Stylish and Practical: Fashion in the Byzantine Empire

Richly Decorated Tunic, 660–870 A.D. Egypt, Eshmunein. Tapestry weave in polychrome and undyed wool on plain-weave ground of undyed wool; applied borders with pattern and brocading weft in polychrome wool and undyed linen. Via MetMuseum.org.

The rise of the Byzantine Empire saw a flourish in fashion.  The wealthy and opulent Empire was reflected in the colorful, heavily-detailed clothing of its people, which continues to inspire designers and enthusiasts today.

Byzantine fashion was inspired by the Orient and Middle East, with whom the Empire traded. “Traders brought exotic fabrics and patterns into the capital city of Constantinople from these regions, and rich Byzantines eagerly adopted the colors, patterns, and fabrics of the East into their costume tradition.”

Some of this inspiration from the East was quite literal. Two Persian monks had smuggled silkworms out of China, bringing them to the Byzantine Empire. The Empire thus produced a strong silk fabric called “samite.”  In the sixth century, silk production saw a vast improvement, allowing greater detail to be woven into the fabric. 

Wool was also an important fabric in Byzantine fashion.  “Tapestry-woven wool inserts incorporate figural and floral motifs rendered with subtle colorations to provide shading and detail.”  These intricate details added cost to garments and were often recycled (the design would be cut away when the garment became too worn and restitched onto another piece). 

Via http://www.byzconf.org/people-byzantine-empire-wear/

The use of color, texture, and imagery in Eastern design also found its way onto the clothes of Byzantine citizens.  The garments of the upper classes featured beautiful iconography and biblical scenes. 

As color was also important to the Byzantines, gemstone hues like red, blue, and green were widely used in the garments of the very wealthy.  This is because such dyes were expensive to produce.  Purple, however, was reserved for royalty. 

Christianity and faith were at the center of the Byzantine Empire, so it only makes sense that their garments would reflect this.  “Among the more distinctive garments developed by the Byzantines were those worn by the clergy in the Christian church,” just as the most precious gemstones and jewelry were reserved for the clergy in the Middle Ages. 

Byzantines shunned the restrictive, winding Roman toga, preferring simple, flowing designs (which they wore prior to the reign of Justinian the Great). Worn close around the neck, extending to the wrist, Byzantine dress was more modest than Roman.  Other than the hands, face, and neck, no flesh was displayed, to keep with the modesty dictated by their faith. 

Simple in design, the tunic was worn by men and children. Women wore a longer, more modest tunica, simply designed and able to cover a woman’s body even through pregnancy. Women also covered their hair with head cloths. Wealthy women adorned their garments with jewelry and accessories like bells. 

Via https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/tablion/

Upper class men wore a chlamys, a semi-circular cloak pinned at the shoulder.  Members of the senate “[…] would sport a tablion, a colored panel across chest or midriff. This was often adorned in certain colors and jewels to denote rank even among the senatorial class.”  Neither wealthy men nor wealthy women wore any sort of stocking or legging (both of which were associated with barbarians).

Unlike the Romans whose laws governed what people of certain social classes could wear, “the quality of Byzantine clothing was limited only by the ability of the wearer to pay for it.” Of course, only the very wealthy could afford the exquisite silks and jewelry we normally associate with Byzantine fashion (you can read more about Byzantine jewelry in our blog on the history of jewelry). 
 
Footwear was also an important indicator of class and status.  The upper classes wore shoes and members of the military wore calf- or knee-high boots.  The shoes of the wealthy were often red in color.  Lower classes wore sandals and slippers, which were simple and cheap to produce
 
It is, however, interesting to note that not much is known about what the lower classes wore.  This is because only the well-made, finely-constructed pieces of nobility survived through the centuries.  Nobility had extensive wardrobes, so each garment didn’t get the same wear and tear as a cheaper piece worn regularly by someone of the lower class.  “The surviving remnants of Byzantine culture—tile mosaics, statues, and paintings—tend to depict the very wealthy or members of the church.”

A Deeper Look into Byzantine Fashion

The video below offers a quick and wonderful look into Byzantine fashion. (Click here to view directly on YouTube).
 


Sources
Main image via https://www.kisspng.com/png-byzantine-empire-byzantium-clothing-byzantine-dres-1002583/
Byzantine Dress – History and Facts about Byzantine Dress – http://www.historyofclothing.com/clothing-history/byzantine-dress/
What Did People in the Byzantine Empire Wear? – http://www.byzconf.org/people-byzantine-empire-wear/
Clothing of the Byzantine Empire – http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Early-Cultures-The-Byzantine-Empire/Clothing-of-the-Byzantine-Empire.html
Fashion and Style in Byzantium – https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/byzantium-and-islam/blog/topical-essays/posts/fashion


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