No Costume? Grab A Sheet And Rock a Toga

Costume designer Mariah Hale explains how to wrap the perfect last-minute toga

Turn of the century thespians play their roles wearing Roman togas. (© Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

If you've made it to October 31 without a game plan for a costume, it's time for a reality check: any costume store within driving distance of civilization will be more frightening than The Ring. Amazon's drones won't be able to express ship you that banana suit in time, which means that your costume is going to be homemade. Luckily, that's not a big deal, because you can create a perfectly classic costume with something that almost everyone (even the worst planners) have on hand: a simple bed sheet. 

The toga might have, in recent years, gained a bad reputation as the chosen garb of drunken coeds, but in reality, it's an easy—and historically interesting—way to pull together a last-minute costume. Traditionally, togas were worn like a modern-day tuxedo, a ceremonial garment designed to denote status among Roman male citizens. Noncitizens, slaves and women weren't permitted to wear togas, though prostitutes could. Togas were worn from the beginning of the Roman empire through to its end and originated from an Etruscan garment known as the "tebenna." Unless they were participating in an athletic event, Romans would wear their toga over a tunic, so wear a casual shirt and shorts (or pants) under your toga to ensure you won't be arrested for public indecency. Smithsonian.com got the scoop on how to perfect the toga-wrap from Mariah Hale, a costume designer whose work can be seen starting November 3 in the Folger Theater's production of Julius Caesar in Washington, D.C. (though this production forgoes togas in favor of more "timeless" costumes.) 

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To assemble your toga, you'll need three things: a bed sheet (crucial), some safety pins (helpful, but not crucial) and a decorative pin of some kind (fun, but also not crucial). You can use any size sheet, though Hale recommends using something bigger than a twin, which can be too small. You can also use any color, though most traditional Roman togas were white. If you're feeling fancy, try purple (Roman senators often had purple strips in their togas, denoting status). Black togas were worn occasionally for mourning purposes, so unless you're feeling particularly dower, avoid dark colored sheets.

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Begin by folding the sheet in half lengthwise. If you want the toga to drape longer across the body, fold the sheet not-quite halfway.

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Drape one end of the toga across the left shoulder, adjusting the sheet so that the bottom hits above the left ankle.

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Then, using the left arm and the body to hold the toga in place, begin wrapping the sheet around the back, stopping when the sheet reaches across the back to the right side of the body.

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Gather the remaining width of the sheet in your hands, creating ripples/folds/an accordion-like texture.

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Continue wrapping the sheet the rest of the way around the body (under the right arm, across the front of the body), draping the remaining portion of the sheet over the left shoulder.

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For extra security, use a safety pin to secure the sheet over the left shoulder. If you're using a decorative pin of some kind, you can pin it on the shoulder or chest.

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Ta-da! Go forth and impress the world with your costume ingenuity and knowledge of toga history.

(Animated gifs by Casey McAdams of the Smithsonian Digital Studio)

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