The growth of the Roman Empire was not simply a matter of the absorption of territory. Central to its success was its willingness to assimilate cultural elements, such as clothing practices, as well. This eclectic quality did not cease during the period when its capital lay in the city long called Byzantion. The position of “the City” as one of the great crossroads of the world meant that not only did it absorb objects and ideas from all directions; it was also a conduit for passing on cultural artifacts and practices as much as physical goods. In clothing, it was a significant formative influence on Europe through the whole of the medieval period.
By the time Constantine adopted Byzantion as the New Rome, the signature male status garment of Old Rome, the toga, had long since vanished from frequent use in favor of much more practical clothing across the social classes. The basic outfit for all genders1 consisted of a camisa, a light linen tunic with a close-fitting neckline and close-fitting sleeves extending to the wrists. For men it fell to the knee, while for women the camisa extended to the feet. Over that a tunica was worn, identical in overall form to the camisa, but usually made of wool. The dalmatica, an ample, loose woolen garment with loose sleeves to mid-forearm or wrist, often provided another layer. A dalmatica might have a hood attached and might sometimes have openings in the armpits to allow the wearer to be free of the encumbrance of its large sleeves if needed. The main fabric of garments in this era was plain, often in the natural color of the fiber, although wool could be dyed, with red and blue derived most commonly from kirmiz (cochineal) and indigo. For more conspicuous display, a garment could have various decorations applied to it. The tunica might have decoration around the neck and cuffs, patches (segmentae) on the shoulders and/or skirt, and spurs running up from the hem (clavi) or bands running the length of the garment (laticlavi). Similar decoration might be applied more sparsely to the dalmatica. The decoration was at first woven in, using the tapestry technique, while the fabric of the garment was being made, but as time progressed, it was more often applied as patches or braids stitched to the finished garment. For wealthier people, silk was available—as embroidery, decorative trim, and, for some, as complete garments.
Beneficial conditions for preservation in Egypt facilitated the survival of vast amounts of textiles from this era and have given many the impression that the so-called Coptic manner of production, by which a garment was woven in a single piece, was the dominant paradigm across the empire. It is, however, more likely that Constantinople saw wide use of tailoring techniques that were already in use in Iran and northern Europe.
Around the tunica, and less often the dalmatica, people of all genders fastened a narrow leather belt secured with a decorative cast-bronze buckle. Folded over that belt might hang a purse, made of a flap of the same cloth as the tunica and sometimes decorated with a motif matching the decoration on it. Below these garments men increasingly wore brachae, trousers of linen or wool, adopted from the example of men from the frigid north of Europe. These trousers could finish at the ankle in a familiar manner, or have foot coverings attached.
For additional protection from the weather, the traditional garment was the paenula, a half circle or trapezium of wool folded in half with much of the long straight edge sewn together to form a cone, leaving an opening at the apex for the head. Like the dalmatica, a paenula might have a hood. It could be decorated with a narrow band of color or pattern around the hem. The paenula was originally worn by all genders, but from this time onward it was worn less and less often by lay men, who took more to the sagum, a flat, square cape with Celtic origins that fell only a little beyond the knee and fastened with a brooch at the center of the chest. A sagum could be adorned with segmentae at the corners. A more formal man’s cloak with military associations was the khlamus, adopted from the Greeks. It was a large oval which was folded along the long axis and worn pinned on the right shoulder, leaving the right arm free. It had two rectangular patches of purple, called tavlia, placed across the center line such that they were visible around the middle of the body front and back when the cloak was worn. It fell to the ankle. Another cape was the mandyas, or mantion, associated with Persia. It was a flat half circle, which might have rounded corners, and commonly had a contrasting edging. The mantion was like the sagion in that it was shorter than the khlamus and worn fastened at the center of the chest.
Headgear in this period was quite limited. Men might wear a simple round cap, the pileus, while from military use came the Pannonian hat, more substantial with a low cylindrical appearance. Women draped fine linen scarfs over their heads, sometimes supported by a padded roll, which might be elaborately decorated. Manuscripts show rare instances of women wearing hats. More mundane female headgear, sometimes worn over a headscarf, was the turban.
In footwear, while sandals continued in use in warmer, drier climates, elsewhere in the empire the more substantial shoes and boots favored by eastern peoples were growing in popularity. These ranged from well made, and sometimes highly decorated, slippers of a style that has persisted to the modern day, to sophisticated riding boots which might extend up to protect the knee. Early versions of such footwear had uppers made in one piece, but very soon more complex constructions presaging modern manufacturing techniques came into use. For more comfort, socks were often worn, even with sandals, made by a technique similar to knitting.
One eastern garment coming into use from the third century would soon transform men’s (and to a lesser degree women’s) dress in the empire. First named fibulatorion, and a little later zôstarion, it was the long-sleeved coat used by the Persians and other Caucasian peoples since ancient times. At first this coat did not have buttons and hence was known by the brooch (fibula) which secured it at the throat, and then by the belt (zôstêr) which held it in place around the waist.
As the names for the newly adopted coat indicate, from the beginning of the fourth century, Greek, for centuries the most commonly spoken language in the empire, began to supplement Latin as an official language, and then with the fall of the western provinces it replaced Latin as the official language. Thus henceforth the terminology is Greek.
Into the Middle Ages
By the beginning of the sixth century, the coat had fully displaced cloaks and capes in everyday men’s dress. One innovation secured its position and went on to revolutionize clothing throughout the world: buttons, which caught on rapidly in the late seventh and eighth centuries. This development not only transformed the look of clothing on the street. It also created the basis for an expanded system of court regalia in which categories of courtier and ritual were defined by the wearing of particular mantles. The first stage of this expansion in regalia began with the absorption of the powers and regalia of the consul by the imperial throne. The consul had a slimmed-down version of the toga as his primary regalia, and in time that item, renamed lôros, became the signature symbol of imperial power, at least in iconography, all the way to the Ottoman Conquest. In the fourth century, white became established as the dominant color of the court, worn some of the time, if not all of the time, by men of ranks all the way up to the Golden Throne. Emperor Justinian introduced a sweeping restriction on purple, reserving it for imperial use.
The fifth to seventh centuries were characterized by extensive assimilation of Persian influences in clothing as well as other areas of life. One aspect of this was a much greater use of ornate and colorful silk fabrics by the higher levels of society. This explosion of color in everyday dress further threw the monochrome mode of court dress into relief. The well-known mosaics of Ravenna finely illustrate the new contrast between court regalia and common dress, with the plain white of the regalia-clad people contrasting strongly with the bright colors and patterns of the soldiers and women who accompanied them. The patterns in these early decorative fabrics consisted of a scattering of small figures across the whole surface. Birds figured prominently in this and retained an enduring popularity, not only for the Byzantines, but in the silk industry across the region and beyond the Byzantine era.
In terms of garments, the coat was only the beginning of Persian influence. The leg wear of men and eunuchs across society was transformed. From robust trousers worn alone, a style borrowed from northern Europe, the fashion shifted to lighter breeches made of finer linen which were then protected by hose and leggings which could range from linen, or possibly silk, stockings for elite dress wear, to substantial woolen gaiters for military and equestrian use. Another Persian garment which was to become very important in the wardrobes of noble men and eunuchs was the skaramangion, a dress tunic or coat with sleeves much longer than the wearer’s arms. From the early seventh century the dress and court tunics of aristocratic men and eunuchs fell to the ankle.
Women of the upper classes took to Persian styles even earlier than men. Three features stand out. One is an ornate shawl worn diagonally from the left shoulder to the right hip. In time this would become part of the otherwise sparse regalia of women at court and be called paragaudion. Often associated with that shawl was a wide, highly decorated sash with a disc at the front. Persian-style dresses of the fifth and sixth centuries had loose sleeves gathered into long, tight, decorated cuffs, which at a later time were referred to explicitly as “Persian sleeves.” From the end of the fifth century this sleeve style was increasingly adopted into the court dress of men and eunuchs, and in the wake of that process fell out of use by women.
With Persian-sleeved dresses no longer available to upper-class women, the dalmatica, or as it was called in Greek, delmatikion, began to evolve and become the focus of female sartorial display. Finer fabrics and more decoration were used. More importantly, the sleeves became somewhat longer and progressively wider. The delmatikion was from then on the status garment for women all the way to the Ottoman Conquest, setting ladies apart from the common women, who continued to wear dresses with close-fitting sleeves. Precisely when coats became part of the female wardrobe is hard to say. Byzantine art preserves the fainôlês (from the Latin paenula) as the “proper” outerwear of women throughout, and such mantles did continue in use, but before the tenth century, coats were sufficiently well accepted that the empress had one as part of her regalia, so its adoption by women probably did not lag very much behind men’s fashion.
A result of the greater use of patterned and colorful fabrics was that many of the decorative motifs of late antiquity disappeared from everyday dress. Common garments often still had decorative braids at the collar cuffs, and less often at the hem. The full-length stripes, or laticlavi, now called stikhoi or potamoi, and the patches at the knee (sêmenta) were only used on some court and ecclesiastical regalia.
The Middle Byzantine period
Less change in everyday dress is visible in sources from the eighth to twelfth centuries. The basic outfit continued to be a shirt or chemise (esôforion), tunic or dress (roukhon), and coat (kavadion), over breeches (vrakha) and hose (touvia) for men, with an additional outer layer made up of a fainôlês or mandyas for women. One development early in this period was that men began to wear turbans. Women had been wearing turbans for a very long time, and continued to do so, but whether this fashion was a spontaneous transfer across the gender divide, or was perhaps influenced by Christian Arabs fleeing the Muslim expansion, is unclear. The turban became particularly popular in military circles for its usefulness in lieu of a helmet, and appeared as imperial regalia in military ceremonies before the tenth century. Military turbans, and some civilian ones, were wrapped over a padded cap, while lighter civilian turbans were tied directly to the man’s head. The male adoption of the turban may have contributed to a new fashion in women’s headgear that was established in Constantinople before the beginning of the eleventh century. It was like a turban, but wrapped much more precisely in cylindrical form, either alone or over a headscarf. It was probably called savanion, and appeared in the Islamic world a little later under the name ’isaba. Women from some religiously conservative eastern Christian communities wore veils, and this fashion could be seen on the streets of the City, although it was not normally imitated by sophisticated City women. Garments also migrated from military into civilian use. One was the zoupa, a hip-length jacket with full-length sleeves which was often padded with cotton, wool, and even silk. It had originated as a means to reduce the discomfort of armor. A greatcoat worn to protect armor and weapons from moisture, the gouna or gounion, also made this transition, becoming popular as a traveling garment. A gounion was often fitted with a hood and had openings at the armpits or elbows of its large sleeves for when the wearer needed greater freedom of movement.
The formal clothing of the court remained very stable through the early Middle Ages. Extensive accounts of it and of palace rituals are contained in two surviving manuals, the Klêtôrologion, written by the Court Usher Filotheos in 899, and the much larger Book of Ceremonies, compiled for Emperor Constantine Porfurogennêtos in the first half of the following century. These documents reaffirm the supremacy of white tunics and cloaks (khlamudes) as the common regalia of most male and eunuch court ranks, with the widespread and important rank of prôtospatharios set apart by a crimson tunic with gold decoration. Almost all the male and eunuch regalia tunics of this era had Persian sleeves, with a loose sleeve body gathered into long contrasting or decorated cuffs buttoned closely to the forearm. The rarely used exceptions were the kôlovion and kontomanikion. Both of these garments had loose, open sleeves going back to the old dalmatica, but in the kôlovion the sleeves extended to the wrist, while in the kontomanikion they only came to the elbow. On a few special occasions courtiers wore a black cloak (khlamus) with gold contrasting panels (tavlia), or even a full outfit in that color scheme. The white khlamus with purple or gold tavlia retained its pride of place as the most frequent outer garment in the court, but another, for which the terms mantion and sagion had been conflated, came close behind. The paradigm set in late antiquity still held, so while the khamus was ankle-length, had tavlia, and was fastened on the right shoulder, the mantion/sagion was shorter, edged, and fastened at the center of the chest. It is unclear whether some examples of the mantion/sagion were still rectangular, as the old sagion had been, for all the pictures of this period show the semicircular form derived from the old mandyas. A curious feature of the male and eunuch court regalia was the importance of footwear. The well-known imperial red boots have overwhelming importance, as their wearing was a crucial moment that defined a usurper’s ambition to assume the throne, more than any other piece of ceremonial clothing. The kaisar, or vice-emperor, wore one red boot and one black to symbolize his intermediate position. Ordinary courtiers, especially those of the senate, wore kaligai, a refined version of the old Roman military sandal. When not required to wear full formal dress, male courtiers were expected to wear the long-armed skaramangion, which had originated in Sassanian Persia. Unlike formal wear, these tunics could be colorful and patterned. The skaramangion was the usual wear for imperial banquets, demanding great care and decorum so that a man might eat without his sleeves falling into his food! Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, visited Constantinople as ambassador from the King of Italy twice in the tenth century, and his accounts of those voyages comment frequently on the clothing he saw. He decried the unmanliness of the ankle-length tunics men of status wore, and their long hair. He mentioned the very long sleeves of the skaramangion, and a custom that is only implied in the Byzantine sources—that it was forbidden for a man to wear a hat in the presence of the emperor. Rather, men of some ranks, at least, wore a ceremonial hood which had inherited the name of the old Roman paenula, now Hellenized as fenôlion.
The women of the court had far fewer honorific ranks of their own, and even for those few ranks there was much less regalia. The most widespread was that of lady-in-waiting (koubikoularia). Her regalia item was the paragavdion, the opulent diagonal shawl mentioned earlier, borrowed from Persian noblewomen’s dress. A much more select rank was that of “patrician of the belt” (zôstê patrikia). Each empress appointed one as her chief lady-in-waiting, but they retained their rank for life, so there were often several retired zôstai about the palace at any time. The “belt” of the title is the lôros, the ceremonial drape descended from the old Roman toga. The zôstê patrikia was the only woman other than the empress to wear it. Besides the lôros, a zôstê patrikia was invested at her elevation with a formal hood (maforion), a set of jeweled temple pendants (kharzanion), and a white propolôma, a grand hat. The art of the time shows that for all the women of the court the style shown on the Ravenna mosaics continued, with their colorful and highly decorated clothing in complete contrast to the monochromy of the men’s formal wear. As mentioned earlier, the status dress was the delmatikion, a gown with great flaring sleeves intended to be as hard to manage as those of a man’s skaramangion, thereby displaying a lady’s elegance and deportment. It appears that the propolôma was worn informally by most noble women, even those with no regalia-clad rank.
From the third quarter of the eleventh century there were changes, although sometimes it is not entirely clear which were changes in dress fashion and which were changes in artistic practice, which often lagged in representing aspects of daily life. From this time hats began to make a frequent appearance in depictions of everyday men’s clothing. Most conspicuous was a black truncated cone, identical to (and doubtless related to) the Persian kalansuwa tawila or kulah. As it appears in Byzantine sources at about the same time as the kulah is recorded as coming into use in Iran, there is an open question as to its origin, but none as to its existence. Somewhat later illustrations portray a bulbous white hat echoing forms seen in Persian art as far back as late antiquity. This may be a case of artistic lag, for this style of kalansuwa had been in use for a long while in Persia and other Muslim lands and so could be expected to have found its way into everyday Byzantine use prior to the eleventh century. A fuzzy red hat with a lobed tail associated with the Bulgarians also had a period of high popularity.
Changes in the court regalia gathered pace after the death of Basil II in 1025. One social change which had a passing effect on the regalia was that eunuchs fell from favor and in time all but disappeared, along with their various regalia distinctions. One of the first articles to go was the kaligai in favor of more everyday footwear. Some officers were still set apart by their footwear, however. By the middle of the century we find the eparkhos, the governor of the City, wearing boots dyed a strident orange, a practice not only mentioned in text but also shown in art. This is the first example of the spread of color-coded footwear which became especially notable in the twelfth century and in the late Byzantine court. Headgear customs also changed. By the end of the third quarter of the eleventh century, hats were being worn at court. Hats in surviving illustrations are the white dome kalasuwa and the red fuzzy Bulgarian hat, but the black kulah may also have made its way into the palace. Certainly both shapes of hat became eminent parts of the regalia in the Palaiologian period. The fenôlion (hood) did not entirely disappear. It continued to be worn by members of the senate right up to 1204, and when decorated with distinctive circular patterning, it remained the emblem of law enforcement, worn by the eparkhos, members of the vigla (the City police), and members of the judiciary. The monochrome scheme of the regalia also broke down in the eleventh century, with patterned fabrics increasingly in use. By the last quarter of the century it appears that silks patterned with specific motifs in specific colors were being produced on a large scale for court use. The motifs first in use were the palm tree, ivy leaf (identical to the spade on a modern playing card), and droplet (an inverted heart shape). Cloaks remained an important element of the male regalia, but the time-honored distinction between the khlamus and the sagion broke down. The folded oval of the old khlamus was simplified to a half oval, and illustrations show capes with both forms of characteristic decoration (edging from the old sagion and tavlia from the old khlamus), sometimes appearing simultaneously, on capes worn with a shoulder or chest fastening.
There were few discernibly new fashions in everyday clothing in the twelfth century. A western visitor, the German monk Burchardt of Mount Sion, commented that the dress he saw was not only opulent and highly decorated but also close-fitting. It is not clear what sort of people he was writing about. Most women’s clothing had traditionally been quite loose, and the dominant custom probably remained that a proper woman would go out enveloped in a fainôlês or mandyas. The reason for the looseness of their dresses had less to do with morality than with the practical fact that many women were too poor to buy a new gown when they became pregnant. There is also some evidence for reasonably fitted women’s clothing, so Burchardt’s comment may not have applied exclusively to men. At the end of the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks had taken control of large areas of Anatolia. Diplomatic contacts and refugees from dynastic competition in the Sultanate of the Rum, as this new Turkish-ruled state was called, brought one new fashion to the City, the yalma, a type of double-breasted coat.
The court continued to evolve. Color-coded footwear had spread—the chief of the imperial wardrobe (prôtovestiarios) had green boots, and people with the high honorific rank of sevastokratôr had blue footwear. By the last quarter of the century, a comprehensive transformation in male vestments had taken place. The Persian sleeves had disappeared. In the upper ranks, sleeves remained buttoned tightly to the forearm but were made in one piece. This style would be imitated in Europe in the fourteenth century. Other ranks wore the kôlovion, a tunic with long, loose sleeves. Cloak forms had stabilized. The khlamus form, fastened on the shoulder, was worn only by the highest ranks, although the tavlia had vanished. The mantion was confined to ecclesiastical use. The white dome hat had become common to many ranks, while the highest-ranking wore a more extravagant hat, probably derived from the woman’s propolôma—also white, in the shape of a shark fin with the point projecting forward. Women’s regalia became even more curtailed. The rank of zôstê patrikia seems to have been discontinued in the eleventh century. Whether there were still designated ladies-in-waiting (koubikoularia) is also unclear. Pictures show all the women of the court dressed alike in dematikia made of a brocade that was produced in a narrow range of reds and blues with enormous sleeves. Rank distinctions between the ladies seem to have been confined to markings on the hat (propolôma), which continued from the tenth century.
The Fourth Crusade shattered the culture of Constantinople as much as it shattered the state. For the period after this, there is very little source material which would shed light on any changes of fashion that might have taken place in everyday clothing. What little there is shows men in long coats with turbans or hats of distinctly Eastern styles. Ordinary women are not to be seen in art of the time, but a long, full dress covered with a mandyas likely continued to be widely worn.
Once the Romiosi had achieved the remarkable feat of recovering Constantinople following almost 60 years of struggle, the court culture, and its regalia, had to be recreated virtually from nothing. The Palaiologians had texts and pictures containing references and imagery from the earlier court, and established practices based on them, yet in doing so revealed that they often did not understand them any better than we do today. The regenerated court practice was recorded anonymously in a volume known as the Treatise on the Offices in the first half of the fourteenth century. Its stipulations are amply confirmed by donor portraits on icons and in manuscripts. The regalia of the great majority of male courtiers was hardly different from their everyday dress. The main garment was a coat, differing from the one worn on the street only in being made of a brocade reserved for court use and in having tightly buttoned cuffs. This coat was accompanied occasionally by a skiadion, a conical hat with a broad brim, and more often by a skaranikon, a domed or semiconical hat derived from a style that had come into use in the eleventh century. The skaranikon signified a crucial division in court ranks. Those of senior ranks were color coded and opulently decorated with portraits of the emperor. (The mitra of senior Orthodox Church clergy now imitate this style, with Christ replacing the emperor.) One skaranikon style was shared by all junior courtiers; it was a truncated cone in red with a tassel at its center identical to the fez of later times. A few ranks had regalia derived from military dress combining a turban with an epilôrikion, a sleeveless coat that had been used in the middle Byzantine period as a surcoat over armor. The khlamus, now known as tabarion (a word borrowed from Italian), was only won by the emperor and a very few ranks immediately below him. The emperor’s main garment was a black tunic, or else a version of the ecclesiastical sakkos, a token of his position as figurehead of the church. The emperor and empress again sometimes wore the lôros, now referred to as diadêma. The eminent men also had color-coded footwear matching the color on the skaranikon. The position previously occupied by the skaramangion as the non-regalia formal wear of male courtiers was now filled by two slightly different coats which can be traced back to the old military gounion. Like the skaramangion, these coats had extremely long sleeves, falling all the way to the ankle; but like the different types of gounion, they had openings to free the wearer’s arms—one, the lapatza, at the armpits, and the other, the granatza, at the elbows. The name of the latter garment illustrates a fascinating trajectory in cultural transmission; it was an ancient Akkadian word adopted into Greek as an alternative term for the gounion, carried with that garment to Europe at the time of the Crusades and then re-adopted into Greek from the Europeanized form.
Just as the male regalia were simpler and less varied than before, so it was for the women of the court. All those of the senior court wore a large delmatikion of a regulation court brocade and a gilded coronet with many points. Whether the ladies of the junior court had any garb distinct from their everyday dress remains unknown.
In 1453, the followers of Mehmed II must have found much that was familiar in the clothing fashions of Constantinople, but they probably also found new fashions they chose to adopt themselves, such as the junior skaranikon, which probably became the accessory that is sometimes considered most typically Turkish, the fez.
Achmet ibn Shirin, Achmetis Oneirocriticon, ed. Francis Drexl, Leipzig : Teubner, 1925 (Greek text).
Achmet ibn Shirin, The Oneirocriticon of Achmet, tr. Steven Michael Oberhelman, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1991 (An English translation with some defects).
Constantine Porfurogennêtos, Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions, ed. and tr. John F. Haldon, Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1990.
Constantine Porfurogennêtos, The Book of Ceremonies (with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1829), tr. Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall., Canberra: Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 2012.
Dawson, Timothy, “Concerning an Unrecognised Tunic from Eastern Anatolia”, Byzantion, 2003, vol. 73, no. 1, pp. 201-210.
Dawson, Timothy, “Oriental Costumes in the Byzantine Court Reconsidered”, Byzantion, 75 (2005).
Dawson, Timothy, “Propriety, Practicality and Pleasure: the Parameters of Women’s Dress”, Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800–1200, edited by Lynda Garland, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006, pp. 41–75.
Dawson, Timothy, By the Emperor’s Hand: Court Regalia and Military Dress in the Eastern Roman Empire, Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2015.
Diocletian, Edict on Prices, in Tenney Frank, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, Paterson: Pageant Books, 1959.
Iôannês Lydos, On Powers or The Magistracies of the Roman State, ed. and tr. Anastasius C. Bandy, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983.
Isidore of Sevile, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, tr. Stephen A. Barney et al., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Maurikios, Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. George T. Dennis and Ernst Gamillscheg, Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1981.
Pseudo-Kodinos, Traité des Offices, ed. and tr. by Jean Verpeaux, Paris : Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1966.
1 The Byzantines regarded eunuchs as a third gender, and as time went on, their dress customs took on distinct characteristics in some areas. Where appropriate the term “men” will be used specifically to exclude eunuchs.