Finally, I have photos of my Vestal Virgin outfit! (Thanks, Cecilia!)
When I put this together, it was for a Roman-themed Coronation. And I wanted to go as period as I could, with as many period materials as I could, with as many period techniques as I could manage. I’ll outline what I did for this outfit here, and why I made the choices I did.
Vestal Virgins were the keepers of the Vestal flame, and were held in an extremely high rank in Roman society. Given that I’m currently Principal Herald of my SCA kingdom, it would be a great way to portray a woman in a a high-ranking role in a way that would allow her to have a voice in highly stratified Roman society in a way that also meshed with a less stratified (at least socially-wise) SCA event. It was also interesting to do the research in the life and duties of a Vestal. For example, Vestals were chosen at a young age, had to be physically perfect, and served for thirty years. (I’m currently 32, which puts me at the perfect age to be nearing the end of a Vestal career.) After serving, many Vestals got married to statesmen and made prized wives.
Quick vocabulary lesson: I’ll be using as many of the Latin terms for the items that a Vestal would have worn for ceremonial use.
Suffibulum: a crimson-edged veil
Infula: a coiled, braided mass of crimson and white wool worn on the head, under the suffibulum.
Tunica: an Ionic chiton, or a long gown.
Palla: a length of fabric wrapped around the body for modesty
Fibula: a pin
Acus: hairpin, usually made with a rounded needle-eye top
So, for starters, I acquired several yards of optic white linen. Specifically, nine yards of 60 inch wide fabric, give or take. Given that I’m 5’10”, I knew I’d need as much of the length as I could get for the tunica, but I would also need an additional length for the palla and the suffibulum.
First thing I did was to estimate how much fabric I would need for each part. So, I did the silly thing. I laid down on top of the fabric and measured from wrist to wrist. After this point, I pinned it and did a lot of sewing it together by hand. At this point, I had a giant fabric tube, which then needed buttons to act as fibulae to keep it together and on my body. I found these, which gave me the look I wanted, were in proportion with my body size, and looked right for the job. I bought eight buttons (four buttons a side) and marked out where the buttons were to go. The tunica was complete!
The next thing that had to be done was the suffibulum, which had a curved hem with a strip of crimson linen sewn around it. I had a piece of crimson linen from another project, and used this scrap to make, essentially, single-fold bias tape. This went on in pieces, and while the seam exists between the pieces of crimson linen, it is finished enough that it looks like it belongs. PRO TIP: use an iron to make your own bias tape. If you don’t have an iron and you happen to be working in linen, you may have some luck in creasing the linen by pinching and running your fingernails along the folds that you want to keep and then pin immediately to the suffibulum. When I cut out the suffibulum, I started with far more fabric than I needed on the straight edge, and so I cut this down in quarter-inch increments after I got the half-circle curved edge that I wanted, so that way I would be sure to get the right length. Once I got the straight edge and the length I wanted, that also got hemmed.
After the suffibulum was completed, I needed an infula. Much of the statuary isn’t clear on how this was knotted to stay on the head, save for the Uffizi Vestal, however, it needed to be done. So, I took acrylic super-chunky yarn and plied it together. This, I might add, took forever. At least, it seemed like it, as it measures about 9 feet of twisty, swirly yarn. One of the things that probably would have helped were yarn bowls and a spindle. However, once this was done, I had a serviceable infula. I also plied more together for a wrap to help manage the tunica to not look like a shapeless sack, as well.
So, once these were done, I went and drug out my glass to make a pin to keep the infula in place, and an acus to help with the seni crines (sen-ee cree-nehs) hairstyle that was worn by the Virgins. There’s more on this found on this entry. After I got the pieces for the hairstyle together, I experimented!
After all, isn’t that what we do in the SCA? You betcha.
So, wearing my Wednesday Addams teeshirt (how oddly appropriate?), I attempted to recreate the seni crines with a scrap of the crimson linen to wrap part of my hair around and to pin the suffibulum to, the glass hairpin to keep the rest of my hair in order, and then wrapped the infula on my head. The final piece was a round fibula, which was a token from my friend Rhodri‘s Laurel vigil (which is Anglo-Saxon, but you have to be exceedingly close to see the details). I knew I was on the right track when I checked my work next to statuary of Vestals.
Next, hemming the palla. This wasn’t too bad, as I relied heavily on the selvage to help provide the finished long edge, but the cut sides did need to be hemmed. So, after 120 inches of hand-hemming linen later (and no needle pricks or anything!), I had a completed palla.
Shoes were thankfully easy! I stopped by my neighbourhood Target store, and purchased the last of these in my size (on sale, even!). While they do have zippers in the back, and are made of vinyl, they go a long way to help complete the look.
The day of Coronation, I had help putting my hair into the seni crines (thanks, Leila). I may have been guilty of making plenty of Mean Girls jokes (something about hair being full of secrets or something like that). I also remembered that acrylic yarn is very warm, especially when it’s trapping all the heat from one’s head on the warmest day of the year.
The tunica is still a bit short, however, I am also tall. I may add linen to it in the future (or try again, but with the length, not the width as my primary guide). I also purchased some super-chunky wool yarn and plan to dye it using madder, a dye known to Romans for making reds and crimsons. On the whole, though, I am happy with this look, and while I am no seamstress, I was able to make it work and have it be comfortable.
5 thoughts on “Skipping the Light Fandango; or Project Flammen”
Thank you very much!
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Love the finished outfit. One thing I have found with Roman garb is that it’s soooo comfortable to wear. Plus you can easily layer tunica over tunica in the cold or remove layers for the warm, just as the romans did. Must confess that being a vestal virgin never appealed mainly because of the garb although I was under the impression that they had to wear wool though that may have been in a much earlier era.
It’s part of the reason I used linen – summers here in Calontir are very warm. Linen is an acceptable period substitute. Wool is a great material, but I can’t afford wool gauze like I can linen, and it’s going to drape similarly.
What I’ve found is that wool and linen are used interchangeably – I suspect this may be an artifact of translation.