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Wool Coptic-Byzantine tunic, small enough for a child (6th century AD) (Walters Art Museum)

A tunic is any of several types of garment for the body, usually simple in style, reaching from the shoulders to a length somewhere between the hips and the ankles. The name derives from the Latin tunica, the basic garment worn by both men and women in Ancient Rome, which in turn was based on earlier Greek garments.

Roman tunic[edit]

The Roman tunica was adopted from the Greek in the 3rd Century BCE. It was worn by citizens and non-citizens alike; citizens, though, might wear it under the toga, especially at formal occasions. The length of the garment, the presence or lack of stripes, as well as their width and ornamentation, would indicate the wearer's status in Roman society. Soldiers, slaves and manual workers generally had tunics to a little above the knee; those in more sedentary occupations to about the ankle (unless they were expecting to ride a horse, when a shorter one would be worn).

Roman worker dressed in a tunic

The tunic or chiton was worn as a shirt or gown by both genders among the ancient Romans. The body garment was loose-fitting for males, usually beginning at the neck and ending above the knee. A woman's garment could be either close fitting or loose, beginning at the neck and extending over a skirt or skirts.

Greek tunic[edit]

Tunic was also worn in ancient Greece, whence the Roman version was adopted. Later Greek and Roman tunics were an evolution from the very similar chiton, chitoniskos, and exomis all of which can be considered versions of the garment. In Ancient Greece, a person's tunic was decorated at the hem-line to represent the city-state in which he lived. The tunics were either dyed with bright colors or bleached white.

Medieval tunic[edit]

The tunic continued to be the basic garment of the Byzantine Romans of both sexes throughout the medieval period. The upper classes wore other garments atop the basic tunic, such as the dalmatica, a heavier and shorter type of tunic, again, worn by both sexes, or the scaramangion, a riding-coat of Persian origin. Except for the military or riding-dress, men and women of higher status wore tunics that came down to the ankles, or nearly so. Tunics were often dyed or richly embroidered, although the plainer ones could be used when layering different types.

Beyond the reduced empire, the tunic continued to be worn with varying sleeve and hem lengths throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Often reaching the knees or ankles, it was usually worn over underclothes consisting of a shirt (usually hip-length or longer) and drawers (usually knee- or ankle-length pants related to braccae). It may be accompanied by hose.[1] Wool and Linen were common fabrics used, though the wealthy sometimes wore fancy silk tunics, or a lesser fabric with silk trim.

Germanic tunic of the 4th Century, A.D. found at the Thorsberg moor

Tunics worn during the Early Middle Ages often featured decorative embroidery or tablet-woven braids along the neck, hem and wrists.[2][3] This was the case, for instance, with tunics worn by both rich and poor Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest.[3][4]

19th century[edit]

Around 1830, small boys began to be dressed in sashed or belted tunics over trousers, a fashion which replaced the earlier skeleton suit.

During the Crimean War in the 1850s, it was realised that the waist length jackets which had been worn by British soldiers since Napoleonic times were unsuitable for fighting in winter conditions. A new longer jacket was introduced which reached down to the mid thigh and this was named the 'tunic' after the 'tunica' of the intrepid ancient Roman soldier. This type of jacket soon became standard for most armies.[5]

Modern tunic[edit]

In Western culture, its use continues primarily in a religious and uniform context. It is the primary garment worn by the clergy, and members of religious orders. The religious tunic reaches to the feet and was the source of the clerical cassock, as well as, in its liturgical form, the alb, after the long tunic worn by Roman citizens.[6] The tunic, in one form or another, is also considered the traditional clothing of numerous Neo-Pagan religions, most notably Wicca, especially when combined with a cincture and a robe. 'Tunic' is also the name often mistakenly given to the coat worn by military and police personnel. Light female garments, especially for sports or exercise, usually only coming down to mid-thigh, are also called tunics. A variation called the "Ruth Tunic" can have sleeves, although this type is rare.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Dress and Adornment", 488–489.
  2. ^ "Dress and Adornment", 489.
  3. ^ a b Owen-Crocker, Gale R., Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, revised edition, Boydell Press, 2004, ISBN 1-84383-081-7
  4. ^ Bradfield, Nancy. Historical Costumes of England: 1066–1968. 3rd Edition. 1970. p. 13
  5. ^ Nicholson, J, 'The British Army of the Crimea', Osprey 1974
  6. ^ Pocknee, C.E. 'Liturgical Vesture: Its Origins and Development' 1960


  • "Dress and Adornment." The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th edition. Volume 17. 1994.

Further reading[edit]

  • Payne, Blanche: History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, 1965. No ISBN for this edition; ASIN B0006BMNFS