Amy Wale

2016 AFPGR Participant


(Ad)Dressing the Late Antique World: Sartorial Systems and Cultural identity in Roman North Africa

About Amy

Amy is based at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History and her PhD research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. Amy is supervised by Dr Mary Harlow and Dr Andy Merrills.

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About My Research

My research investigates the relationship between dress rhetoric and cultural identity in the Late Antique World (c. AD 200-700) using North Africa as a case study. The Ancient World was a very visual place and dress was used to construct, manipulate, and express identities on a daily basis. Using the rich corpus of archaeological, visual, and written source material, I will establish the significance of clothing and dress practices to Roman North African society.

Dress facilitates markers of inclusion and exclusion and this research will investigate the significance of understanding the experiential nature of dress and how this might impact its potential as a marker of status, religion, ethnicity, cultural affiliation etc. North Africa provides a rich case study for this project. Changing power dynamics, such as the Vandal Invasion, and developing religious discourses, such as the Donatist Schism, impacted cultural codes. As a cultural system, dress rhetoric is closely associated with cultural codes so, as these change, so too do dressing practices. How far such developments were manifest in the clothed bodies of the North Africans, both literally and in cultural discourse, demonstrates the close association between clothing and identity projection. It also highlights the contextual nature of dressing practices, increasing our understanding of group identity and personal agency in the Roman and Late Antique World.

My research contributes to three important areas of study: the growing appreciation of the social importance of ancient textiles and dress in the past as material and physical markers of identity; the study of cultural identity more widely; and better contextualising the transformation of North Africa (c. AD 200-700).

Initial Research Findings

My first year of research has involved the creation of my methodology and research into my first case study: mosaics.

My methodology provides a framework in which to interrogate source material. It is vital to use a sound methodology when investigating dress, since not all forms of evidence can just be ‘read’: their cultural meaning must be unpicked. This new research methodology offers appropriate terminology to describe and interpret evidence. Dress was a meaningful practice that acted as a ‘language’ (or rhetoric) to communicate a broad range of ideas. This ‘dress rhetoric’ in Late Antique North Africa is evidenced by a diverse corpus of source material including mosaics, coins, private correspondence, religious treatises, and tools for textile production. Surviving Roman and Coptic textiles from Egypt also offer some opportunity to investigate physical remains. It is possible to divide this evidence into three broad categories: textile evidence, visual imagery, and literary sources.

Building upon the work of previous dress historians, I have produced a methodology that is appropriate for the Late Antique World. It can also be used to study dress in other historical contexts. In Systeme de la mode (The Fashion System), Roland Barthes used a tripartite system to discuss and analyse contemporary female fashion. His source categories of ‘real-clothing’, ‘image-clothing’, and ‘written-clothing’ correspond with my three types of source evidence. I have adapted and developed his scheme to suit the North African evidence. This methodology ensures that my interpretation of source material considers the various conventions that might contribute to and alter dress rhetoric. 

My first case study has focused on the extant examples of North African figurative mosaics. Such mosaics include artistic renderings of dress and the clothed body and contribute to the understanding of dress codes. As both art and architectural decoration, mosaics offer an illuminating glimpse into how clothing was perceived and how such discourse was conveyed to wider audiences. Many North African mosaics have been studied for their iconographic repertoire. Rarely, however, have the sartorial value of these mosaics been investigated.

My first case study has established the dress rhetoric present in these mosaics. This has involved re-interpreting some of the most well-known examples, such as the Dominus Julius mosaic, now at the Bardo Museum, and the Mosaic of the Months and Seasons now on display at the British Museum, through the lens of dress rhetoric. Basic details such as garment colour and length can also be obtained from these images and they can be used as visual guides to garments described in textual sources, although both types of evidence are conditioned by the conventions of their media.

My findings showcase the complexity of dress discourse evident within mosaic decoration and offer important insight into themes, such as gendered dress codes, aristocratic self-representation, and underlying perceptions of the clothed body.

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