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  • Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society
  • Alison Keith (bio)
Kelly Olson . Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. Routledge. 2008. 192. US$35.95

The paperback publication of Kelly Olson's synthetic study of Roman women's dress now makes this attractive volume accessible to students of social and costume history at a variety of level and in a diversity of [End Page 279] fields, as well as to the university libraries and academic specialists who have been the only plausible market for the exorbitantly priced hardcover edition (US$125.00). It is therefore greatly to be welcomed, for the book brings together a wealth of material - both textual and artistic - about the codes and conventions of women's sartorial display in ancient Rome. Hailed upon publication as the standard reference work on the subject in English, Olson's study is an important contribution to the social history of women in Roman antiquity.

An introduction discusses the derision with which studies of dress history were once greeted and documents the hard-won respect now accorded their painstaking scholarship. Olson characterizes her methodology in the volume as 'mosaicist,' in that she combines literary and artistic evidence from a 500-year period (200 BCE—300 CE) in her discussion of Roman women's dress. Certainly she has amassed an impressive dossier of texts and images documenting Roman women's clothing and adornment, their attitudes to their sartorial choices, and contemporary male-authored assessments of their self-presentation.

Chapter 1, 'The Clothing ofWomen,' reviews the evidence for women's dress from a number of perspectives: colour, fabric, life-stage (girl, bride, matrona, and widow), class (upper, lower, slave, and prostitutes/adulteresses), type (tunic, stola, mantle, fillets, hairstyle, and headgear), and accessories (jewellery, shoes, fans, and parasols). Throughout, well-chosen (and well-situated) illustrations exemplify the topic under discussion. This is the longest chapter in the book and, in combination with chapter 2 'The Cosmetic Arts and the Care of the Body,' it lays the groundwork for the more analytical discussions of chapters 3, 'The Dangers of Adornment,' and 4, 'Self-Presentation, Status and Power.'

Chapter 2 presents the evidence concerning the ideals of beauty current in ancient Rome, introduces the anti-cosmetic rhetorical tradition, and discusses the overlap in terminology (and sometimes use) between cosmetics, remedies, and poison, before cataloguing the cosmetic preparations that the male authors of antiquity mention (including skin creams, makeup, personal hygiene, hairdressing, and perfumes). Chapter 3 examines in detail the (male-authored) anti-cosmetic rhetorical tradition of antiquity and its characterization of female adornment and sartorial display, from Republican moralizing authors to early Christian polemicists. Olson documents the continuity of the views of pagan Roman poets (such as Plautus, the elegists, and Martial), politicians (such as the elder Cato and Cicero), orators and historians (such as the elder Seneca and Tacitus) with those of Christian authorities (Tertullian and Jerome) regarding the dangers of adornment, which left women open to charges of frivolity, pride, infidelity (even adultery), aesthetic deception, excessive luxury, and wanton wastefulness. She analyses this critical literature as ethics masquerading as aesthetics and demonstrates, [End Page 280] in chapter 4, how Roman women's self-presentation could both articulate status distinctions between social classes and provide women themselves with both pleasure and power.

Olson makes effective use of comparative data from early modern Europe and modern America to argue (à la Bourdieu) that Roman women's practice of sartorial self-presentation engaged male theorizing about the conventions of female adornment to subvert, reject, and mock it. Her open-minded interpretation of the ancient evidence is a particularly welcome contrast to the moralizing commentary (both ancient and modern) that has attended discussions of female dress in ancient Rome. In her tight focus on Rome, Olson ignores non-Roman and non-normative female dress in antiquity, but the success of her study invites further investigation into female sartorial self-presentation in Rome's provinces and into women's rituals of dress and adornment in Roman religious practice.

Alison Keith

Alison Keith, Department of Classics, University of Toronto



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