She lay awake in bed and thought about the new day and what she would wear. It was still dark outside but all Rome was up. Everyone rose before daybreak. She could hear the crowds outside in the street, though her bedroom was at the back of her mansion and the single little window gave out onto a quiet peristyle with a splashing fountain.
She wore her underwear—a linen loincloth tied at the waist and, on top, a tunic, which was a long shirt. She usually kept her linen brassiere on too but her husband had been there last night and it was lying on the floor where he had thrown it. Rich Roman couples didn’t sleep in the same room.
When a man got out of bed, the first thing he did after slipping into his sandals and using the bedpan, was to wind his toga around him. He became rather good at doing that though he sometimes got it wrong and, with a curse, had to start over again. A rich man of course called his servant for help.
And a lady?
The lady rang a little silver bell. Her servant, a Greek slave, came in carrying oil lamps and hung them on hooks along the wall. “What became of my red shawl? Why hasn’t it come back from the dyer yet?”
Nobody washed first thing. There was no bathroom. As soon as the lady was on her feet she sat back down on a stool to wait for the hairdresser. “Where is Irene? Do I have to ring again? I swear I’m going to have that girl whipped.”
Irene was the hairdresser, the ornatrix.
A good ornatrix was hard to find and prized, even loved, by her mistress; there are gravestones with the names of beloved hairdressers and the families they served so well. Bad ornatrices were of course cursed, and more than once.
They had to be very skilled to bring off all the tiers of hair and make them stay put. In the days of the good-old Republic a hairdo was a simple matter: a part down the middle and a bun at the back. A little later, in Caesar’s time, ladies braided their hair and then mounted the braids on pads above their forehead. That style was immortalized in the great busts of Livia and Octavia.
The tiers of braids got higher and higher. By Flavian times (50 AD) they became great towers studded with jewels. Juvenal the poet made fun of one lady who piled her hair up high: “From the front you would take her for Andromache, but from the back she isn’t so tall—you wouldn’t think you were looking at the same person!”
When the lady’s hair was made up, the ornatrix painted her face. She brought out her vast collection of bottles and pots and jars and pyxes and lay them on a table beside her lady, who ordered her to make sure the door to her room was locked. Her husband had a way of barging in; and you know what Ovid said: Art beautifies only when it is concealed.
Her forehead became snow-white, as well as her arms. That was done with chalk and lead-white. Irene reddened her cheeks and lips with the lees of wine or ochre; and she drew her eyebrows and the lines around her eyes with a paste of ashes or antimony. There were only bad hand mirrors of polished metal and the light in her room was not good, even with the door to the peristyle wide open, so a lady had to trust her ornatrix very far.
See Part Two and learn how the lady dressed to become a dazzling beauty in a full-length robe and silk shawl, and with a red ribbon in her hair.