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A tunic is any of several types of clothing for the body, of various lengths reaching from the shoulders to somewhere between the hips and the ankles. The name derives from the Latin tunica commonly worn by both men and women in Ancient Rome, which in turn is based on earlier Greek garments.
The Roman tunica 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).
The tunic was also worn by the ancient and Byzantine Greeks and is very similar to the chiton, which looked like a jacket. 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.
Underneath his armor, the Roman legionary wore a (usually woollen) tunic. There is considerable debate today as to whether the typical Roman legionary's tunic was undyed or dyed. There is some evidence for Roman military tunics being dyed red using madder dye and there are contemporary depictions of Roman soldiers wearing red, pale blue, pink and green tunics. a number of works of art and written descriptions contemporary to the Roman Empire contradict the idea of tunic having been undyed. Alternately, it is possible according to some other sources that Roman legionary officers wore white tunics on special occasions, while rank-and-file soldiers wore undyed tunics, with coloured tunics being unusual.
The tunic originally worn by the Roman legionary consisted simply of a piece of rectangular cloth sewed to an identical piece, with holes for the arms and head simply left unsewn. Later, in the 3rd century AD it became fashionable for tunics to be produced with sleeves and worn with braccae. This was especially the case in relatively cold northern territories such as Britain and Germany where similar clothes were already in existence among the native populations.
Following the fall of the Roman 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. Wool and Linen were common fabrics used, though the wealthy sometimes wore fancy silk tunics, or a lesser fabric with silk trim.
Tunics worn during the Early Middle Ages often featured decorative embroidery or tablet-woven braids along the neck, hem and wrists. This was the case, for instance, with tunics worn by both rich and poor Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest.
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 solder. This type of jacket soon became standard for most armies.
In the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, set in the mid-1860s, the character Maj. Ashley Wilkes returns home for a 3-day furlough and thanks his wife Melanie Hamilton for a tunic she gives him as a Christmas gift, saying "I meant it, dear. It's a lovely gift. Only generals have tunics like this nowadays."
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 is known as the 'Alb', after the long tunic worn by Roman officials in the 4th century AD. 'Tunic' is also the name often given to the coat worn by military and police personnel, usually close-fitting. 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.