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Ancient Roman fashion for brides, and its influence on bridal etiquette today.

Ancient Roman fashion

Ancient Roman fashion set the standard for present day Italian culture, traditions and customs in weddings and ancient Roman wedding etiquette was not so very different from bridal etiquette today.

If you're planning an Italian-themed wedding or getting married in Italy and want to include some ancient Italian culture in your plans, this page will tell you how the style of women in ancient Rome can add sophistication to your own elegant wedding.

Bridal etiquette : the bride's wedding day preparations

Most rituals women in ancient Rome had to go through on their wedding morning reflected everyone's expectations that she would be pure, dutiful and obedient.

According to ancient Italian engagement culture and traditions  once the betrothal formalities were over, the Roman bride-to-be never had opportunity for partying.  The accepted custom for her instead was some pampering on the morning of her wedding.

So right at the start of the day, ancient bridal etiquette was to take a fragranced bath in her parents' home attended by her mother and female friends, to wash away evil influences and leave her smelling wholesome - and no doubt to share in gossip and the excitement of the approaching ceremony.

Then came the hair.

The bride and ancient Roman hairstyles

The hairstyle and head dress were a focal point at ancient Roman weddings.  The bride had to rise early on the morning of the marriage; her first task was to pick flowers from her parents' garden to weave a garland which would sit on top of her intricate hairstyle and hold her veil in place.

Sound familiar?

Many modern brides still choose the flower garland for younger bridesmaids.  Just as in ancient Roman weddings, it's a symbol of innocence and purity.

Roman wedding hairstyle

Ancient Roman fashion dictated that the hairstyle, known as the 'tutulus', should be worn by no-one but brides.  Hair was divided into six locks using a spearhead, probably another symbol of expelling any remaining malevolent spirits.  The locks were then curled, and coiled on top of her head leaving a few tendrils around her face and neck.

The wedding veil, another symbol of the bride's submission to her husband, was always flame coloured and shrouded the bride from head to foot. 

Sources vary as to whether it would cover the bride's face until the moment of marriage : there is some evidence that part of ancient Italian culture traditions was that the veil did cover the face in order to act as a deterrent to evil spirits who would be unable to enter the bride through the shroud of a muslin veil.

Ancient Roman fashion  :  the wedding dress

Ancient rome wedding dresses
Photo courtesy of
Mary Harrsch

Ancient Roman fashion for women at weddings was fairly simple and the bride's dress was no exception.  By today's standards it was very simple : a white or off-white one piece unfitted tunic of a muslin-like material which covered the bride from head to foot and was tied at the waist with a girdle.

The girdle was vital to bridal etiquette. It was tied by the bride's mother on her wedding morning as a sign to the world of the bride's purity, using the 'knot of Hercules' - Hercules being the guardian of married life - and could only be undone by her new husband on the wedding night.

It is likely that the origins of the contemporary saying "tying the knot" comes directly from this Roman tradition.

Ancient Roman fashion  :  bridal accessories

Accessories, with the exception of her bouquet, do not seem to have been too important to brides in ancient Rome.

Historical evidence suggests that her shoes, generally simple sandals, were dyed to match the veil.  And although jewelry in ancient Rome could be quite elaborate, bridal etiquette at ancient Roman weddings dictated that the bride wore no adornments apart from her engagement ring.

To do so was seen as detracting from the importance of the ring.

To this day, Italian brides have tended to maintain that tradition, or at least not to wear extravagant jewelry.

The bride's look was completed with a bouquet of herbs which, like her head-dress, she would have picked herself.  Although some think the need to wear flowers and carry herbs was an attempt to smother the smell of everyday ancient Roman life, it is far more likely that they were chosen to represent fidelity and fertility.

The bouquet might include marjoram symbolizing love, honour and joy; rosemary for fidelity and lavender for devotion; sage for a long life; myrtle for fertility and purity.

Translating ancient Roman fashion into Italian culture traditions of today

So - what should you be thinking about if you want to use some of the traditions of ancient Roman bridal etiquette in your own ceremony?

Here are our suggestions  :

Think about dressing young bridesmaids' or flower girls' hair in garlands of flowers.  Roses were a favourite amongst women in ancient Rome, as were iris, violets, poppies and wildflowers.

Put the same flowers in your bouquet and ask your florist to add some fragrant herbs : the ancient Romans favoured lavender, thyme and rosemary, all of which are readily available today.

Give yourself enough time to have a relaxing bath (probably without your mother in attendance!) on your wedding morning and add some fragrance to it - either a floral based perfume to
complement your bouquet, or the bath oil of your favourite perfume.

Ancient Roman fashion
A modern take on ancient Roman wedding dresses.
Courtesy of Maggie Sotero.

Wear your hair in an up-do, leaving tiny tendrils to frame your face.

Follow ancient Roman fashion by keeping your wedding dress simple and stylish : ivory or white, off the shoulder (toga style) and if possible with a tie around the bust, waist and hips.

If you intend to wear a veil, make it a full length one; unless you want to recreate Roman bridal etiquette exactly, flame-coloured is probably not an option you'd want to follow!

If you want to wear jewelry, keep it simple and unobtrusive : earrings and necklaces were favourite pieces of jewelry in ancient Rome.

Ancient Roman weddings : the rest of the story

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