Reading a wikipedia page about prostitution (it is in spanish; I haven't checked if the english says the same) it is said that prostitues wore purple dresses.

Was this generally true?

  • 3
    Does the Spanish wiki cite any evidence to support this claim?
    – Semaphore
    Aug 1, 2014 at 2:49
  • 1
    There was a saying growing that was approximately "only emporers and prostitutes wear purple." not sure how true that is though
    – ed.hank
    Apr 5, 2016 at 15:56

4 Answers 4


I would have to say no, but there is quite a bit of primary literature about the attire of prostitutes in ancient Rome.

The more scholarly debate on Roman prostitutes' attire is the dispute as to whether prostitutes in Rome wore togas as a distinctive garment, and much of the contemporary texts distinguishes only between matrona (a "respectible" woman) togata (ostensibly a prostitute or adulteress).

A good example, and the closest I can find to anything approaching a reference to purple is Martial's Epigrams 2.39, where he writes:

Coccina famosae donas et ianthina moechae. vis dare quae meruit munera? mitte togam.


You are giving the notorius adulteress scarlet and violet clothes as gifts. Do you want to give her what she has earned? Send her a toga.

Most evidence points toward a wide range of attire worn by prostitutes, driven more by market demand and social status than anything else. Roman prostitutes were almost always slaves, and as such, that would have driven what they wore as much as anything else. Thomas McGinn writes in Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome that,

Prostitutes are known to have worn a variety of garments, including togas, clothing characteristic of the lower orders, and (presumable only upmarket prostitutes) sexually revealing garments made from Coan silk. As for slaves, they shared clothing types with lower-status Romans in general; slaves in fact had no distinctive dress. Ulpian assumes that the garb of respectable women is readily distinguishable from that of nonrespectable women, but the distinction between prostitutes' clothing and slaves' clothing is cloudy, both in this passage and elsehwere. On the other hand, there is no ambiguity, outside the principal text, about the type of clothing worn by respectable women themselves.

This is also evident in the analysis by Kelly Olson in the essay entitled Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity, in the anthology Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World:

Some prostitutes would wear foreign headgear such as turbans to make themselves stand out and thus attract a customers' interest. Messalina gilded her nipples and wore a blond wig on her nightly shifts in the brothel (Juvenal 3.66; 6.120-24) Well-dressed harlots could even travel in sedans, and some would dye or perfume their hair as well, to add to their allure (Juvenal 3.135-36). Whores may not always have worn the strophium or breastband (an undergarment): one of Catullus's prostitutes suddenly bares her naked breasts to a passerby, surely indicating she as not dressed in one (55.11-12). Nudity was the marker of the lowest whore, a woman who was said to be ready for any kind of lust. The whores in a squalid brothel would also be naked, and Juvenal describes this sort of harlot as "the whore that stands naked in a reeking archway."

Much, much, more likely was the cultural association with certain forms and modes of dress that were correlated with prostitution - something akin to "you'd know it if you saw it". To say that Roman prostitutes wore purple (or togas, or anything else for that matter) is akin to saying that American prostitutes wear fish-net stockings. More metaphor than anything with a basis in fact. Who knows, maybe in the year 4014 somebody will post a question on whatever passes for History SE then asking if ancient American prostitutes worn them.

  • 1
    +1 to one of the best and fully sourced answers in a while.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 2, 2014 at 1:57

Perhaps some (of the higher end ones) did, but as a general rule this seems exceedingly unlikely.

What is almost certainly meant by a "purple toga" in Roman times is the Toga picta. I can't find any source that even references a female wearing one.

This toga, unlike all others, was not just dyed but embroidered and decorated. It was solid purple, embroidered with gold. Under the Republic, it was worn by generals in their triumphs, and by the Praetor Urbanus when he rode in the chariot of the gods into the circus at the Ludi Apollinares.[19] During the Empire, the toga picta was worn by magistrates giving public gladiatorial games, and by the consuls, as well as by the emperor on special occasions.

Of course there's a reason purple was so special: It was hideously expensive. The dye used, Tyrian Purple is extracted in a laborious and touchy process from tiny glands in a specific species of coastal sea snail.

The process of making the dye was long, difficult and expensive. Thousands of the tiny snails had to be found, their shells cracked, the snail removed. Mountains of empty shells have been found at the ancient sites of Sidon and Tyre. The snails were left to soak, then a tiny gland was removed and the juice extracted and put in a basin, which was placed in the sunlight. There a remarkable transformation took place. In the sunlight the juice turned white, then yellow-green, then green, then violet, then a red which turned darker and darker. The process had to be stopped at exactly the right time to obtain the desired color,

A chemist attempting this process a few years back reportedly required 12,000 snails to get enough dye for a handkerchief.

So if any woman did wear a toga picta, she would have had to have been very well off indeed. Its possible a very high end courtesan, or a favored mistress of an extremely wealthy senator might be able to come up with one. However, there is simply no way a common street prostitute could wear one.


The colour and clothes worn in Ancient Rome directly reflected your social status. Purple on your clothing indicated that you were high up the social ladder:

  • toga praetextata, with a purple border, worn by male children and magistrates during official ceremonies
  • trabea – toga entirely in purple, worn by statues of deities and emperors

I was once told that a full purple toga was reserved for the emperor, although I can't confirm this at the moment and Wiki says that wealthy women wore it (must depend on the period).

The choice of purple for the upper-class was simply because it was the most expensive.

Iron alum was used as the base fixing agent and it is known that the marine gastropod, Haustellum brandaris, was used as a red dye, due to its purple-red colorant (6,6'-dibromoindigotin); the color of the emperor. The dye was imported from Tyre, Lebanon and was used primarily by wealthy women.1 Cheaper versions were also produced by counterfeiters.

If some of the average prostitutes did actually wear purple it must have been the cheap knock-off. Perhaps similarly to how today some prostitutes may dress up in "cheapy" clothing that tries to imitate the expensive stuff. The vast majority were slaves though so the clothing they wore would have been a decision of the pimp. Maybe they noticed that dressing them as upper class ladies increased sales.

There were also what you could perhaps call 'luxury' upper-class prostitutes in the ancient world. Although they wouldn't have considered themselves as prostitutes, the principle of exchanging services for material gain from respectable individuals was there. These women could have afforded nice purple clothes.

However I couldn't find indication anywhere that it was common for prostitutes to wear purple, so the answer is likely no, but maybe in some cases.

Source: Clothing in ancient Rome


I'm still in the beginning stages of researching purple in the Roman empire. One thing to remember is that purple for modern eyes (especially those of us that can see more colors than others) is a wide range from violets (which, yes, I realize is not technically purple but we're talking perception and usage of the masses) to wine. Most people today categorize maroon as a red.

Now true purple is a perfect middle ground between the blue and red spectrum. Technically, purple in general is anything between violet (not including) and true red. This is a modern technical standard.I haven't figured out if violet was considered purple like it is now colloquially in America.

Tyrian purple was a wine to maroon color and was the most highly prized of the purples. During the republic most to all purple was reserved for the higher classes of men. Eventually the women wanted to wear it too. Some did despite the restrictions. One would imagine prostitutes would care less about this so they would be first. But "respectable" married women did so too.

Eventually during the empire days a solid Tyrian purple toga was the only purple reserved for the emperor. Tyrian purple in general was reserved for the upper classes (mostly for cost sake).

This is from reading a bunch of stuff online...much of which quoted primary sources or people that studied primary sources. Working on getting a bunch of books and doing a more in depth research. I'll have a cross checking bibliography when I get into that.

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