The Sacred Medievalist – Making Roman clothing for beginners

Just some background for you – I’ve been for many years a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) medieval group, and since we live pretty much in the tropics in Australia, we were finding that doing anything in summer in costume was just too hot. Consequently we are experimenting (2013) with some Roman clothing in order to survive the summer heat. Following find a photo essay of my latest experiment into Roman clothing. Men – the construction of clothing for males is very similar and very easy, but since I’m female, this is what you get!

Terminology – since there seems to be confusion in the resources online as to the correct names for each of the items, I’m going to call them ‘underdress’, ‘overdress’ and ‘wrap’.

And a warning – the techniques and materials here will qualify for an attempt at costume in the SCA but may not qualify for your group as they all have different rules about hand sewing and materials. If in doubt, check with your group first.

Roman matron


I’m aiming for this sort of look. Note the short belt tied just below the breasts.

Roman matron 2


This lady has her wrap open, possibly because she is a depiction of the domestic goddess Vesta, but she is otherwise dressed conventionally for the time. This allows you to see how the overdress was belted up to the correct length at the waist and also tied under the breasts. In real life it’s a bit more bulky than on the statue but we have to allow for artistic licence. This lady’s wrap is also quite short, and certainly wouldn’t wrap around twice like I have seen suggested elsewhere which may be artistic licence again.



This image of a Roman ladies’ sandal shows that since feet haven’t changed much in 2000 years, neither has footwear. As someone said to me, “Some fashion never goes out of style”.

half a double cotton sheet

Materials for this project -  a double cotton sheet made 2 underdresses for me but they are actually a touch short. It doesn’t matter as the overdress goes to the ground. What I didn’t calculate for was the amount the length changed when I put a belt on. I also used a whole double bedsheet for the overdress and a cheap cotton bedspread as a wrap.

sewing machine

My trusty sewing machine saved a lot of time on this project.

Zigzag edges

Zigzag all the raw edges. I’d suggest using the selvedge of the fabric for along the top of the shoulders to save a whole lot of mucking about.

Roman chiton with bead closure

Measure how much of an armhole you need. I used 10 inches for both of these, but it’s a matter of personal preference.

Side seam at armhole

Machine sew from the armhole down each side to the hem (this seam is invisible so no need to hand sew).

Finishing armholes (simple method)

You can finish the armholes by simply turning the edge under and using a running stitch.

Finishing armholes (rolled seam)

But the edge of the armhole is fairly visible so I prefer to use a rolled hem like so, and sew in place with a running stitch.

armhole before buttons

Each armhole should look like this when finished, and now is a good time to finish the hem as well using the same technique.

Side seams and sleeve seams done

You should now have a tube of fabric, mostly closed up each side.

Underside bead closure

The quickest option at this point is to simply sew the shoulders together at even points along the seam.

top of sleeve Roman chiton bead closure

And add some pretty (washable) beads on top – I’ve used mother-of-pearl and wooden beads here.

But this next technique, while it involves a fair bit of hand sewing, creates the beautiful drape and gather which you see on the statues. It’s automatic, adjustable, and elegantly simple.

centre seam of the button (overstitch method)

Sew a section of the shoulder seam together. Like this OR

Sewing the middle of the button together (reverse side)

from the reverse side like this. I found this method easier.

Sewing the circle

Then stitch a rough circle around the closed section in running stitch so you can

Gathering the button

gather a button. Stitch off your gather here so it doesn’t come loose.

flattening the button

Flatten the button out and

Tacking the button to the top of the sleeve

Tack the button to the shoulder seam to keep it flat and tie off.

gathered button

And the finished button. Now redo 9 more times, or however many you need. The buttons gather a substantial amount of fabric though, I found that a total of 6 3-inch buttons was all I needed.

Roman underdress with buttons side view

The gathering is exactly like the statues in terms of the fall and drape, and comes together elegantly with a belt:

Roman underdress with sewn buttons front view

The overdress is simply a tube of fabric, longer than you are tall, with 2 buttons to hold at the shoulders, a belt at the waist and a belt under the breasts.

under and overdress in mirror

You could add brooches pinned to the buttons too, and they can be quite delicate as they won’t have to hold the weight of the dress, but be pinned to the pad of the button.

Add a nice piece of fabric for a wrap and

Full Roman in mirror

Hey Presto! A Roman!

One of the easiest costumes I have ever made, out of 2 bedsheets and a large cotton bedspread so very cheap, and should be really cool in summer. It will also be very forgiving of different body shapes so an excellent choice for loaner garb for visitors.

I’m looking forward to wearing it out.











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