umbo, sinus and balteus, or applied over the same. One rises from low between the legs, and is laid over the left shoulder; another more or less follows the upper edge of the sinus; yet another follows the lower edge of a more-or-less vestigial balteus then descends to the upper shin. As in other forms, the sinus itself is hung over the crook of the right arm. If its full-length representations are accurate, it would have severely constrained its wearer's movements. Dressing in a toga contabulata would have taken some time, and specialist assistance. When not in use, it required careful storage in some form of press or hanger to keep it in shape. Such inconvenient features of the later toga are confirmed by Tertullian, who preferred the pallium. High-status (consular or senatorial) images from the late 4th century show a further ornate variation, known as the "Broad Eastern Toga"; it hung to the mid-calf, was heavily embroidered, and was worn over two pallium-style undergarments, one of which had full length sleeves. Its sinus was draped over the left arm.
The toga's most distinguishing feature was its semi-circular shape, which sets it apart from other cloaks of antiquity like the Greek himation or pallium. The rounded form suggests it evolved out of the semi-circular Etruscan tebenna. Roman historians believed that Rome's legendary founder and first king, the erstwhile shepherd Romulus, had worn a toga as his clothing of choice; the purple-bordered toga praetexta was supposedly used by Etruscan magistrates, and introduced to Rome by her third king, Tullus Hostilius.
The traditional toga was made of wool, which was thought to possess powers to avert misfortune and the evil eye; the toga praetexta (used by magistrates, priests and freeborn youths) was always woolen. Wool-working was thought a highly respectable occupation for Roman women. A traditional, high-status mater familias demonstrated her industry and frugality by placing wool-baskets, spindles and looms in the household's semi-public reception area, the atrium. Augustus was particularly proud that his wife and daughter had set the best possible example to other Roman women by, allegedly, spinning and weaving his clothing.
Handwoven cloth was slow and costly to produce, and compared to simpler forms of clothing, the toga used an extravagant amount of it. To minimise waste, the smaller, old-style forms of toga may have been woven as a single, seamless, selvedged piece; the later, larger versions may have been made from several pieces sewn together; size seems to have counted for a lot. More cloth signified greater wealth and usually, though not invariably, higher rank. The purple-red border of the toga praetexta was woven onto the toga using a process known as "tablet weaving"; such applied borders are a feature of Etruscan dress.
Modern sources broadly agree that if made from a single piece of fabric, the toga of a high status Roman in the late Republic would have required a piece approximately 12ft in length; in the Imperial era, around 18ft, a third more than its predecessor, and in the late Imperial era around 8 feet wide and up to 18 or 20 feet in length for the most complex, pleated forms.
From its probable beginnings as a simple, practical work-garment, the toga became more voluminous, complex, and costly, increasingly unsuited to anything but formal and ceremonial use. It was and is considered ancient Rome's "national costume"; as such, it had great symbolic value, however even among Romans it was hard to put on, uncomfortable and challenging to wear correctly, and never truly popular. When circumstances allowed, those otherwise entitled or obliged to wear it opted for more comfortable, casual garments. It gradually fell out of use, firstly among citizens of the lower class, then those of the middle class. Eventually, it was worn only by the highest classes for ceremonial occasions, and by the 5th century, it had been replaced as an official costume by the more practical pallium and paenula.
In Roman historical tradition, it is said to have been the favoured dress of Romulus, Rome's founder; it was also thought to have originally been worn by both sexes, and by the citizen-military. As Roman women gradually adopted the stola, the toga was recognised as formal wear for Roman citizen men. Women engaged in prostitution might have provided the main exception to this rule.
Roman society was strongly hierarchical, stratified and competitive. Landowning patrician aristocrats occupied most seats in the senate and held the most senior magistracies. Magistrates were elected by their peers and "the people"; in Roman constitutional theory, they ruled by consent. In practice, they were a mutually competitive oligarchy, reserving the greatest power, wealth and prestige for their class. The commoners who made up the vast majority of the Roman electorate had limited influence on politics, unless barracking or voting en masse, or through representation by their tribunes. The Equites (sometimes loosely translated as "knights") occupied a broadly mobile, mid-position between the lower senatorial and upper commoner class. Despite often extreme disparities of wealth and rank between the citizen classes, the toga identified them as a singular and exclusive civic body. Conversely, and just as usefully, it underlined their differences.
Togas were relatively uniform in pattern and style but varied significantly in the quality and quantity of their fabric, and the marks of higher rank or office. The highest-status toga, the solidly purple, gold-embroidered toga picta could be worn only at particular ceremonies by the highest ranking magistrates. Tyrian purple was supposedly reserved for the toga picta, the border of the toga praetexta, and elements of the priestly dress worn by the inviolate Vestal Virgins. It was colour-fast, extremely expensive and the "most talked-about colour in Greco-Roman antiquity". Romans categorised it as a blood-red hue, which sanctified its wearer. The purple-bordered praetexta worn by freeborn youths acknowledged their vulnerability and sanctity in law. Once a boy came of age (usually at puberty) he adopted the plain white toga virilis; this meant that he was free to set up his own household, marry, and vote. Young girls who wore the praetexta on formal occasions put it aside at menarche or marriage, and adopted the stola. Even the whiteness of the toga virilis was subject to class distinction. Senatorial versions were expensively laundered to an exceptional, snowy white; those of lower ranking citizens were a duller shade, more cheaply laundered.
Citizenship carried specific privileges, rights and responsibilities. The formula togatorum ("list of toga-wearers") listed the various military obligations that Rome's Italian allies were required to supply to Rome in times of war. Togati, "those who wear the toga," is not precisely equivalent to "Roman citizens," and may mean more broadly "Romanized". In Roman territories, the toga was explicitly forbidden to non-citizens; to foreigners, freedmen, and slaves; to Roman exiles; and to men of "infamous" career or shameful reputation; an individual's status should be discernable at a glance. A freedman or foreigner might pose as a togate citizen, or a common citizen as an equestrian; such pretenders were sometimes ferreted out in the census. Formal seating arrangements in public theatres and circuses reflected the dominance of Rome's togate elect. Senators sat at the very front, equites behind them, common citizens behind equites; and so on, through the non-togate mass of freedmen, foreigners, and slaves. Imposters were sometimes detected and evicted from the equestrian seats.
Various anecdotes reflect the toga's symbolic value. In Livy's history of Rome, the patrician hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, retired from public life and clad (presumably) in tunic or loincloth, is ploughing his field when emissaries of the Senate arrive, and ask him to put on his toga. His wife fetches it and he puts it on. Then he is told that he has been appointed dictator. He promptly heads for Rome. Donning the toga transforms Cincinnatus from rustic, sweaty ploughman – though a gentleman nevertheless, of impeccable stock and reputation – into Rome's leading politician, eager to serve his country; a top-quality Roman. Rome's abundant public and private statuary reinforced the notion that all Rome's great men wore togas, and must always have done so.
The toga was an approximately semi-circular woolen cloth, usually white, worn draped over the left shoulder and around the body: the word "toga" probably derives from tegere, to cover. It was considered formal wear and was generally reserved for citizens. The Romans considered it unique to themselves; thus their poetic description by Virgil and Martial as the gens togata ('toga-wearing race'). There were many kinds of togas, each reserved by custom to particular usage or social class.
- ' ("toga of manhood") also known as toga alba or toga pura: A plain white toga, worn on formal occasions by adult male commoners, and by Senators not having a curule magistracy. It represented adult male citizenship and its attendant rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
- Toga praetexta: a white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border, worn over a tunic with two broad, vertical purple stripes. It was formal costume for:
- Curule magistrates in their official functions, and traditionally, the Kings of Rome.
- Freeborn boys, and some freeborn girls, before they came of age. It marked their protection by law from sexual predation and immoral or immodest influence. A praetexta was thought effective against malignant magic, as were a boy's bulla, and a girl's lunula.
- Some priesthoods, including the Pontifices, Tresviri Epulones, the augurs, and the Arval brothers.
- Toga candida: "Bright toga"; a toga rubbed with chalk to a dazzling white, worn by candidates (from Latin candida, "pure white") for public office. Thus Persius speaks of a cretata ambitio, "chalked ambition". Toga candida is the etymological source of the word candidate.
- Toga pulla: "Dark toga", worn by mourners at funerals. A toga praetexta was also acceptable as mourning wear, if turned inside out to conceal its stripe; so was a plain toga pura. Wearing a toga pulla at a funeral feast was a serious breach of social and religious etiquette. Cicero makes a distinction between the toga pulla and an ordinary toga deliberately "dirtied" by its wearer as a legitimate mark of protest or supplication.
- Toga picta ("Painted toga"): Dyed solid purple, decorated with imagery in gold thread, and worn over a similarly-decorated tunica palmata; used by generals in their triumphs. During the Empire, it was worn by consuls and emperors. Over time, it became increasingly elaborate, and was combined with elements of the consular trabea.
- Trabea, associated with citizens of equestrian rank; thus their description as trabeati in some contemporary Roman literature. It may have been a shorter form of toga, or a cloak, wrap or sash worn over a toga. It was white with some form of decoration. In the later Imperial era, trabea refers to elaborate forms of consular dress. Some later Roman and post-Roman sources describe it as solid purple or red, either identifying or confusing it with the dress worn by the ancient Roman kings (also used to clothe images of the gods) or reflecting changes in the trabea itself. More certainly, equites wore an angusticlavia, a tunic with narrow, vertical purple stripes, at least one of which would have been visible when worn with a toga or trabea, whatever its form.
- Laena, a long, heavy cloak worn by Flamen priesthoods, fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. A lost work by Suetonius describes it as a toga made "duplex" (doubled by folding over upon itself).