REGIONAL HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The Byzantine Empire was formed in the fourth century A.D. shortly after the Christian emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and relocated the government from Rome to the city of Byzantium,(modern day Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey). Byzantine had once originally been part of a unified Roman Empire, and it was not until the Roman Empire was divided into two separate empires—Roman in the west, Byzantine in the east—that the Byzantine Empire was finally formed. Although the fall of the Roman Empire occurred in the late fifth century A.D., the Byzantines continued to be heavily influenced by their neighbors to the west. In fact, it is rare for discussion about the Byzantine Empire to occur without some reference to Roman culture. From the basic garments they used to the armor for their soldiers, Byzantine dress continued to be immensely influenced by Imperial Roman culture.
Byzantium, the empire capital, was soon renamed Constantinople after Constantine established the city as his permanent home. Situated between the European and Asian continents, Constantinople was located in the ideal location for economic prosperity. In an area where the East and West constantly met to trade, Constantinople became a center where Roman (Western), Persian, and Oriental influences heavily converged.
In the manner that Paris is known as the fashion capital of the contemporary world, Constantinople was regarded as the fashion capital of feudal Europe. Its renown for being an epicenter of luxury began in about 400 A.D. and lasted up until about 1100 A.D. Its status declined during the twelfth century mainly due to the fact that Crusaders had returned bearing gifts such as silks and spices that were valued more than what Byzantine markets offered. It was at this time that the transfer of the title of Fashion Capital from Constantinople to Paris was made.
An important fact to consider is that while the Byzantine Empire was established in the fifth century and flourished for many subsequent centuries thereafter, Western European civilization experienced the Dark Ages from 400 A.D. to 1000 A.D. This is significant in the fact that Western civilization had endured the Dark Ages for almost the entirety of the period when the Byzantine Empire had prospered.
CHARACTERISTICS & TYPES OF CLOTHING
Clothing in the Byzantine Empire was characterized as rectangular (pallium, sagum, paludamentum) or semicircular (paenula) in shape. They used the Roman toga as a basic clothing template and soon began developing it further—replacing it with more elaborate fabrics displaying distinct patterns and embroidery—and almost completely replacing it with the development of the cope. The sleeved tunics—tunica, stola, and dalmatica—developed in Imperial Rome also served the same purpose. Some of the main style differences between the Byzantine and Western (Roman) empires include styles of headdresses, use of fur, types of adornments, and garment length. In addition, the Byzantines infused their styles of dress with aspects—“stiff brocades, jeweled and embroidered fabrics, and structured, heavy clothing” (Knight 1998)—of the Persian court costume.
Something to take note of while observing Byzantine dress is the frequency of Christian symbols, including the cross and animals symbolic to Christianity. For example, many of their clothes and adornments included images of eagles, doves, peacocks, fish, and vines. The high prevalence of Christian symbols can be explained by the religious significance of Constantinople. When the Roman Empire divided into two empires, Rome became the religious capital of the Roman Empire, leading to the rise of Roman Catholicism and the establishment of Vatican City as the residence of the Catholic pope. Constantinople, on the other hand, became the religious capital of the Byzantine (Eastern European) Empire and led to the rise of the Orthodox church. The splitting of the empire is the main reason why there are two popes: one Catholic, one Orthodox. The Roman Empire had grown so vast that a single pope could not suffice. As a result, observations of many of the styles of religious regalia between the two churches have always yielded many similarities.
Analysis of mosaics show that colors used in daily Byzantine clothing included green, brown, blue, red, black, white, gray, and plum. In Byzantine court dress, gold was the dominant and most important color, followed by purple. Purple in Byzantine was divided into violet and a reddish-purple, the latter which was officially designated solely for the emperor. Clothing of this purple could only be worn by others if imperial members gave it as a gift. In the tenth century A.D., however, this color was to only be worn by the emperor’s subjects, and clothing of this purple was furthermore forbidden from leaving the empire.
A fashion trend that developed was covering the arms. This trend differed remarkably from those of other Mediterranean cultures, posing itself as a rather unusual trend because climates near the Mediterranean are typically warmer than the rest of Europe. Another trend that may pose as bizarre considering the warmer temperatures of the region was high necklines. Neckline designs varied, and it was not uncommon to see necklines dip into a slit or V-neck to allow a garment to slip over the head easily.
*Although I am unsure as to how and why these trends developed, a deeper look into the climate of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) offers several answers. Istanbul today, although temperatures do reach the eighties in the summer, sees rainfall year-round. It is also known for being a windy city. The combination of rain and wind is sometimes the formula for conditions that incline individuals to opt for more coverage. In addition, a quick look into some of the styles from the East also show that a similarity that many of them share is high necklines, a trend that would of course permeate into an empire known for its renowned trading city. Other research says that the covering of the arms may have been due to the growing Christian trend of not viewing the human body as beautiful.
The chemise was a long-sleeved undergarment worn by both sexes, and its purpose was similar to today’s undershirt. After the chemise, the garment most prominently worn was the belted tunica. It is modeled after the Roman tunica manicata or talaris, a garment with long sleeves cut in one with the garment or sewn and attached at the shoulders. The tunica fell into a straight-lined skirt, and the length of the skirt varied from below the knee all the way to the ankle. Another type of tunica, the dalmatica, was also widely worn and has been noted as the most recognizable Byzantine garment. Looser in the sleeve area, it originally was worn over another tunica. Wearing a dalmatica came to represent those who were priests or rulers.
In addition, historians believe that underneath the tunic, nearly all Byzantine men wore hose or stockings. What is not known is whether the stockings were gartered, but what historians do know is that the top of the hose was always to be concealed by the tunica.
The tunic and chemise were worn slightly different from the men. When worn, the chemise would peek out from under the tunica at the wrists, skirt, and neck. The silhouette of women’s tunics themselves was also slightly different from that of men. Women’s tunicas were more form-fitting and, thus, more often required the use of girdles instead of belts. However, when a belt was worn, Byzantine art shows that the belt was worn at least in three different levels: just below the bosom), at the natural waistline, or just below the waistline. Women’s necklines, too, were different. They still wore tunicas with the slit and V-neck styles like men did, but they also had a third type: the scoop neckline. A garment often worn and only worn by women was the stola, the same garment that many women in the Roman Empire wore as well (refer to previous chapter on Rome).
Although various weaves of linens, cotton, and wool were the basic materials used to make clothing, the Byzantine Empire’s geographic location and status as the trading capital of the known world allowed it to be exposed to the many resources that merchants and traders brought from afar. As a result, Byzantine clothing was relatively luxurious in comparison to its surrounding regions. Clothing would be adorned with borders, pearls, jewels, and even gold. Weaving strips of gold into fabrics, a technique dating back to biblical times, was practiced only amongst nobility.
The silkworm was introduced from the East during the reign of Justinian in the sixth century A.D. Soon, silk became one of the most popular clothing materials to wear. One particular use of silk was to create the large, rectangular veils (mentioned below in the hair section) that noble women often wore. Byzantine clothesmakers would add embroidery, gold, and jewel appliqués to a specific type of strong, thick silk called samite for garments.
Patterns characteristic of Byzantine clothing included those with dots, stars, and circles. Egyptians copts took the Egyptian practice of weaving complex patterns with multiple colored threads and incorporated Byzantine styles specifically for the Byzantine trading sphere. Patterned embroidery often appeared near the wrists, waist, and skirt hemline.
Their most important item of outerwear was the cloak; or, at the least, a basic draping garment. It should be noted, however, that cloaks were not necessarily utilized for protection or practical uses. The fact that they used cloaks indoors seems to suggest that is true.
Cloaks were divided into two basic types. The everyday cloak was usually rectangular in shape. Its dimensions were typically the length double the width, though length differed depending on what the wearer would be doing. In contrast, the more formal cloak, or cope, was semi-circular and was worn by draping it across the chest left to right and securing it with a brooch at the right shoulder. A tablion, or square patch, was sometimes used as an ornament. The cope steadily began to replace the toga so vastly that the toga was only widely known as the official garb of Byzantine consuls until the late sixth century A.D. Slightly different from the Roman toga, the Byzantine toga was stiffer and more ornate. The process of assembling it is as follows:
“’The band (its end Aa just above the hem of the tunica) is placed on the front of the body and passed over the left shoulder; then it is brought diagonally across the back, under the right arm and across the breast. It is then brought again over the left shoulder and across the back.’ Secure it with a pin on the right shoulder. The rest of the drapery (the wide, apron-like part) over the wearer’s left wrist. Be sure to draw the lower edge AF tightly across the back, so that E will hang in a point in front” (Baker 100).
This toga eventually evolved into the pallium, the robe of the state consisting of a stiff 6-8 inch lined band “worn around the neck and hanging down or wrapped around the person in various ways” (Baker 100) by Byzantine and Western European kings. Another garment borrowed from the Romans, the paenula, was used and developed into two versions: the (1) closed and unhooded chasuble and the (2) hooded raincoat, which was simply a cucculus and chasuble that opened in the front.
Women wore many of the same cloaks men did, including the chasuble and cope. Although both genders wore the cope, the practice of draping the fabric from left to right and securing it on the right shoulder seemed to be a distinctly male practice. The only woman exempt from this rule was the empress. Outer garments that were worn by women, but not by men, included large rectangular veils and shawls.
Shoes were constructed out of soft materials, believed by many historians to be leather and cloth. The softness of the fabric used for Byzantine footwear allowed for shoes that molded to the shape of the individual’s toes or sometimes came to a subtle point. Although shoes were often adorned with silk, gold, and jewels, something unique about Byzantine shoes is that they did not have heels.
~~Jewelry & Accessories~~
For those who could afford it, jewelry consisted mostly of collars, rings, earrings, armlets, brooches, girdles, and crowns [for nobles and imperial members] that were adorned with gold, pearls, and/or rough, uncut jewels. Similar to the consuls of the Roman Empire, Byzantine consuls also carried the mappa (a large handkerchief) and a short scepter. The tablion, mentioned earlier, was worn only by men and was noted as an ornament that was distinctly Byzantine.
Costume historian Lucy Barton notes that there is not much known about the dress of common men and women. However, Barton goes on to speculate that common dress may have been merely plain and basic versions of the clothing already discussed. Materials used to make common wear were often less vivid in color and of lower quality fabric. The linens for clothing were coarse and the leather for shoes was considerably stiffer. The frequent manual labor that characterized the lives of many commoners required shoes made of sturdier materials.
In addition, Barton notes that headwear differed between commoners and nobility. Where nobles were more likely to wear fillets and gold circlets (refer to Hair section), commoners would have been more inclined to make use of the petasos (sun hat) and cucculus (hood). At this time, many commoners held jobs requiring them to spend vast amounts of time outdoors.
Men’s hairstyles in Byzantine were very simple and often mirrored hairstyles worn in Rome. Hair was either kept cropped or bobbed with bangs swept across the forehead. Men adorned their hair very infrequently; but when they did, it was most often using fillets or gold circlets that became more elaborate (jewel-encrusted, for example) as status increased. Other known types of headwear included the petasos (sun hat) and cucculus (hood), though these were worn more for purposes of service.
Women’s hair is ideal in exemplifying the extent of how Byzantine was a high-flow area of converging East and West influences. Like the hairstyles of men, women’s hair also reflected the strong influences of Imperial Rome but in a more decorative fashion. Women wore their hair in elaborate updos and sometimes wore large rectangular veils, particularly when attending church, much like the women of Rome did. It was also not uncommon for women to weave pearls and other ornaments into braided updos. Where they differ is that Byzantine women sometimes incorporated “turban-like wrappings” (Baker 1963), most likely a result of Byzantine’s constant contact with East traders.
Barton, Lucy. Historic Costume for the Stage. Boston: Walter H. Baker Company, 1963.
Baynes, Norman Hepburn. The Byzantine Empire. London, Oxford University Press, 1949.
Knight, Margaret. Fashion Through the Ages: from Overcoats to Petticoats. New York: Viking, 1998.
Marginnis, Tara, Ph.D. Byzantine Costume Links The Costumer's Manifesto. 1 October 2008.
Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969.
Runciman, Steven, Sir. Byzantine Civilisation. London: Edward Arnold, 1966.
Vasilev, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. History of the Byzantine Empire, 324-1453. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952.