A Clothing How-To for Garments of the Byzantine Empire
- Men's costume in Byzantium didn't change too much over the centuries. It consisted of the tunica, the dalmatic, the cloak and shoes or boots. The shapes of the garments were consistent throughout the classes, only the quality of the fabric and trimming distinguished them.
- Tunica: The tunica was the basic article of clothing in Byzantium. For the lower classes, it was the everyday working garment. For the upper classes, it was the underlayment for some of the richest clothing in history. The tunica was a derivation of the ancient Roman tunica talaris, or tunic to the ankles. They were trim in the sleeve and mostly loose in the body. The more active wearer would gird it up to the shins or knees with a thin belt. The sleeve length would change according to the class of the wearer and the weather. The most well known tunic of this type is the coptic tunic. Some dock workers still seemed to be clad in a himation which is an ancient type of tunic made of rectangles pinned at the shoulders and belted at the waist. This was definately a lower class way of wearing your clothes.
- The primary fabric for a tunica was undyed linen or undyed wool. Both would be in a plain weave. The wool was not the heavy scratchy stuff we know as wool. It was a finer, tropical weight with a smooth finish. Silk was also used for these types of garments. They are seen in a small assortment of colors; red, ochre, yellow and orange. There is an existing tunic made from what could only be termed as a linen terrycloth. An even rarer type of tunic was the resist dyed tunic. This resulted in an indigo tunic with the designs in the natural ground color.
- Coptic tunics were trimmed lavishly. Clavi (stripes) and segmentae (roundels and squares) were done in a tapestry weave and were the most common type of trim. Most examples are in the natural tunic/ purple trim scheme, but there are many examples of more colorful trims. Most of the examples have the tapestry weaving as part of the garment. The tunics were woven individually, and much of the trim was done on the loom. A large number of examples, though, show tapestry woven trim attached to a plain weave body. Cards for card weaving have also been discovered in Coptic areas and card weaving also gives a similar look as tapestry weaving. Colors seen in existing trim are as follows: natural, tan, light and dark brown, yellow, gold, pink, red, maroon, light and dark blue, cobalt blue, aqua, light and dark green, yellow-green, orange, coral, purple and black.
- Dalmatic: The dalmatic was the over robe worn by the upper classes and on special occasions, by the common people. An early (6th -10th cent.) type of dalmatic is characterized by the one worn by Emperor Justinian in the Ravenna mosaics. It has long tight sleeves and comes down to the knees. This would be worn over a tunic or shirt and was usually belted. The dalmatic would mostly be of a solid base with trim applied in specific areas.Trim would be lavish, but restricted to neck, cuffs, hem, upper arm seam, side slits and occasionally medallions above the knees. This trim could be more tapestry woven strips and medallions or embroidery encrusted with pearls and gems. The color schemes would parallel the schemes on the tunicas. For the lower classes, it was usual for these decorative strips to be cut from scraps or short lengths of expensive brocades. This practice carried up into the northern cities as well.
- Later dalmatics (10th -13th cent.) are the most recognizable Byzantine garment. It now reaches to the floor and the sleeves have become somewhat wider. This could be worn belted or not. There would sometimes be small side slits put in for ease in walking. Some examples of this type of dalmatic close down the front and fasten with buttons. Patterns are the fabric of choice in Byzantium, which was known from the earliest times for its beautiful fabrics. The sleeve hem, bottom hem and neck would be heavily decorated. Embroidery, precious stones and pearls would be used. Pearls would outline all the major portions of the decoration as well as being part of it. If the garment was not made of a patterned fabric, decoration would be applied to give the impression that it was of the more expensive fabric. Fabrics for this would be fine linen, wool, cotton and for the wealthy, silk. The traditional patrician costume consisted of a dalmatic with wide sleeves over a tunic with tight sleeves and high boots.
- Dalmatics of the 14th and 15th centuries took on the appearance of Turkish caftans. These coats are distinguished from European garments by the armholes. European coats had curved armholes by this time but Eastern clothes were still being cut as rectangles and triangles. The cloth was still beautifully patterned and the decorations as lavish. Now, a small collar and occasionally false sleeves are seen. The dalmatic was worn belted and it had medium wide sleeves if it were an over garment and trim sleeves if it were underclothes. Italian cut velvets were also appearing at this time. The dalmatic was taking on a decidedly Turkish character. For less formal functions, long sleeved tunics which reached to the knee were still worn. These dalmatics were worn belted and were trimmed on the upper arm and hem. The false sleeves would be slit in the center and trimmed in fur around the bottom and the slit.
This was the imperial decorative collar. It has been difficult for me to determine whether any but royalty wore the collar. It is, however, one of the most recognizable parts of Byzantine clothing. It could be of cloth of gold or similar material, then studded with gems and/or immense amounts of embroidery. The decoration was general divided into compartments by vertical lines on the collar. The edges would be done in pearls of varying sizes in up to three rows. There were occasionally drop pearls placed at intervals to add to the richness. Rarely was the base fabric distinguishable after the decoration was applied. The collar would come over the collarbone to cover a portion of the upper chest. The collar was also a part of the ecclesiastical pallium.The men's version of the pallium was wide and rectangular. The back portion of the pallium would be cut fairly long so that it could be wrapped about the body and hang gracefully over the left arm. This is a distinct hold over from the Roman toga. Sometimes it looks as if the collar was being worn over a jeweled tabard. It is impossible for me to say whether they were attached or not. The superhumeral was worn throughout the history of Byzantium.
Leg coverings of some nature were worn by almost all Byzantines. Breeches makers are shown in Diocletian's Edicts of Prices, so they were available from the beginnings of the Eastern Empire. Those who worked outdoors left the legs bare. Shepherds are shown with wrappings on their legs from the ankle to the knee. Dock laborers are shown with totally bare legs. Justinian wore hose. Frankish breeches were seen in areas where contact between the cultures occurred. During the early 12th century they were looked down upon as unmanly, but by the end of the century they were already being widely adopted. Hose seem to be the choice of the upper class and they came in rich colors. Trousers were wildly patterned and they fit fairly loosely. They seem to have what amounts to a drawstring waist, then they narrow down to a reasonably slim ankle.
Not too much is seen for shoes in Byzantine Art. The Ravenna mosaics show the men wearing what appears to be sandals with white socks. I am not certain how to interpret that. Emperor Basil II is shown wearing knee high red boots, embroidered with pearls. Other Imperial portraits show only the tips of the shoes. In Houston, there is shown a shoe from the Imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Emperors. It is a short boot, only to the ankle, which is cut to allow many different sizes to be accommodated. This shoe is lavishly decorated. Lots of pearls and gems give a very regal look. There is gold scrollwork on the sides and over the toe of the shoe. Outside laborers would either have sandals or be barefoot. The sandals follow the Roman model of straps over a thick sole. Some examples of the Roman cuculus or military boot are also seen on shepherds. Red sandals marked the Emperor; blue shoes, a sebastokrator; and green shoes a protovestiarios.
The semicircular cloak seemed to have been the most popular. Emperor Justinian wore one as well as his guards. The length usually fell to about the hips or buttocks and on each straight side there might be a tablion. The tablion was a decorative spot sometimes used to show the rank of the wearer by the type of embroidery and jewels that were used. The imperial cloak of the Holy Roman Emperors is still in existence and is a fine example of the Byzantine style.Each element of the cloak is outlined in pearls and embroidered in gold. Sometimes an oblong cloak would be worn. This was more of a military cloak and not generally worn for court occasions. Cloaks would be pinned on the right shoulder for ease of movement.
There were very few styles of hat for men in Byzantium. A small type of Phyrgian cap was seen in the earliest times, (before the 9th century). Mostly, men went bareheaded. In the 12th century, Emperor Andronikos Comnenus was seen wearing a smoke colored hat shaped like a pyramid. In 1159 Prince Reynald of Chatillon was seen with a tiara shaped felt cap, embellished in gold. An Iberian wide brimmed felt hat came into vogue during the 12th century and the turban also began to be seen more frequently. In the northern reaches of the Byzantine sphere, small caps with or without fur brims were seen.
How to construct your own Byzantine clothing:
- Women's costume in Byzantium didn't change too much over the centuries either. It basically consisted of the tunica, the stola, and shoes. The lower classes still wore basically Roman clothes. These had lots of drape and movement, so the ladies could get on with their work. The upper class women wore the more stiff, jeweled garments that we are familiar with.
These were the basic underclothes for every class and every time period. It would only vary in material by class of the wearer. It was long and had tight sleeves that were trim to the body. The neck would be cut either in a boat style or in a regular round configuration. This garment could be of fine wool, as in Roman times, or of linen or silk. Generally it was the sole garment of the lower classes. It could be plain or have trimming. The trimming would be around the foot of the garment, the neck, and the wrists. Clavii would also be seen, in varying lengths. The most common would be clavii to almost the hem, but these would not have the trimming at the foot. As underclothes, it would have invariably been of a fine white linen. In the summer, women of the working classes would be seen in classical tunicas. These have no sleeves and were sometimes pinned at the shoulders. If it was the sole garment, it could be done in colors and it seemed to have been undecorated. Slate blue, raspberry, yellow and red are shown in paintings.
The stola varied only slightly over the time of the Empire. In the early years, ladies continued the classical Roman style of tunica, stola and pallia.
- In the 5th century, the stola was wide and had no separate sleeves. A sleeved effect was gotten from the excess width of the stola being belted at the waist and bloused over the belt, just as in ancient Rome. Decorations were placed on the hems, tablions were placed above the knee, and clavii were done over the shoulders. Colors were varied. I have noted lavender, purple, pale green, light, medium and dark blue, pink, deep red, burgundy, gold, brown, black and white. Trimming was also very lavish. The scheme would be similar to the tunica but goldwork and gems were known to be used in excessive quantity. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the stola was trimmer fitting and it developed bell sleeves. These sleeves were shorter than in the next centuries, only coming to the elbow. They were still worn with long sleeved tunicas and the arms of upper class ladies never appeared bare. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the sleeves would be tight to the elbow then flare out. The was trim to the body but then flared out from the hip. With this style of sleeve, there was generally a band of trim or embroidery around the elbow, right above where the sleeve widened.
- In the 11th through the 13th centuries, the stola began to look more and more like the men's dalmatic. It transformed from being light and draped into the heavily jeweled and decorated garment we generally associate with Byzantium. The stola now was made out of the same beautiful silk brocades as the men's. The sleeves were generally longer, i.e. covering the wrists, and there would not be slits for walking. The sleeves would also be more bell shaped and flowing than the men's. The primary colors were purple and gold. This is mainly because all of the existing pictorial evidence portrays the Imperial family. Other colors included deep blue, rose and white. Evidence of what the common folks wore is hard to find during this time.
- The stola of the 14th and 15th centuries did not vary significantly from the men's. It would button down the front but maintained the bell like sleeves and the somewhat trimmer cut of the previous century. This became the dress of the Russian Imperial family. The former closed style of stola was also still seen. Colors seen are rose, green, white and rust.
The superhumeral is a decorative collar worn over the stola. It is nearly exactly the same as the men's version except it was generally scaled down to fit no lower than the top of the collarbone and no wider that the tip of the shoulder. There are exceptions to this but, in general the collar was fairly narrow and usually without the front and back dependant portions. A superhumeral with those portions is called an ecclesiastical pallium and was generally worn only by the priesthood and the Imperial family. The superhumeral would be edged with pearls and covered with goldwork and jewels. It was decorated in all respects just like the men's version. Only the Empress seemed to wear the full superhumeral, however the smaller jeweled collar was worn by the upper classes throughout the time Empire.
Since most gowns sweep the ground, there is little pictorial evidence concerning women's shoes. Empress Theodora has small pointed toed slippers as do her ladies. In other portraits, small black pointed toes peek from underneath the robes. Simple flat, slightly pointed shoes should be correct enough until more information comes to light.
These were also rare for ladies. There is the small roll with the veil which appeared early in the history, (around the 5th Century) and also the small Russian cap. Generally the scarf or palla was draped over the head when there was need for it. The palla could also be done like a small scarf and used to cover the hair. Since Byzantium followed in the steps of Rome and it's fashion for large and elaborate hairstyles, coverings are not very common. In the northern climates, the chin scarf and the wimple were common headcoverings.
Cloaks were semicircular from the early centuries. After the 6th century, the cloak was worn symmetrically. The straight edge was worn over the head like a scarf. Sometimes, though they would be pinned in the center with a big brooch or they wouldn't fasten at all. Up until the 12th century, the rectangular cloak was still worn by the working classes. Empress Ariadne wore a full length semicircular cloak with a picture of her son embroidered in pearls in the tablion. The cloak was also edged with a double row of truly large pearls. The tablions were reserved for the Empress alone, but the cloak shape was worn by all classes.
- Ornamental style:
In general, pictorial evidence suggests that most Byzantine decoration was geometric in nature. Popular non-geometric trim motifs were: vines, back to back animals in roundels, heads of Dionysius in roundels, birds and animals in squares or roundels, and rosettes. Knotwork also appeared on clavi. Fantastic creatures, dots, leaves and crowns were also incorporated into the designs. Fake Kufic script began to be seen around the 12th century with the availability of tabriz fabrics from the Muslim lands. Intricate and elaborate overall patterns were the best.
- Byzantine clothing is of a very simple cut, but do not be fooled. Just because the patterns are simple, doesn't mean the clothes are easy. The beauty of the clothes comes from the skill in cutting them out, the types of fabrics used and the skillful overuse of decorations.
- Fabrics: The best fabrics for the job are Ecclesiastical Fabrics. You can but these from some regular fabric stores, but they are limited in scope and color. The best place to find them is from a specialty store. Look in your area phone book for fabric merchants and see if any are willing to special order for you. Be aware that these fabrics are generally exceedingly expensive. Also, they are generally acetate so they can get hot in the summer. The redeeming feature of acetate, however, is that it is very easy to clean and can be thrown in the washing machine. (I do this with all my Byzantines) It also has the look and feel of a period fabric, even though the fiber content is not period. If you find fabric like this in silk or cotton, grab as much and as fast as you can. The effect will be like none you have seen.
- Certain printed fabrics are suitable for these garments as well. The most essential thing to keep in mind is that the colors should not be too bright. Vegetable dyes give very clear color but not fluorescent color. Patterns should be geometric but not too modern in look. Paisley is a late period Turkish influence. It would be inappropriate for anything before 1500. Small repeat patterns seem relatively easy to come by. Woven-in patterns are the best choice but printed fabrics are also acceptable.
- Muslins and other cottons and linens of a similar weight are very useful. These are the fabrics of the middle classes and can be dressed up with appropriate trim and jewels. Clear reds, roses, blues and whites are the easiest to find. Moss green and ochre were also popular. Silk is the fabric of choice for almost everything. The underclothes are the only things which can get away with lesser fabrics. Besides, if you sweat a lot, you don't want to be washing delicate silk all the time. Fine cotton and linen work just as well and the hold up better in the wash. Handkerchief linen or its equivalent makes the best underclothes. Suit weight linen is good for field Dalmatics. It drapes nicely and is very cool in the summer. Raw silk gives an excellent drape and look to your clothes. The more finely woven the better it is. Shantung is nice for lightweight summer clothes. Silk crepe is too flimsy for anything but veils and nothing makes a veil like silk organza. Velvets should only be used for late period caftans. These were introduced from Italy and as far as I can tell, they were used for outer wear only. Be wary of rayon velvet. It looks alright but is a real pain to work with and to clean. Cotton velvet is goodand Silk velvet is the best, but I wish you luck in affording it.
- Trimming: There are numerous good commercial trims. These are good for use as clavii on Dalmatics and Coptics. Make sure that everything is pre-shrunk before attaching. Nasty surprises can occur when the fabric and the trim shrink at different rates. When choosing a trim, the only metallics should be silver and gold. The rest of the colors should be vibrant but not neon. There are several pattern examples here and in the books in the bibliography. Geometrics are the easiest to get. For the adventurers among us, you can use card weaving to make really period trim for your clothes. Doing your own tapestry weaving is possible as well. I have done this and found that lack of space is a very big consideration. The effect is great, though, and worth the effort.
- I will also embellish plain trimmings with beads. I'll use gold and silver filled beads and pearls to add richness to the trim. I like the filled beads the best because they wash well and will never corrode or peel. The silver will tarnish, though. I don't use colored beads on trims because I can't find any real evidence to support their use. Multitudes of Byzantine beads have come to light, but none of the literature I've seen has shown what they were used for.
- Jewels: Your jewels are the most visible and expressive part of your Byzantine outfit. The best types of jewels to get are the cabochon types with the sew on backings. NEVER ever use hot glue on your clothes!!! It never gives a satisfactory appearance nor is the glue period or long lasting. The jewels that need to be set are the best looking but also the hardest type to get. You will have to check around your area to see what you can find. For a somewhat inferior, but still good choice, some of the craft stores have the jewels that have a collar setting that have the prongs on the inside of the garment. Sometimes these are the more preferable type of jewel to get. Do not use this type on damasks and brocades; they will slide right out of the fabric. There are also jewels that are put into settings with the prongs that are on the outside. These are also fine to use, however, do not hot glue them into the settings and then glue the settings onto the fabric. They look very stiff and the glue will crack. Also, don't forget to make sure that you flatten out the prongs! Make the prongs as smooth to the jewel as possible. It will catch on everything if you don't. My trick is to surround that type of jewel with small pearls. It is nice looking and the pearls keep fabric from getting caught. The next best are the commonly found type of sew on jewel. There is some debate about the appropriateness of faceted jewels. Diamond cut, like modern jewelry is not appropriate, however, the sew on type of jewels are in a ˝roseţ cut and are fine. Make sure that the colors of the jewels are appropriate. Do not use the ˝auroraţ gems that are so popular and all over the place. They are not from this period. The heraldic colors are good. I don't use the clear, rose, turquoise or other pastels. I don't think they look real enough. I have also seen someone use chips from a gem chip necklace for thier jeweling. It looks a bit rough but seems correct enough.
- Pearls were the favorite Byzantine decoration and are readily available at any craft store. Be careful when washing the cheap plastic pearls, they tend to peel and to look junky. Since I don't want to do the same work several times over, I use the somewhat more expensive types of pearls that are available from bead catalogues. These glass pearls have a better color and don't peel. They also come in a creme color as well as the white. My personal taste runs towards the creme pearls which are not white but not creme either. They are more natural looking. They also are somewhat heavier than the plastic pearls so they hang better. For very small work, I have used 10/0 glass seed beads in pearl color. They give a good look and you can really outline things well with them. Real fresh water pearls are nice to use as well. They come pierced both widthwise and lengthwise to better fit your pearling plan. The only problem with these is that they can become prohibitively expensive to get in sufficient quantity.
- Metal or enamel plaques were also applied to these garments as decorations. These are difficult and somewhat expensive to get. Make sure that there are rings or spaces to attach the plaques and check to see whether or not the plaque will react to your fabric and stain. These are a very rich decoration and there are filigree plaques available now that would look good on a dalmatic. Sometimes at flea markets you can find old enamel bracelets that you can salvage. Remember to nail polish the backs to keep them from staining. Keep in mind that things did not always match in period, so don't get hung up if you don't seem to have enough of something to go around. Cover as much as you can and fill in the rest with something else. Byzantine decoration is more concerned with quantity and visual impact than with symmetry. Go for an aura of overall richness, rather than the subtle use of a small number of objects.
- Techniques: When cutting the garment, I tend to be very frugal. I have gotten a good feel for why things were cut in certain ways in period by doing this. Look at the cutting layouts I use for dalmatics, tunics and the rest of the parts. Notice that you can extend the sleeves as well as get a hat out of the stuff most people throw away. If you're really careful, you can get a pouch out of what's left. We have been spoiled by $1.00/yd fabric. Cut your clothes like the fabric costs $100.00/yd. Measure yourself carefully before cutting. Try to cut the armhole as small as you can and still get easy movement. If this is too big, the garment will look clunky along with making you look fat. Small diamond shaped or square gussets will solve a too small armhole. Do not cut the underarm area as a sharp corner. It never turns cleanly if you do. Instead mark the sharp turn, then draw a smooth curve along the line. The length should fall to just below the ankle bone. Any lower and the novice will rip out the hem, any higher and it would be incorrectly short. Short tunics will fall just above the knee. Trousers should be somewhat baggy but don't let the crotch get too low. A low crotch makes you look dumpy and will get ripped out faster than a properly fitting one. Also a low crotch allows your thighs to rub together in a most uncomfortable way.
- As a purist, I recommend that you sew the clothes by hand. I know that most people will not do this. At the minimum, I suggest hand finishes and never ever sew on the trims with a machine. A machine is not able to give that woven in look that is the most desirable. The best effect is that of trim that is laying on the fabric with no visible means of support.
- Finishing of the clothes is also important. Mainly, I double roll the seams and whipstitch them back on themselves. This doesn't work well with bulky fabrics. If the fabric is bulky, I will double roll the seam and carefully whip the seam onto the body of the garment. If you are careful, the stitches will not show on the outside. If the fabric is not particularly prone to fraying, the edges can be left as is or covered with a blanket stitch. All of these techniques were seen on period clothing. If you are pressed, fraycheck will do, but it leaves a scratchy interior and I don't generally care for the sloppy looking edges it leaves. French seaming and flat felled seaming are options , although I only use it on trousers and occasionally shoulder seams. They don't take curves too well and they get bulky.
- Lining is another method of finishing. For fairly stiff, later period court clothes, I would definitely use a lining. It will give the proper body to maintain the stiffness required. You can avoid this lining by using the ecclesiastical fabrics which have enough weight to hang properly. Sometimes, though, the ecclesiastic fabric is too translucent and must be lined so as not to show all the seaming. The underclothes should not be lined or they will be too stiff to wear with any degree of comfort. You should also check the way your sleeves hang. Look in the mirror when you are wearing the garment and see what shows. Flaring sleeves and bell sleeves show too much of the interior and need to be lined. A lining is a good opportunity to use clashing color combinations, scraps of expensive fabric or to have a subtle color combination. The color of the lining can drastically affect the overall look of your garment. Try several swatches before you decide.
- The best way to apply the pearls is by whipstitching them in place, then running a separate thread through the holes. This makes the design very strong. It is also the best way to do hems. I have stepped on and ripped out nearly every hem I have done, but I have not lost a pearl yet. This technique was used in period goldsmithing and for book covers, probably for the same reason. Look for the narrowest needles you can find or you'll break a lot of pearls. Don't use a beading needle to whipstitch the pearls. It doesn't have the strength and is too long to work with easily. Don't leave the pearls on their original strings. It is a weak thread meant only to hold the hank together long enough for you to get it home. It breaks if you breathe on it. Some people like to string their pearls then couch them into place. I don't like it because I don't have the fine control of placement that I do with the other method. Feel free to try any way you like. I also like to make sure that all of my pearling that is to be done on the body of the garment is totally finished before attaching the lining.
Author: Black Tauna
Last Updated: Mon, Nov. 6, 1995
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