Unraveling the world of Roman fashion

Lasting from AD43 to AD410, the Roman occupation of Britain had a profound influence on many aspects of life. Local expert Hayley Simmons explores the rich legacy of fashion they left behind

Prolific for its fascinating historical discoveries, Norfolk is renowned for being a Roman rich area. From priceless pieces of jewellery such as brooches and rings to unique cosmetic sets, archaeologists and detectorists have unearthed a treasure trove of remarkable decorative items over the years. A number of these exquisite finds are on display at Lynn Museum, showcasing the history and splendour of Roman fashions worn throughout Norfolk and wider Britannia.

“One of our most popular exhibits is a golden Roman pendant in the shape of a phallus,” says Lynn Museum Learning Assistant Hayley Simmons, who specialises in Ancient Rome and Roman personal adornment. “It was discovered in Hillington in 2011 and is completely made of gold. This makes it incredibly rare as most of the other ancient phalluses discovered in Britain were crafted from base metals. This particular type of jewellery was used as a form of protection to ward off evil spirits; the Romans believed they distracted the evil eye from looking at you.”

Further examples of intriguing Roman fashions and vanity items on display include tweezers and cosmetic sets, a fragment of a bone comb, a twisted torc neck ring discovered in Pentney, brooches and a decorative gold ring. There are also fragments of two insignia rings made from bronze. “They are all remarkable pieces of history, but the twisted torc ring is particularly special. Although created by the Romans, it was inspired by the chunky Celtic torcs worn by natives,” Hayley explains. 

“There have been several torcs discovered in Snettisham that are believed to have belonged to the Iceni tribe, possibly even their leader Boudica herself,” she continues. “However, our twisted torc is much thinner and has very clear traits of Roman design. Their ability to assimilate themselves into other cultures while drawing inspiration from what was around them is truly fascinating.”

A perfect example of the empire’s deep-rooted conventions, the bronze fragments of two seal rings are Roman through and through. Enriched with striking insignia, they demonstrate the importance of fashion in representing family status. Such a ring would have been an heirloom worn by the head of the family to prove their rank or seal important documents. 

More commonplace decorative pieces included brooches, which were integral to everyday fashion. As Roman clothing was typically very loose, brooches were needed to fasten garments together – usually on the shoulders. 

“Brooches tended to be around two to three inches in length, sometimes smaller depending on the article of clothing they were made for,” Hayley adds. “We have a nice selection of dolphin brooches at Lynn Museum as well as a bronze penannular example, which would have been used with tunics, togas and stolas.”

Much like jewellery, the type of clothing people wore signified their rank within society. Tunics were basic garments made from wool or linen and were worn by people of all social classes, whilst togas were more formal and typically worn by Roman citizens. They signified social status and were draped over the left shoulder. 

ABOVE: To learn more, join Learning Assistant Hayley Simmons (opposite) on Friday 28th June at Lynn Museum. A fragment of a bone comb. A remarkable example of Roman fashion and customs, a golden pendant in the shape of a phallus is one of the most popular exhibits at Lynn Museum. Also on display are a twisted torc neck ring.

The garments Romans wore indicated everything you needed to know about who they were, even the choice of colour signified wealth and status.

“The Roman empire was a riot of colour,” explains Hayley. “From white and bright red through to the more muted greys usually worn by the working and lower classes; fashion was both vibrant and informative.”

Purple in particular was prized, not just because of its appearance but because it was exceptionally expensive. “The dye could only be obtained through extracting the glands of sea snails and it would take thousands of these to colour just one cloth,” says Hayley. “For this reason, only the emperor wore pure purple and esteemed members of the senate would often have a purple stripe. The amount and the quality of gold a person wore also spoke volumes for their status; there were clearly some very wealthy Romans in Norfolk.”

For Roman women, hairstyles were one of the biggest identifiers of rank within society. They were a trend that reached its peak during the Flavian dynasty of emperors, when women in high positions wore wig pieces made from the hair of slaves. This made their hairdos larger and higher, illustrating their social standing. 

“It was a truly captivating era. From their advanced infrastructure and societal customs to their fashion, the Romans left behind a legacy that’s still admired today,” says Hayley. “I would love to go back in time and experience the vibrancy.” 

If you’d like to be transported to the rich world of Roman fashion, join Hayley Simmons at Lynn Museum for an informative talk on Friday 28th June between 2pm and 3pm. Visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/events for more details and to book tickets.

ABOVE: Glass beads from Grimston and a gold ring from Dersingham (below) are all fantastic examples of Roman fashion on display at Lynn Museum.

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