Byzantine dress changed considerably over the thousand years of the Empire, but was essentially conservative. The Byzantines liked colour and pattern, and made and exported very richly patterned cloth, woven and embroidered for the upper classes, and resist-dyed and printed for the lower. A different border or trimming round the edges was very common, and many single stripes down the body or around the upper arm are seen, often denoting class or rank. Taste for the middle and upper classes followed the latest fashions at the Imperial Court. As in the West during the Middle Ages, clothing was very expensive for the poor, who probably wore the same well-worn clothes nearly all the time.
In the early stages of the Byzantine Empire the traditional Roman toga was popular. By Justinian's time this had been replaced by the tunica, or long chiton, for both sexes, over which the upper classes wore other garments, like a dalmatica (dalmatic), a heavier and shorter type of tunica, again worn by both sexes, but mainly by men. The hems often curve down to a sharp point. The scaramangion was a riding-coat of Persian origin, opening down the front and normally coming to the mid-thigh, although these are recorded as being worn by Emperors, when they seem to become much longer. In general, except for military and presumably riding-dress, men of higher status, and all women, had clothes that came down to the ankles, or nearly so. Women often wore a top layer of the stola, for the rich in brocade. All of these, except the stola, might be belted or not. The terms for dress are often confusing, and certain identification of the name a particular pictured item had, or the design that relates to a particular documentary reference, is rare, especially outside the Court.
The chlamys, a semicircular cloak fastened to the right shoulder continued throughout the period. The length fell sometimes only to the hips or as far as the ankles, much longer than the version commonly worn in Ancient Greece; the longer version is also called a paludamentum. Emperor Justinian wears one, with a huge brooch, as well as his courtiers in the Ravenna mosaics. On each straight edge men of the senatorial class had a tablion, a lozenge shaped coloured panel across the chest or midriff (at the front), which was also used to show the further rank of the wearer by the colour or type of embroidery and jewels used (compare those of Justinian and his courtiers). Theodosius I and his sons were shown in 488 with theirs at knee level in the Madrid missorium. A paragauda or border of thick cloth, usually including gold, was also an indicator of rank. Sometimes an oblong cloak would be worn, especially by the military and ordinary people; it was not for court occasions. Cloaks were pinned on the right shoulder for ease of movement, and access to a sword.
Leggings and hose were often worn, but are not prominent in depictions of the wealthy; they were associated with barbarians, whether European or Persian. Even basic clothes appear to have been surprisingly expensive for the poor. Some manual workers, probably slaves, are shown continuing to wear, at least in summer, the basic Roman slip costume which was effectively two rectangles sewn together at the shoulders and below the arm. Others, when engaged in activity, are shown with the sides of their tunic tied up to the waist for ease of movement.
The most common images surviving from the Byzantine period are not relevant as references for actual dress worn in the period. Christ (often even as a baby), the Apostles, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Baptist and some others are nearly always shown wearing formulaic dress of a large himation, a large rectanglar mantle wrapped round the body (almost a toga), over a chiton, or loose sleeved tunic, reaching to the ankles. Sandals are worn on the feet. This costume is not commonly seen in secular contexts, although possibly this is deliberate, to avoid confusing secular with divine subjects. The Theotokos (Virgin Mary) is shown wearing a maphorion, a more shaped mantle with a hood and sometimes a hole at the neck. This probably is close to actual typical dress for widows, and for married women when in public. The Virgin's underdress may be visible, especially at the sleeves. There are also conventions for Old Testament prophets and other Biblical figures. Apart from the Christ and the Virgin, much iconographic dress is white or relatively muted in colour especially when on walls (murals and mosaics) and in manuscripts, but more brightly coloured in icons. Many other figures in Biblical scenes, especially if unnamed, are usually depicted wearing "contemporary" Byzantine clothing.
The Byzantine love for colour had its sinister side. The races in the Hippodrome used four teams: red, white, blue and green; and the supporters of these became political factions, taking sides on the great theological issues—which were also political questions—of Arianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, and therefore on the Imperial claimants who also took sides. Huge riots took place, in the 4th to 6th centuries and mostly in Constantinople, with deaths running into the thousands, between these factions, who naturally dressed in their appropriate colours. In medieval France there were similar colours-wearing political factions, called chaperons.
The mosaic (right) from the Kahriye-Cami or Chora Church in Istanbul gives an excellent view of a range of costume from the late period. From the left, there is a soldier on guard, the governor in one of the large hats worn by important officials, a middle-ranking civil servant (holding the register roll) in a dalmatic with a wide border, probably embroidered, over a long tunic, which also has a border. Then comes a higher-ranking soldier, carrying a sword on an untied belt or baldric. The Virgin and St Joseph are in their normal iconographic dress, and behind St Joseph a queue of respectable citizens wait their turn to register. Male hem lengths drop as the status of the person increases. All the exposed legs have hose, and the soldiers and citizens have foot-wrappings above, presumably with sandals. The citizens wear dalmatics with a wide border around the neck and hem, but not as rich as that of the middle-level official. The other men would perhaps wear hats if not in the presence of the governor. A donor figure in the same church, the Grand Logothete Theodore Metochites, who ran the legal system and finances of the Empire, wears an even larger hat, which he keeps on whilst kneeling before Christ (see Gallery).
Many men went bareheaded and, apart from the Emperor, they were normally so in votive depictions, which may distort the record we have. In the late Byzantine period a number of extravagantly large hats were worn as uniform by officials. In the 12th century, Emperor Andronikos Komnenos wore a hat shaped like a pyramid, but eccentric dress is one of many things he was criticised for. This was perhaps related to the very elegant hat with a very high-domed peak, and a sharply turned-up brim coming far forward in an acute triangle to a sharp point (left), that was drawn by Italian artists when the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos went to Florence and the Council of Ferrara in 1438 in the last days of the Empire. Versions of this and other clothes, including many spectacular hats, worn by the visitors were carefully drawn by Pisanello and other artists. They passed through copies across Europe for use in Eastern subjects, especially for depictions of the three kings or Magi in Nativity scenes. In 1159 the visiting Crusader Prince Raynald of Chatillon wore a tiara shaped felt cap, embellished in gold. An Iberian wide brimmed felt hat came into vogue during the 12th century. Especially in the Balkans, small caps with or without fur brims were worn, of the sort later adopted by the Russian Tsars.
Not many shoes are seen clearly in Byzantine Art because of the long robes of the rich. Red shoes marked the Emperor; blue shoes, a sebastokrator; and green shoes a protovestiarios. The Ravenna mosaics show the men wearing what may be sandals with white socks, and soldiers wear sandals tied around the calf or strips of cloth wrapped round the leg to the calf. These probably went all the way to the toes (similar foot-wrappers are still worn by Russian other ranks).
Some soldiers, including later Imperial portraits in military dress, show boots nearly reaching the knee - red for the Emperor. In Houston, Texas there is a shoe, or slipper, from the Imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Emperors. It is short, only to the ankle, and generously cut to allow many different sizes to be accommodated. This shoe is lavishly decorated with pearls and jewels and gold scrollwork on the sides and over the toe of the shoe. More practical footwear was no doubt worn on less formal occasions.
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.
The distinctive garments of the Emperors (often there were two at a time) and Empresses were the crown and the heavily jewelled Imperial loros or pallium, derived from the version of the Roman toga worn by consuls, and worn by the Emperor and Empress as a quasi-ecclesiastical garment. It was also worn by the twelve most important officials and the imperial bodyguard, and hence by Archangels in icons, who were seen as divine bodyguards. In fact it was only normally worn on Easter Sunday, but it was very commonly used for depictions in art. The men's version of the loros was a long strip, dropping down straight in front to below the waist, and with the portion behind pulled round to the front and hung gracefully over the left arm. The female loros was similar at the front end, but the back end was wider and tucked under a belt after pulling through to the front again. Apart from jewels and embroidery, small enamelled plaques were sewn into the clothes; the dress of Manuel I Comnenus was described as being like a meadow covered with flowers. Generally sleeves were closely fitted to the arm and the outer gown comes to the ankles (although often called a scaramangion), and is also rather closely fitted.
The superhumeral, worn throughout the history of Byzantium, was the imperial decorative collar, often forming part of the loros. It was copied by at least women of the upper class. It was of cloth of gold or similar material, then studded with gems and heavily embroidered. The decoration was generally 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. The collar came over the collarbone to cover a portion of the upper chest.
The Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Emperors, kept in the Schatzkammer, Vienna, contains a full set of outer garments made in the 12th century in essentially Byzantine style at the Byzantine-founded workshops in Palermo. These are among the best surviving Byzantine garments and give a good idea of the lavishness of Imperial ceremonial clothing. There is a cloak (worn by the Emperors with the gap at the front), "alb", dalmatic, stockings, slippers and gloves. The loros (stole) is Italian and later. Each element of the design on the cloak (see Textiles below) is outlined in pearls and embroidered in gold.
Especially in the early and later periods (approximately before 600 and after 1,000) Emperors may be shown in military dress, with gold breastplates, red boots, and a crown. Crowns became closed on top during the 12th century.
Court life "passed in a sort of ballet", with precise ceremonies prescribed for every occasion, to show that "Imperial power could be exercised in harmony and order", and "the Empire could thus reflect the motion of the Universe as it was made by the Creator", according to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a Book of Ceremonies describing in enormous detail the annual round of the Court. Special forms of dress for many classes of people on particular occasions are set down; at the name-day dinner for the Emperor or Empress various groups of high officials performed ceremonial "dances", one group wearing " a blue and white garment, with short sleeves, and gold bands, and rings on their ankles. In their hands they hold what are called phengia". The second group do just the same, but wearing "a garment of green and red, split, with gold bands". These colours were the marks of the old chariot racing factions, the four now merged to just the Blues and the Greens, and incorporated into the official hierarchy. As in the Versailles of Louis XIV, elaborate dress and court ritual probably were at least partly an attempt to smother and distract from political tensions.
However this ceremonial way of life came under stress as the military crisis deepened, and never revived after the interlude of the Western Emperors following the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204; in the late period a French visitor was shocked to see the Empress riding in the street with fewer attendants and less ceremony that a Queen of France would have had.
The Byzantines are believed to have invented the face-veil for women, though some sources ascribe its invention to the Persians. Among the Byzantines, it was worn only in the street by the upper classes. This was later adopted in much of the Islamic world. In general women outside court circles went well wrapped up in public, and were relatively restricted in their movements outside the house; they are rarely depicted in art.
As in China, there were large Byzantine Imperial workshops, apparently always based in Constantinople, for textiles as for other arts like mosaic. Although there were other important centres, the Imperial workshops led fashion and technical developments and their products were frequently used as diplomatic gifts to other rulers, as well as being distributed to favoured Byzantines. In the late 10th century the Emperor sent gold and fabrics to a Russian ruler in the hope that this would prevent him attacking the Empire.
Most surviving examples were not used for clothes and feature very large woven or embroidered designs. Before Iconoclasm these often contained religious scenes such as Annunciations, often in a number of round panels over a large piece of cloth. This naturally stopped during the period of Iconoclasm and with the exception of church vestments for the most part figural scenes did not reappear afterwards, being replaced by patterns and animal designs. Some examples show very large designs being used for clothing by the great - two enormous embroidered lions killing camels occupy the whole of the Coronation cloak of Roger II in Vienna, produced in Palermo about 1134 in the workshops the Byzantines had established there.
Early decorated cloth is mostly embroidered in wool on a linen base, and linen is generally more common than cotton throughout the period. Raw Silk yarn was initially imported from China, and the timing and place of the first weaving of it in the Near Eastern world is a matter of controversy, with Egypt, Persia, Syria and Constantinople all being proposed, for dates in the 4th and 5th centuries. Certainly Byzantine textile decoration shows great Persian influence, and very little direct from China. According to legend agents of Justinian I bribed two Buddhist monks from Khotan in about 552 to discover the secret of cultivating silk, although much continued to be imported from China.
Resist dyeing was common from the late Roman period for those outside the Court, and woodblock printing dates to at least the 6th century, and possibly earlier - again this would function as a cheaper alternative to the woven and embroidered materials of the rich. Apart from Egyptian burial-cloths, rather fewer cheap fabrics have survived than expensive ones. It should also be remembered that depicting a patterned fabric in paint or mosaic is a very difficult task, often impossible in a small miniature, so the artistic record, which often shows patterned fabrics in large-scale figures in the best quality works, probably under-records the use of patterned cloth overall.