We have a lot to learn about ourselves from fashion. Just looking at old wedding photos is enough to make one realise that beauty is more the product of our culture, than some universal standard. Just as it is a shock to realise that in the 1980’s taffeta shoulder pads were the height of elegance, the fashion of the ancient world can be jarring, bizarre, and outright repulsive. There is no better evidence of human frailty than our willingness to look terrible just to fit in. We devote inordinate time and resources to create styles that might impress in the moment, but out of context become laughably ugly. So embrace your inner nihilist and, without further ado I present you a catalogue of human folly; the worst fashion trends from the ancient world.
- Walls of Hair
In the high Roman empire, women’s hairstyles also reached their most extravagant heights. From the reign of the Emperor Domitian in 81 A.D., women’s hairstyles became hugely elaborate and time consuming. The Empress Domitia Longina is a perfect example of the style, which featured a wall of ringlets or braids in the front, and a bun in the back. In an era before the miracle of hairspray, this gravity defying look was achieved by using either a toupet, or by sewing the hair to a piece of fabric stiffened with beewax.
As if the results weren’t sufficiently repellent, there’s the fact that it was the all product of slave labour. There were teams slaves whose entire job was to make these rich women’s heads look like coral reefs. Juvenal’s sixth satire describes a scene in which three slaves are frantically tending to their mistresses’ hair:
“Why is this curl sticking up?” The bullhide strap is the immediate punishment for the wicked crime of the twisting ringlet. What has Psecas done wrong? How can it be your slave girl’s fault if you don’t like your own nose? On your left another slave is drawing out and combing your hair and coiling it into a bun. In her council sits a slave of her mother’s… After her, her inferiors in age and skill will give their views as if it were a matter of reputation or life itself. That’s how much care is given to the quest for beautification.”
Like Marie Antoinette’s towering wigs, Juvenal turns the hairstyles of Rome’s obscenely wealthy women into symbols of cruelty and moral corruption.
Contrary to popular belief, this monstrosity was not just the product of a 1980’s collective brain fart. I am very sorry to inform you that, mullets have existed for over 1,600 years. Ancient mullets were even longer, messier, and seedier in the 5th century than in the 20th century! Augustine of Hippo recounts meeting some young fans of the chariot races in Constantinople, the capital of the Empire, who used to dress up like the Huns:
First among the factions, they changed their hair to a completely new style. They had it cut and shaped very differently from all the other Romans. They did not alter the beard or moustache in any way, but took care to grow them as long as possible, like the Persians. But the hair on the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the long growth to fall down behind to its full length in a mangled mess, like the Massagetai. That is why they call this fashion the “Hun style.”
Accessorising your mullet with a long beard and exaggerated bell-sleeves must qualify as one of the worst looks all time. Evidence that youth culture and sports fanaticism have motivated people to do stupid things for millennia.
- Penis Necklaces
Penis necklaces made of coral or amber were a popular choice for Romans from all walks of life, including children. Not only was the phallus a popular decoration for personal jewellery, but also for the home, on walls, in the alleyways of public streets. In the ancient Mediterranean these images penises were thought of as protective charms that warded off evil spirits. The obscenity of these images wasn’t entirely lost on the people who wore them and decorated the streets with them. On a wall found in Pompeii there is an image of a phallus accompanied by the words hanc ego cacavi (“I shat this one out”). Clearly the Romans took their penises with a wicked sense of humour.
- Using wet bread as a hair remover
It was really hard to find decent cosmetics in ancient Rome! For centuries, Romans used a range of home remedies to achieve a fair and youthful complexion – from chalk to highly toxic white lead. Like many cultures Romans idealised a youthful, hairless body, and those who could afford it resorted to various methods of hair removal and cosmetics to attain it. Some people even went to far as to attempt to conceal theirs 5 o’clock shadow. According to historian Suetonius, the Emperor Otho used to soak bread in milk and apply it to his face in an attempt prevent his beard from growing out. Although he had plenty of hair on his chin, the Emperor was unfortunately bald on top, which he famously used to cover up with a wig.
Togas are the actual worst. Those statues of stern patriarchs in elegant drapery that have come to symbolise Ancient Rome belie the fact that togas were uncomfortable, impractical, and unpopular for day-to-day wear.
Togas were made of eight metres of wool, draped around the body in such a precarious way that it would fall off should the wearer make a single wrong move. Being cocooned in this unwieldly woollen creation in the middle of an Italian summer was a recipe for sweat and misery. The toga was so unpleasant that many Romans opted for Greek-style tunics for everyday use. The Emperor Augustus had to force Roman citizens to wear them when they went to the forum.
We usually think of fashion victims as being women, but the toga is the perfect demonstration that where society demands it, men are equally willing to sacrifice comfort for style. The toga was, like the corset, or the high heel, an oppressive reminder of social expectation. It kept Roman citizens uncomfortably aware of their bodies at all times – reminding them that a Roman citizen appearing in public was meant to put on a carefully controlled performance both in terms of the words he spoke and the way he carried himself.
Virgil described Romans as the ‘Togate Race’, but as with most fashion, it was more fantasy than reality. The city of Rome was a cultural melting pot and was home to a colourful array of different fashions. The ubiquity of the toga in Roman art made it a sort if imperialist uniform that concealed the true diversity within Rome and the Empire. Then again, if diverse fashion meant grimy mullets paired with Gandalf beards, perhaps it’s just as well they were erased by the supremacy of the toga!
So there you have it; the worst fashion trends from antiquity. Whether people have adopted these trends to express their social status, their favourite chariot racing team, or to ward off evil spirits, they have all gone down in history as objects of ridicule. It’s enough to make you want to give up and wear leggings for the rest of your life!
Have I left anything out? Does anyone care to vindicate the toga? Let me know in the comments below!
Image: Sebastian Giralt
 Bartman, E. (2001). ‘Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment’. American Journal of Archaeology, 105(1), 1-25, 10.
 Juvenal, Satires 6.492-501.
 Shaw, Brent (2011) Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Conflict in the Age of Augustine, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 25-6.
 Clarke, J. R. (2013) ‘Sexuality and Visual Representation’, in Hubbard, T. (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 509-533, 524.
 Suetonius, Life of Otho, 12.1-2.
 Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 1.40.
 Virgil, Aeneid, 1.278-82. Christ, A. (1997) ‘The Masculine Ideal of “the Race That Wears the Toga”‘, Art Journal, 56(2), 24-30.