History of fashion: the Byzantine empire

Published: 24th February 2010
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In the 3rd century the Roman Empire was dying. The emperor Constantine, however, would begin the transformation process from which an Eastern Christian Empire was to emerge when he created the second capital of the Roman Empire in Constantinople in the year 324. Located on the European side of the Bosporus, on the crossroad between the East and the West, Constantinople would become the most opulent city in the world. The finest luxury goods - most notably silk - were imported from Asia. In turn, Constantinople exported to Western Europe works of art, silk vestments, papyrus, porcelain, glass ware, incense, and perfumes.

During eleven centuries the Byzantine Empire experienced a period of extreme brilliance, under Justinian (ad 527-565), followed by a temporary decline; then, from the ninth century to the thirteenth, an extraordinary development, followed by a gradual weakening marked by serious economic and political losses, which ended in the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.

Byzantine costume reflected those diverse influences. It presented characteristics of ancient Classical costume, but it was mainly influenced by Near-Eastern sumptuousness in its nature and colour. This fusion was prolongued until the end of the Empire by the empirial court.

Women had a secluded and restricted existence dominated by their domestic obligations. The sole exception were women of the nobility, especially Theodora who held a powerful role in the empire.

Byzantine style was influenced by both Greek and Roman attire, and was characterized by oriental opulence. Shape was simple, but bright colors, fringes, tassels, and jeweled embroidery, all of eastern origin, made clothing extravagantly luxurious. Clothing denoted stature and rank.

Byzantine wardrobe was rich and complex due to the diverse origin of many of byzantine garments. The trousers were borrowed from the Huns or the Persians. The tzitsakfoncame from the Khazares. The soft boots, the paragaudion, a gold-embroidered tunic with a purple-dyed leather belt, the kandys, the collar and the skaramangion, the ovoidal tiara were all Persians. The cavvadior, the skaranicon and the granatza were introduced by the Assyrians, and the Medes gave the necklace.

In spite its opulence and splendor, byzantine clothing reflected the new Christian values. Its purpose was to conceal the body. Physical shape and sex disappeared under the long billowing tunics. Garments literally made a statement of religious devotion for they were often embroidered with religious scenes. At first there was no distinction between the dress of clerics and the rest of the population, but then the former were forbidden to follow fashion trends. Catholic and Orthodox vestments look today the same way they did once.

Imperial costume
Emperors, who acted both as head of the state and the church, had a lavish existence and their ceremonial attire contributed to the empire's reputation for sartorial excess. 

From the 4th to the 6thcentury emperors wore a gown woven of gold thread and a chlamys fastened on the right shoulder with a rich fibula. Justinian also wore the Roman consuls toga, the trabea, a wide scarf crossed on the chest, and the paragaudion. Empresses wore a white tunic with a vertical band of embroidery, and a gown with elbow-length sleeves.

In the 10th century, Imperial costume was completed with the loros, a long scarf embroidered with gold thread and precious stones.

In the 12th century Byzantium transformed the caftan worn by Persian soldiers into an elegant garment. A new coat, buttoned down the front, was in fashion. The Imperial crown was then completely closed, in the shape of a small dome: the camelaukion.

During the last centuries of Byzantium, the Emperor wore the saccoz, a purple or black stiff gown, with fastened at the wrists sleeves.

Civilian costume
There is far less known about the civilian costume for it is not as well documented and what we do know, we have gathered from the description of writers from that epoch. Ordinary men wore clothes characteristic for the Steppe people, a blouse or tunic, trousers and footwear, taken from the Huns. Breeches were tight, made from patterned or embroidered cloth, and were worn tucked into the boots, which reached mid-calf.

Women's clothing
Women's clothing was meant to conceal the body and hide the gender. It consisted of numerous layers starting by a tight-fitting chemise that fell to the ankle. The tunic worn on top could be either fitted or girded just above or at waist. It was shorter than the chemise underneath and so it revealed it. Other staples in the women's' wardrobe were the stola, the palla, and a long veil, which fell behind the head, or was folded forward and draped over the arm.

Theodora's rich silk dresses were enhanced with precious stones and lavish gold embroidery. She wore ropes of pearls, emeralds, and rubies, and for ceremonial purposes a heavy crown with pearls and emeralds that cascaded down to her chest.

Men's clothing
In the early ages of the empire, byzantine clothing copied Roman. Men wore a tight-fitting white tunic with long sleeves, which reached either the ankles or the knees. Over this undergarment they wore the dalmatika, a red and gold tunic with long wide sleeves. Men's wardrobe included also the hosa, a woolen or fabric hose, the bracoor breeches, which later on were replaced by pants or drawers, the Greeks chlamys, that they wore with the tablion, a rectangular piece of cloth inset at waist height, and the Roman pallium, which shared only the name with its predecessor.

The toga was initially worn by most, but from the 6th century onward became the distinctive mark of consuls. It was replaced by the cloak, which could be found in three styles: a rectangle piece of fabric, which was worn wrapped around the shoulders; a semicircular cape, which was also fastened at the shoulder; and the circular cape, which was sewn up the front and had an opening for the head.

The author is the founder and owner of Adriana Allen LLC - a European fashion brand offering handmade and one-of-a-kind handbags and fashion accessories. You can learn more about world fashion, fashion's history, and how to buy fashion accessories at our official blog

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