Monday, January 24, 2011

How to Make a Stola

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries

Girl fans often ask me 'How can I make myself a toga so I can go to World Book Day dressed as Flavia Gemina or Nubia?'

First I set them straight. Only naughty women wore togas.

Roman men and boys wore togas, and they heartily disliked them. The toga was essentially a large blanket that had to be draped just so. You needed a slave to help put it on, so by the very act of wearing a toga you showed you were rich. If you are a boy and want to make a toga, you can use a big sheet. Good luck putting it on.

By the first century AD, when my books are set, the only women who wore togas were disreputable ones; and they had to wear them to show they had been (or still were) naughty. Respectable women wore stolas and good girls wore tunics, usually long-sleeved for modesty. (Technically the stola was a kind of apron-like garment that went on over the female tunic, with a strap over each shoulder, but I'm using the umbrella term stola here for a girl's or woman's tunic.)

If you are a boy and want to make a tunic, just wear a big tee-shirt, belted.

If you are a girl or woman and want to make a stola or girl's tunic, here is a simple way to do it. (below) I actually had to put this into practice once. I was on my way to an event in Newcastle and realised I'd left my costume in London. Luckily, a kind librarian donated a single sheet from her airing cupboard. I found one of those sewing kits you get free in hotels and frantically stitched it up in the back seat of the car as we drove to the event. When we arrived, my publicity manager Rowan loaned me her blue scarf and I used another scarf to tie up my hair. I added chunky ethnic jewellery and sandals and voila! I was a Roman lady...

Remember: the tunic is the tee-shirt thing, the toga or palla is what you wear over it. Of course you must always carry your sponge-stick (ancient Roman toilet paper) and your copy of a Roman Mystery with you!

For more information on Roman clothing, go to the article on ROMAN CLOTHING at

And check out my blog over at The History Girls to see some of my other Roman wardrobe malfunctions.
lovely "extras" in The Slave-girl from Jerusalem

P. S. These two extras from the TV series based on my books are wearing lovely stolas, with pallas draped over their heads. 

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]


  1. Haha, love the ending :) Nice post.

  2. Came to this post via The History Girls - I'm wondering, how did ladies of size cope? I could probably find a sheet big enough, but my top half would be rather unsupported... Did ladies bind? Also, did they wear underthings?

    Oh, the questions you find yourself asking when you contemplate fiction with a historical setting.

  3. Salve, Jane!

    Ladies of size would get the cloth-merchant to cut a bigger bolt or, more probably, would weave it themselves.

    For underneath, a woman of a curvaceous nature could wear a breast band or fascia, a sort of bandage. It didn't just squish you down but could be used as an ancient "Wonderbra" and give you a little lift. My go-to poet for everyday items writes this: Band, compress my lady's swelling breasts, so that my hand may have something to clasp and cover. Martial 14.134 (Loeb translation)

  4. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Ummm... except for one thing... "girls" did not wear the stolla. The stolla was the symbol of marriage, so young unmarried girls would not wear the peplos. And the stolla was normally worn with a tunic under it.

    The women's clothing is on this page of the article:

  5. Hilarious - I will have to remember that if I ever give Roman costume a try. Thanks for the answer!

  6. Yes, I say in the article: Respectable women wore stolas and good girls wore tunics, usually long-sleeved for modesty

  7. Anonymous7:57 AM

    I'm a devoted reader of the Roman Mysteries since I was eight and I have two questions about Roman stola; during the time period the Roman Mysteries took place, can the tunics have designs rather than solid colors? and how do you attach sleeves to the stola?

  8. Judging from frescoes, the only designs tunics had were the vertical stripes for men (broad for patrician, narrow for equestrian). I'm sure women's/girls' tunics might have had borders but I haven't seen any with proper designs that wouldn't come from the weave. You don't attach sleeves to the stola. You sew a tunic with sleeves. You can wear the sleeved tunic under a stola, then it looks like a two-tone dress with sleeves.

  9. Hello! I pinned this on pinterest. I hope you don't mind...I will certainly be happy to take it down if you do.

    I was wondering also if I could get permission to use your graphic of how to make a Stola in a hand-out we will be giving to volunteers at our Rome themed Vacation Bible School to give them costumes idea.

    ecarian at yahoo dot com

  10. Salve, Gale!

    Go for it! Just make a little note that it's "by Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence"! :-)

  11. Anonymous8:39 AM

    this site is so cool it helped me so mutch with my school project!!!!!

  12. Anonymous9:27 PM

    Salve, Caroline!

    I had a question about the palla. Now, I have made a stola (and I got a first place prize for it!) but what I used for a palla I found to be a little too small too be able to do much with. I want to make myself a new one (or more than 1) and I was wondering what fabrics you would suggest for making a palla. Something lightweight would be good (I won't be wearing it in the winter, after all).

    Tibi gratias ago! ~Aemilia Rosa

    1. I just use big scarves that you can get in most department stores and/or street markets. The cashmere ones are especially lovely. I like them in solid colours that look as if they could be dyed with vegetable dye.

  13. Salve, Caroline! I LOVE your roman mysteries books and have read them for the last few years. Thank you very much for the tips on making a stola. I'm going as Pulchra for world book day and my younger sister is going as Flavia. I would prefer to go as Falvia or Nubia,but my sister had wanted to be Flavia ever since she heard of your books. And as I have pale skin and fair hair like Pulchra, I found she would be a good choice.
    PS, is her name pronounced Pulcra or Pulchra?
    Thanks! :-D

    1. Salve, Evie! I pronounce Pulchra PULL-kra with emphasis on the first syllable. If you send me a photo of you and your younger sister dressed up, I'll put it on my Roman Mysteries Facebook page (with first names only, of course) Have a great World Book Day!

    2. P.S. My email is flaviagemina [at] hotmail [dot] com :-)

  14. Anonymous12:15 AM

    And make sure you don't make a white one! Girls who wore white stolas were either prostitutes or Vestal Virgins, the latter of which was incredibly rare...

    1. Do you have a primary source reference for this? If so, please tell us! :-)

  15. Anonymous3:44 PM

    What if you were never married but were rich and later were given property by your parents (or had property and money managed for you by others from your parents I suppose) what would you wear then? I know it was sort of scandalous not to be married by a certain age, but how would someone in that position dress to avoid disrespect? Fake it with a stola?

  16. Anonymous9:35 PM

    I love romans I live in a roman palla