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Fashioning Romanitas on the Bosphorus

‘You must dress well to gain admiration from your subjects.’

Patriarch Photios to Boris of Bulgaria

Contemporary remnants of ‘Byzantine’ fashion can, perhaps, be discerned in the occasional borrowings of bored fashion houses (see Valentino, D&G, and Ellie Saab, for instance), and it’s easy to see why: Its copious use of golds, silks and giant cabochons make Byzantium the equivalent of ‘white, other’ on an ethnicity form—‘white’ enough to appear relatable, yet sufficiently ‘other’ to seem exotic. There’s also something of the fashion industry to be found in the tales that have come down to us of tenth-century Byzantine courtiers changing outfits five times for a single day’s festivities—an ordeal with which most models can empathise.

Strangely, historians often still insist that the West invented fashion. Financial constraints meant that beauty was on nobody’s radar before the Renaissance, runs the theory; apparently, the titans of the Quattrocento were the first to manipulate their images. These assumptions rest on a perverse accusation that the Romans in the East didn’t possess ‘fashion’; that they were the products of a stilted, sclerotic polity that permitted only uniforms, stiff dress codes, and so on.

It is somewhat difficult to even counter these slurs because: first, almost no complete garments from Byzantium survive; second, the ease of access to literary sources, frescos, and mosaics means that most studies focus on imperial dress at the expense of everyone else; third, the terminology that has been employed over the millennium is often confused or contradictory; and fourth, in a welter of artistic case studies, the long arc of Roman continuity is lost. The last point is especially frustrating because it is the most exciting aspect. This was a society that continued to wear the short chlamys (cloak) and tunic; the toga was still visible in the consular loros (also a folded cloth outwear that betokened high rank); and the tunic with vertical clavi (stripes) was still worn.


To vaunt their fashion is not to say that the Romans in the East did not have uniforms. Imperial dress reserved its most formal attire for the important festivals of the Christian calendar. At Easter, for instance, the emperor wore a jewel-studded loros over a divestion (a silk tunic), with a stunning stemma (crown) on his head and silk slippers (adorned with pearls) called tzangia on his feet. It’s worth unpacking these one by one to get a sense of their continuity from the dress of the Western Romans and because, well, such outfits are sheer clothes porn.

First, the loros. This evolved from the toga, which since the second century BC had developed many variations, including the toga trabea (which featured vertical red stripes and a purplish hem). Four centuries later, only the consuls continued to wear the exuberant trabea (mainly for ceremony). The loros derived from the trabea triumphalis, which by the sixth century had morphed into a heavy stole made of leather (loros derived from lorion, meaning ‘leather’) and studded with jewels, yet still wrapped around the body in the same manner as the toga. By the tenth century, a collar was added.

Second, the divestion. This was dyed in the imperial purple, a hue extracted from mollusc shells. Its price reflected the fact over twelve thousand shells were required to produce 1.4 grams of dye—an amount that coloured only the hem of a gold-embroidered garment. Astonishing quantities of gold could be used for a single item; when the golden shroud of Honorius’ wife Maria was melted down in 1544, it yielded thirty-six pounds (sixteen kilograms) of gold.

Third, Constantine the Great was the first to adorn his brow with the stemma, a diadem that was a conscious throwback to Alexander the Great. Jewel-encrusted, the Hellenistic version often had a fringe, which the Eastern Romans put on steroids by hanging pearls pendulously (in perfectly named pendulia) from it. Above the centre panel loomed the cross.

Fourth, the notion that shoes might confer imperial status might seem odd to the modern reader but to Romans, they constituted an important part of the imperial insignia. Empress Maria of Alania (1053–1118), for example, insisted her son wear tzangia to signify his rank. The papal slippers are their most direct descendant.

The effect of this ‘look’ must have been to stun both subjects and guests. When Manuel I met the Seljuk Sultan Arslan II, the latter accumulating territory at the expense of the former, the emperor is recorded as being ‘aflame’ with rubies and pearls. It certainly made waves in the West, where the Normans of Sicily imitated imperial Byzantine dress, as did the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II (955–983), while the Frankish King Clovis I (c.466–511) was carved wearing a chlamys on the façade of Notre Dame de Corbeil, just as Theodora and Justinian can be seen in chlamys in the mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna). Perhaps the astonishment of the Latins and Franks should not be surprising; most of them wore wool until the end of Roger II’s reign (d. 1154). Not that the aesthetic was solely the point. The Byzantine savant Psellos wrote an entire treatise on how gems were invested with apotropaic powers or encouraged certain virtues (a stone from Mt Ida for instance bestowed sagacity for instance), in a manner similar to the Jewish ephod, an ancient sacerdotal vestment.


The Byzantine imperial family, however, were the only Eastern Romans who were required to wear uniforms (and only then only for occasions of state or festivals). The only other contenders were slaves who sometimes found themselves dressed in identical colours by their sadistic owners. For most, ‘smart-casual’ in Byzantium translated into a chlamys with a simple fibula (as seen at Thessaloniki’s church of St Demetrios) over a long tunic. This garment slowly mutated into the sakkos (a loosely belted tunic).

The term chlamys was used during the Hellenistic period (323 BC–31 AD) to refer to cloaks in general. The Byzantine version was really an oriental take on the impeccably Roman paludamentum (short cloak). Its popularity owed much to the army. Since so many emperors were military men (or at least, had to be seen to lead martial men), they adopted luxurious silk versions of the chlamys for ceremonial purposes (see the Barberini Ivory for Justinian in a cuirass and chlamys). Thanks to this heritage, the (full or knee-length) chlamys was often worn open over the shoulder, so as to leave a sword arm free to do damage.

While fibulae (brooches) had the potential to impress, most men of status preferred to ornament themselves with tablia (embroidered panels), blattia (panels of purple fabric) or baltadin (belts of precious stones). Some chlamys could be extraordinarily beautiful on their own, of course, as can be seen in the eagle silk from Auxerre, or Leo VI as a penitent in Hagia Sophia. Some of the most frequent motifs were knots and interlaces. These had a pagan past in that their subtext was that they bound people by spells or simply enchanted them, but they could be Christianised with mottos such as ‘God is with us’ or ‘One God’. Other popular images included the (nimbed) triumphant horseman (whose identity could be framed as Solomon, Alexander the Great, or a saint) accompanied by the formula ‘One God who conquers the evils’, the elements, and the Nile to denote a source of fecundity. This accessorising didn’t go unchallenged, however; as early as the fourth century, bishops such as Asterius of Amaseia attacked those who ‘Devised gay-coloured dresses decorated with thousands of figures… When they come out in public dressed in this fashion they appear like painted walls.’


Much of the scholarly and popular reluctance to portion sufficient sartorial credit to the Byzantines stems from the difficulty in making much thereof from the extant sources, which, for example, deploy at least nine terms to refer to forms of the tunic, which can be a himation, chiton, sticharion, kondomanikion, divestion, kamision, sabanion, abdia, or indeed kolobion. The first three are general labels, though the sticharion may have been striped. The kondomanikion was short-sleeved, the kolobion was sleeveless, and the others are indeterminate. The chronicler John Malalas used the term paragaudion to described a tunic in his description of Laz’s ruler, who had been ‘Crowned by the emperor Justin … with a Roman crown and a white cloak of silk. Instead of a purple border it had a gold border. In the middle was a true purple portrait medallion with a likeness of the emperor Justin. He wore a white tunic, a paragaudion, with gold embroideries, equally including the likeness of the emperor.”

There is also skaramangia, a clothing type that doesn’t appear to possess a specific cut but is rather a catch-all term for a heavy fabric. It was probably toponymic and meant ‘from Kirman’—a region near the Dasht-I Lut desert in Iran—somewhat like jeans are a type of material, but the term’s literal meaning emerged in reference to Genoa. Wearing skaramangia clearly conferred prestige on its wearer, just as someone might boast of wearing cashmere (from Kashmir) today.


If aspirational sorts dressed up, this could be balanced out by the ruling classes dressing down. The historian Niketas Choniates, for example, referred to an episode in which Andronikos Komnenos slummed it ‘in the guise of a much toiling labourer’ by wearing a ‘slit mauve costume of Georgian fabric that covered only his upper arms and on his head he had a smoke-coloured hat in the shape of a pyramid.’ Even the most intrepid warriors were not above wearing hats. The folk hero Digenes Akritas, for instance, was said to have swaggered around in a red fur number.

Meanwhile, a wealthy woman might don a long tunic (stola) that could be customised with jewelled cuffs and floral clavi. Over this an embroidered palla (a mantle that measured one yard by five feet) was draped, sometimes folded after the manner of the consul’s toga. For this type of dress taken to its extreme, see the Virgin as an empress (St Mark’s, Florence) or St Agnes (S. Agnese fuori le mura, Rome, or S. Prassede in the same city). For more modest attire, examine the Virgin at La Martorana, Palermo, where she is clad in a stola and palla (which has been arranged with an over-fold in the manner of the chiton). A fairly typical woman might wear a dalmatica and maphorion (headscarf) in every-day life.


Though it privileged Greek culture, Constantinople was capable of absorbing the aesthetics of both its satellites and rivals. While Arabic robes (khil’a) were influenced by their Hellenic counterparts, their embroidered tiraz bands (perhaps a refraction of the Roman tablia) filtered back towards the New Rome. These typically combined a script with the caliph’s name and a brief prayer. Sometimes sewn to turbans or shawls, the majority of them were formed into armbands.

Perhaps the biggest style influence was Cappadocia, with its bright caftan (kabbadion) and woven silks, though the Georgian and Armenian courts formed fashionable loci. Indeed, the governor of Thessaloniki was upbraided by the bishop Eustathios for wearing ‘Braccae [trousers], new-fangled shoes and a red Georgian hat… his tight trousers being held up by a knot at the back.’ One of the merits of the caftan (qaba in Arabic, though it predates Islam as a garment made of brocade with a split at the front with large sleeves) was that it allowed its wearer to move easily and ride a horse. Many women wore them, too, though surely none could upstage Anna Radene, who looks stunning in a fresco at the Church of Hagia Anargyroi in Kastoria, Greece in a dark purple cloak with a gold border and lozenge pattern. The lining has a roundel pattern (with a foliate design) on a sienna-coloured background. Beneath it she wears a red high-necked dress with pointed sleeves that nearly touch the floor. On her head a white turban’s perched, finished with large basket earrings.

These turbans (made famous by Metochites’ beast at Chora) were also integrated into Eastern Roman fashions. Before the rise of Islam, men and women all over the Near East typically covered their heads, but this custom was seized on as particularly Islamic during the reign of Umar II (r. 717–20). In reality, the turban originated in Assyrian culture and spread to become part of the Armenian dress long before Islam seized upon it as a ‘unique’ identifier.


At the bottom of the Byzantine pile were the poor, who were clad in goat-hair cloaks or simply went naked. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Homilies describes them as ‘A miserable, terrible sight… they look like dead men walking.’ Tales of beneficence often centred on empresses or saints weaving tunics for the poor. St Theodora of Thessaloniki (d. 892), for example, is reported to have made clothing until she could ‘no longer do even this. Then she set her hands to the spindle to spin the coarse fibres of flax…’

On the next rung up, labourers wore solid-coloured tunics with sandals strapped around their shins. Some might tuck their tunics into their belts, others might don one-shouldered varieties, but not much else changed, other than the fact that patterned hose might be used to spice up an outfit. Perhaps their most contested item was fur. While it was considered a luxury item that fetched a good price, it was at the same time associated with rustic, bumpkin-types or barbaric foreigners. Theophanes, another monk and chronicler, recorded the ruler Umar entering Jerusalem in a ‘filthy camel-hair thing.’

It’s worth noting that clothes were expensive in Byzantium. The Book of Ceremonies priced silk tunics at twelve nomismata, while marriage contracts mention pretty dresses that cost two nomismata. These were prohibitively expensive for both middle and working classes. A seventh-century merchant made fifteen nomismata annually, and a twelfth-century servant made six hyperpyra. In such an environment, even a moderately wealthy man could afford only eight high-value outfits—a paltry amount to the modern reader, but a wardrobe bordering on decadent to a contemporary Frank or Latin.


The evolution of Roman dress in Byzantium had become foreign to the West by the time of the diplomat Liutprand’s tenth-century visit to Constantinople. Liutprand was a Lombard whose people mostly wore a garb the Byzantines described as the ‘roukhon paganon’, a knee-length tunic with close-fitting sleeves, and when he went out riding with Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I, he was told that his hat was inappropriate headgear. (Indeed, the West appears to have associated hats with the Eastern Romans. Ramon Muntaner, a Catalan mercenary who later wrote about his time fighting against the encroaching Turks, strangely commented that ‘All the officials of Romania have a special hat the like of which no other man may wear.’) Liutprand was not hesitant to make his feelings felt in return. He dismissed the Byzantines as ‘criniti’ (hairy), which may be an ethnic slur akin to being swarthy, or a reference to the fact that shoulder-length hair was the norm for Byzantine noblemen, and he also turned his nose up at how they were ‘talari tunica induti’ (wearing ankle-length tunics) and ‘manicati’ (sleeved, i.e. long-sleeved). These little gibes might be dismissed as tartly superficial, had they not acted as harbingers of a great cultural cleavage that presaged what is neatly packaged as the ‘Great Schism’. Fashion mattered.

This article by the Byzantine Ambassador was originally written for Valet Magazine, feel free to buy a copy here.

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