Clothing of the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine costume tradition took its form from the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ) and its color and decorative tradition from the Orient and the Middle East. The Roman roots are easy to understand. After all, the Byzantine Empire began in the fourth century C.E. as the Eastern Roman Empire; its capital, Constantinople, was for a short time the capital of the entire Roman Empire. From the Romans the Byzantines inherited their basic clothing forms, the tunic and toga for men, and the stola, a type of long dress, for women, as well as their shoes and their hairstyles. These basic garments had become more ornate and luxurious late in the Roman Empire, yet it was not long after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. that the Byzantines began to modify and extend the Roman costume tradition to become something uniquely their own.
By the end of the Roman Empire the toga, which had once been required wear for Romans, was worn only on ceremonial occasions. The Byzantines, who tended to prefer simple flowing clothes to the winding and draping of the toga, did away with the toga altogether. They chose as their most basic of garments the dalmatica, a long, flowing men's tunic, or shirt, with wide sleeves and hem, and the stola for women. Unlike the Romans, the Byzantines tended to be very modest about any display of flesh. Their garments were worn close about the neck, sleeves extended all the way to the wrist, and the hemline, or bottom edge, of their outer garments extended all the way to the ground. They layered their clothing, with men wearing a tunic and trousers under the dalmatica, and women wearing a long undergarment beneath their stola and an outer garment called a paludamentum, or long cloak.
One of the key features of the Byzantine Empire was its history of trade with the Middle East and the Orient. 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. Over time Byzantine clothing became ever richer in color and ornamentation, thanks largely to these influences. Deep reds, blues, greens, and yellows became common on the garments of wealthy people, but the richest color, purple, was reserved for royalty. When Byzantine emperors received foreign visitors, they costumed themselves in rich purple robes, glittering with gold embroidery and jewels sewn onto the fabric.
Among the more distinctive garments developed by the Byzantines were those worn by the clergy in the Christian church. Variations on normal Byzantine garments like the dalmatica, for example, took on specified roles in religious practice among the clergy. Garments originated by the Byzantines are still worn today by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the influence of the Byzantines can be seen in the robes and headwear of leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, which split from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.
Silk, the richest fabric
One fabric, silk, was especially beloved by the Byzantines. Silk first came to the West in about 139 B.C.E. via the long trade route that crossed the Middle East and reached China, and the supply was limited. In 552 C.E. , however, two Persian monks, from what is modern-day Iran, smuggled silkworms out of China and began to produce silk within the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines wove their silk into a strong fabric called samite, which sometimes had gold thread woven into the material. Silk was highly treasured by wealthy Byzantines to make a variety of garments as well as for embroidery.
Unlike in Rome, where strict sumptuary laws determined what people of different social classes could wear, the quality of Byzantine clothing was limited only by the ability of the wearer to pay for it. But this was a severe limit indeed, for only those at the very top of Byzantine society could afford the rich silks, jewels, and embroidery that distinguished Byzantine clothing. Most Byzantines likely wore much simpler versions of the common garments. However, as in many ancient cultures, little is known about what was worn by the poorer members of society because they were unable to afford the expensive things that would have survived many hundreds or thousands of years. The surviving remnants of Byzantine culture—tile mosaics, statues, and paintings—tend to depict the very wealthy or members of the church.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1947.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.