Iron Age in Europe: Fashion, Footwear & Clothing

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Fashion matters in Europe, but there's a longer history to this than you might think. In this lesson, we'll examine clothing and fashion back in Europe's Iron Age, and see how style and society became intertwined.

Iron Age Fashion

Let's imagine that you had a time machine and you wanted to travel back to Europe's Iron Age. Who could blame you? This was the time period that covered the ancient Greeks and Romans, the development of powerful Germanic and Nordic tribes, and the expansion of British cultures. There's a lot of great stuff to see, but in order to blend in, you need to know what you're going to wear.

It's a more important issue than you may think. The Iron Age brought with it a number of technological and social changes, both of which manifested in a major expansion of clothing and fashion. Clothes of the preceding Bronze Age were often pretty basic, and there was limited variety. In the Iron Age, however, your clothes became part of who you were and where you fit into society. So before hopping in your time machine, you need a little lesson on fashion.

The Mediterranean Iron Age

Let's start this ancient fashion show along the Mediterranean, in Greece. Greece had the first major civilizations of the Iron Age, and laid the political, artistic, and philosophical foundations for many European cultures. Living in the temperate and warm Aegean, their clothing was practical and fashionable.

Greek clothes consisted of two primary layers (not including loincloths). First was a tunic-like garment of spun fabric that sat loosely on the body and was often pinned at the shoulder, generally either a shorter chiton or body-length peplos. Longer garments were nearly always designed for women; Greek men liked to show off their legs. Over the tunic, Greeks wore a himation, a mantle-like cloak. Fabrics were generally made of local wool, but also included linens, usually imported from Egypt. On their feet, the Greeks wore sandals or simple shoes.

Greek goddess in chiton and himation

Greek clothes were functional, pretty standard, and usually white. The Romans, however, expanded fashion into a true statement of self. Social class mattered a lot in Rome, determining who was a citizen and who was not, and your rank determined your clothing.

Average citizens, plebeians, generally wore a simple tunic called a tunica, and sandals or simple shoes. As with the Greeks, longer garments were worn by women and shorter ones by men. Romans who could afford nicer clothing wore a toga, a voluminous wrap unique to Rome. The toga was a valuable clothing item primarily worn by men, which displayed class as well as information about occasions. For example, a white toga with a red border was worn by both men and women during religious festivals. A tunic with a gold border was worn by a triumphant general. A pure purple toga could only be worn by the emperor, or the statue of a deity.

Roman man in tunica and toga

Roman fashion was a product of Rome's power, and relied heavily on imported materials. Leather and tanned hides came from across Europe, linens came from Egypt, cotton came from India, dyes came from the Middle East, and the Romans even spun togas of silk, imported all the way from China.

Fashion in Central Europe, Northern Europe, and Britain

Outside of the Mediterranean, Iron Age cultures of Europe developed their own fashions and traditions. While the traditions of Central Europe, Northern Europe, and Britain are diverse, we can identify some common trends.

Clothes in these parts of Europe were generally made of local materials, but created with better looms and more efficient techniques that display an exchange of ideas around the continent. Fur capes and heavy boots were among the most important clothing items worn by both men and women, which made life a little better in the colder north. Women's clothing generally included wool skirts, blouses, and dresses, while men wore wool tunics. Germanic and Nordic men also wore something that the Romans saw as very unusual: pants. Pants were so strange to Romans that this clothing item became a symbol of non-Roman culture in Roman art. Germanic peoples tended to wear baggy pants, while British pants were tighter.

Roman statue of a Central-European captive, in tunic, pants, wool cape, and wool cap

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