Who Could Wear Yellow In Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman colour symbolism

Roman colour symbolism was heavily-focussed on the meaning of colour, and this is particularly evident when studying the clothes they wore and the everyday fabric designs, which were used to express various messages. During the Roman period, the meaning of yellow was associated with ‘success, triumph and good luck’.

The colour could be found on clothing items of the higher classes in society, particularly the togas worn by their upper-class citizens such as senators and political figures. Yellow was also the colour of victory, and its significance was associated with soldiers and their triumphs over enemies.

An element of the remains of fabrics found in archaeological sites testifies to a fashion which favoured the combination of several shades of yellow. Gold and shades of beige, yellow and orange were also used for special occasions.
The designs of the fabric were especially related to the figure of the emperor, further corroborating the importance of the colour in the Roman society.

Experts agree that yellow was exclusively reserved for the higher classes, and could only be worn by the affluent in society. The limited availability of certain hues matched with the cost of the fabric used for their production would have ensured that only the wealthiest class were able to comfortably meet the demands for those colours.

Revelations in frescoes and sculptures

Frescoes, in particular, can provide us with key insights as to who could have worn particular colours in public. For example, one representation that dates back to the first century B.C., shows a fresco of the Capitoline Triad, with the personifications of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, all shown wearing yellow clothing.

Further evidence is provided by the sculptures and the archaeological sites of the ancient Roman forum, which allowed us to have a glimpse in the manner of which fashion was still heavily related to social classes. More particularly, sculptures of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, were almost always depicted wearing yellow clothes as well.

This was an attempt from the artist to further emphasise the wealth of the goddess and also solidify the symbolism of the colour. For example, a sculpture of Venus in the Capitoline Museum showcases her with a beautiful yellow robe that highlights her status.

We can find an even clearer example of the role of the colour yellow in ancient Roman fashion in the Forum of Augustus, were statues of different Roman citizens were proudly represented in yellow clothes. This further underlines the exclusive relation that Rome had with the colour.

Yellow used by everyday people

Apart from the higher classes of society, yellow was also employed as a fashion statement by the general public. The most commonly used fabric for this social class of people was wool, as it was much more accessible. As a matter of fact, there are surviving fragments of wool-based fabrics that are coloured in yellow, which suggests that it was indeed used by the normal population.

Also, in spite of the lack of major archaeological remains, we can assume from written and oral accounts that people that were served in the households of more affluent families, were able to wear garments which were of a simpler design in yellow as well.

Roman inns, for example, were the “finest drinking establishments” of the time, and frescoes of inns depicted the men, who were almost always wearing some type of yellow clothing, even if of a much simpler design. However, the color was still within reach of all people, both wealthy and poor alike.

Main reasons of why people wear yellow

Research suggests that the main reason behind the popularity of wearing yellow apparel among Romans was based less on aesthetics than it was social stratification. Yellow, as we have previously established, was the colour of triumph and success, and was only within reach of the highest social classes. For this reason, it became a fashion statement for the elites of Rome who, by wearing yellow, were not just making a fashion statement but were also expressing their social power.

Those from the lower classes who were unable to reach these levels of affluence, were naturally drawn to the colour as a way of imitating their elite counterparts. This suggests that the colour became a status symbol of sorts, with people wearing yellow attempting to display social power that they may not have had.

However, it shouldn’t be left unnoticed that there were some cases in which people that weren’t necessarily from the higher classes of society that wore colours like yellow as well. In particular rural farmers, who, would sometimes use the colour yellow to create a more aesthetically pleasing ambience in the area they were working.

The Meaning of Yellow During Roman Times

It is clear from the evidence we have uncovered that yellow maintained a high degree of significance and symbolism amongst the Romans. The general message of prosperity and good luck remained a constant and the choice for upper-class members of society to wear yellow clothing was to reinforce this message. However, it can be argued that the colour was also being used as a more subtle fashion statement.

The distinct choice for the colour by the highest social classes whilst being accessible to the lower classes served two different purposes. One was to stress the importance of the colour and its role of creating social boundaries. The other was to enable lower classes to attempt to attain the same level of affluence and beauty by wearing yellow themselves.

Roman Sewing Techniques of Yellow Clothes

Particular attention should be given to the techniques used by the Romans which allowed them to create garments that were coloured yellow. It is possible to assume, based on some surviving fragments, that Roman tailors were using dyes with a mixture of plants, as well as some metallic compounds in order to further augment their clothing fabrics colour.

Additionally, according to frescoes and sculptures such as those of the goddess Venus, it is also possible to assume that Romans had already acquired the capabilities of hydraulic looms which allowed them to design richer and more detailed fabrics. These hydraulic looms made the operation of a loom much easier, as well as allowing for more complex patterns to be created than hand weaving.

However, unlike the traditional vertical looms which were operated by the Romans across the centuries prior to them, the hydraulic looms were run on pulleys and levers, operated by treadle mechanisms.

Exotic Yellow Clothes of Ancient Rome

Interestingly, it is possible to assume the existence yellow fabrics which had been created out of more exotic materials such as silk or, more specifically, sea silk. The later of these materials, sea silk, was, as its name implies, made out of silk-like threads that were found in the bottom of the sea around the Mediterranean. Sea silk was highly valued by the Romans and was used to create unique and expensive fabrics. In some cases, particularly amongst the ivory merchants of the time, sea silk fabrics could cost even more than gold, indicating just how valuable the colour yellow was to the Romans.

Additionally, the Romans also used other materials in order to create yellow fabrics. For example, people were able to create yellow clothing out of boiled snails, wasps, and other insects. While the idea of wearing clothes created from boiled insects may sound repulsive to us, it was an incredibly efficient way to create yellow garments.

Symbolism of Yellow over Time

The symbolism of the colour yellow remained up until modern times. It’s believed that this is partially to due to its association with the Roman colour symbolism of success and achievement. Today, it can be seen that people have taken the use of the colour yellow to fulfil the same purpose it did before, in particular with the reference to sports and personal achievements.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the fact yellow ribbons remain a key symbol in the US not only as a symbol of accomplishment and success but also, to remember soldiers and those who have been captured by their enemies.

In France, the colour of yellow has become closely connected with the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Members of the resistance often wore yellow armbands in order to express their distaste of the regime and a few symbols in French culture, such as Marianne, are often depicted in yellow clothing.

Conclusion on Yellow in Ancient Rome

Based on the evidence we have uncovered, it can be argued that yellow played a significant role in the fashion of ancient Rome and its wider symbolism. While the colour was primarily reserved for members of the higher classes, the use of the colour was extended to those of the lower classes, who used it in order to attempt to mimic their wealthier counterparts.

In modern times, the colours is still largely associated with success and is utilised in a number of countries to express a strong political message. Based on the evidence uncovered in this investigation, it can be stated that yellow has maintained its value and symbolism over the centuries, and is likely to continue to do so for many years to come.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

Leave a Comment