Daily Life: Fashion

Painted round head of Empress

High fashion and heavenly adornment, Roman-style

Pompeii was a hub of trade and travel, and its wealthier residents were knowledgeable about all the latest fashion and beauty trends from Rome and beyond. The standard garment for women throughout the Roman Empire was the stola, a long pleated dress that was draped around the body and pinned together with brooches (fibulae). The style of this garment was traditional and didn’t vary much, which made make-up and hairstyling even more important as a way to express a woman’s beauty and individuality.

The Roman beauty ideal was a white face, bright red lips and very dark eyes. To achieve this look, women used foundation creams and face powder made from white lead or powdered chalk and animal fat. Lipstick was made from ochre or molluscs, and eyeliner from soot or antimony powder. Fashionable women washed in water perfumed with cinnamon and balsam, and often used ass’s milk on the skin to prevent wrinkles. Other oil-based scents were derived from spices and herbs like cardamom, saffron, lavender, rose and orange, and were stored in small, tightly-stoppered glass bottles. Mirrors made from highly polished bronze or silver were, of course, essential items in the wealthy woman’s beauty kit.

The blond hair of Celtic women (usually slaves) was particularly prized for making wigs, but when this was not available, many women dyed their hair blonde and used hairnets of fine gold thread and hairpins of bone to hold their often elaborate hairstyles in place. Fashions in hairdressing changed rapidly, much as they do today. In Pompeii’s early years, women favoured simple chignons or buns at the back of the head, or plaits tied back in a band, but in the last years of Pompeii built-up hairstyles became popular. These were very complex and often required several slaves working at the same time, manipulating hairpieces and false curls to produce a towering head of hair.

Both men and women wore rings for adornment, which could be made from plain gold, bronze, copper or silver. More elaborate jewellery featured pearls or gemstones such as cornelian, lapis lazuli or onyx, and the most detailed pieces featured delicately carved cameo or intaglio stones. Hoop earrings and gold bracelets with a coiling snake design were especially popular.

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