Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Costume

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 35: Reconstruction of ancient Roman pantomime using torchlight as created during the Empire, San Jose State University, 2012. Photo: Karl Toepfer.


Pantomime costumes emphasized the beauty of the performer’s body and movement. In the pantomime aesthetic, luxuriousness implied above all a refined physical sensuality. Performers selected and designed costumes on the basis of how well the costumes made them look. The “authenticity” of a costume had nothing to do with revealing the impersonated character, nor did it have much to do with glorifying the status or rank of the character impersonated. They glorified the performer. In the fourth century CE, Libanius defended pantomimes for their use of gold embroidery in their tunics (Libanius 1908: Paragraph 52). He also defended the wearing by male pantomimes of feminine costumes, for these, like the adorning of long hair, signify an artistic imagination, an urban luxuriousness, not moral degeneration (Paragraphs 52-56; Malloy 2014: 156-157). Pantomimes employed costumes that allowed them to move freely while glorifying the contours of their bodies. Such costumes were slight variations on the basic clothing worn by virtually all people in the ancient world, the chiton or tunic for males and the peplumor stolafor females [Figures 3-5, 14, 15]. Roman culture did not invest much significance in elaborate designs or complex weaving practices that designated the wearer’s capacity for luxurious effects until after the Christianization of the Empire, when the Byzantine royalty introduced increasingly opulent patterns into fabrics to signify rank and wealth. “Roman clothing was simple and elegant, practical and comfortable. Based on the rectangles that came directly from the loom, first in wool and linen, then in cotton, in silk, and in combinations of fibers, the basic garments for men, women, and children were the tunica, toga, peplum, stola, palla, and pallium” (Goldman 1994a: 217). These garments could be dyed in a wide range of colors in different shades or intensities: yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, violet, orange, turquoise, black, and indigo; and some parts of the Empire, particularly Egypt, developed industries that specialized in producing borders, hems, or trims that could be sewn (sometimes with cloth-of-gold) onto the basic garments (Sebesta 1994). But the beauty of a dye and the quality of the cloth were for the Romans a more important sign of wealth or status than the splendor of designs sewn onto the cloth. Cloaks or mantels worn with the tunica(male chiton) could provide dramatic color contrasts, and different cloaks served different functions. A short cloak such as the abolla, a variation of the chlamys, was largely decorative and symbolic and associated with the military, as was the somewhat larger paludamentum, whereas all classes wore the paenula, which often provided a hood. The laenaand the lacernawere variations of the abollabut designed for summer and winter wear respectively (Norris 1924: 71-72). In one of his letters on oratory, the Numidian lawyer-rhetorician Fronto (ca. 100-160 CE) referred to pantomimes who use the same scarf to signify a swan’s tail, the hair of Venus, the wrath of the Furies, and “many other things” (Fronto 1867: 157). Another male garment was the pallium, a kind of large scarf that, when worn with a paenula, was looped over the right should, “then across the breast to the left shoulder again, falling down to the back” (Norris 1924: 108). The tunicaamong the Romans did not contain sleeves until the third century CE, when the emperors Commodus and Heliogabulus adopted the dalmatica, although not without inspiring much condemnation. The sleeved tunic nevertheless became a widespread fashion, but hardly because this sort of long shirt had long been in use among Dalmatian peasants and also among the Asian people from whom Heliogabulus was descended (Norris 1924: 98-99) [Figures 11, 17]. Norris, however, says (99) that the dalmatica was “always worn without a belt,” which means that it was not effective in emphasizing the contours of the wearer’s body, but more effective than the tunica in displaying embroidered ornamental designs; whereas the tunica, remaining pervasive well into the middle ages, brought the fabric close to the body through sashes, cord belts, or bands (“girdles”). Nothing in the visual record suggests that the pantomimes ever favored unbelted tunics or peplums, even after the Christianization of the Empire, for it was the Christians who made the dalmatica into a kind of opulent curtain for disguising rather than revealing the body (cf. Wyles 2008).

The toga is the costume most peculiarly identified with the Romans, and it seems that all Romans wore it up until the fourth or early third centuries BCE. But because it projected such a powerful nationalistic aura even before the third century BCE, lawmakers began regulating the wearing of the toga, so that by the second century BCE, its use was primarily ceremonial and symbolic and limited to aristocratic males. The toga maintained its ceremonial function until the end of the Empire, but it was not a form of dress that anyone was likely to see outside Rome or even outside state or aristocratic-sponsored occasions in Rome (Stone 1994; Wilson 1924; Goette 1990). While comic dramas of the third and second century BCE fell into genres defined by the different togas the characters wore, the pantomime completely avoided this costume. The toga was simply too historical or too local in its symbolic resonance to evoke the mythic ambience of the performance. The grand dignity associated with the costume, not to mention its encumbering constraint of the body, made it unsuitable for dancing; indeed, a performer perhaps risked censure or punishment for ridiculing the national dignity by dancing in a toga. A few scholars assert or insinuate that Roman prostitutes and adulteresses wore “plain” togas to signify their low status (Stone 1994: 13; Sebesta 1994: 50). Such an insinuation is the only credible basis for considering the possibility that the toga had any place in the pantomime culture. But the evidence for this insinuation derives from passages in Juvenal (Satires 2.6) and Martial (2.39; 10.52) in which prostitutes actually do not wear togas. Rather, Juvenal describes how decadent homosexuals dress up as women at orgies (it’s not clear that they wear togas), and Martial, in the two epigrams, provides even less reliable evidence, because in neither case does he refer to a woman wearing a toga. Instead, he ironically invokes the toga as a symbol of a national dignity that an adulteress and her lover and a eunuch fail to embody. This is hardly convincing evidence that “the toga—a mark of manhood—was often worn by prostitutes” (Martial 1921: 67), and so the idea that the toga had any place in the pantomime culture must still find a foundation.

The stola worn by girls and women was a long tunica whose belt or “girdle,” fastened around the waist or under the breasts, allowed the hem to rise or fall. It was a supremely elegant dress that emphasized the female form by clinging to the body. It consisted of a large piece of cloth that draped around the body while affixed over the shoulders by pins, brooches, or fibulas [Figure 17]. The upper part of the stola was sometimes densely crinkled, but the garment as a whole in any case magnified the folds in the cloth shaped by the contours of the body, most notably in the pelvic area. “The whole garment was evidently cut much longer than was convenient, and was always raised by an invisible belt or cord at the waist, giving the turned under effect […]. The foldover edge made a line just above the hips; in some instances horizontally, in others curving upward at the center, this being due to more material being pulled through the belt at the sides to make the skirt even” (Norris 1924: 32). Because the stola required so much cloth, the wearer saved money by using material sometimes thin enough to be diaphanous. A male performer impersonating a female character would have little difficulty in slipping a stola over a tunica, especially if assisted by one or two members of the ensemble, and this bit of “metamorphosis” could prove theatrically exciting by striking an effective pose while the assistants attached gleaming pins or brooches and looped the belt around the waist before offering the mask to the actor. It is, however, not so easy to imagine a female performer wearing a stola who metamorphoses into a male character wearing a tunica. But if female performers, who appeared at least from the second century CE onward, conformed to the conventions of the pantomime, then they were expected to impersonate characters of both sexes. Knowledge of performances by women pantomimes is so scarce in the written sources that it is perhaps the case that public morality did not encourage the writers whose testimony is extant to discuss the work of these artists. The most obvious way for a female performer in a stola to metamorphose into a male character is for her to have her assistants take off her stola and put on her tunica. Her momentary nakedness provides a dramatic effect that is competitive with the male opportunity for metamorphosis. In The Golden Ass, Apuleius, describing the “Judgment of Paris” pantomime in Corinth, comments on the abundant nudity of male and female performers, especially Venus, who “appeared all naked, saving that her fine and comely middle was lightly covered with a thin silken smock, and this the wanton wind blew hither and thither, sometime lifting it to testify the youth and flower of her age, sometime making it to cling close to her to show clearly the form and figure of her members” (Apuleius 1972: 256-257). It is doubtful that women in the pantomime business saw much profit by embodying or even symbolizing the virtues or sacral dignities expected of well-born Roman matrons and monumentalized through worship of the Vestal Virgins. The pantomime appealed to its aristocratic patrons and to a diverse sector of the public because it promised release or freedom from the constraints on happiness and sexual morality imposed by state, familial, and communal ideals of virtue and sobriety. It offered privileged access to aesthetic rather than moral values, and the display of beautiful bodies was the strongest manifestation of this privilege.

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