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Early Christian and Byzantine


A.D. 423 - 1453
Russell, Douglas Costume History and Style; chapter 6, pp. 88-103


          The garments worn by the early leaders of the Christian Church were quite naturally based on the standard dress of the Roman lower classes of the late Empire with ornamental bor­rowings from the aristocrats. These garments were the basis for the liturgical vestments used in the Catholic Church today. Basic tunics like the tunica talaris and the tunica dalmatica were used with clavi bands as the basis for the under vestments, while the paenula and casula used by the Roman lower classes for protection against the elements were developed into the outer vestments of cope and chasuble. Because the early Christian concept was that the body was sinful and should not be exposed, all adaptations of Roman garments stressed long sleeves and a full ankle length. Because draping was believed to call attention to the graceful, physical move­ment of the body under clothing, a trend developed toward semi-fitted garments, which still recalled Roman lines, but gave a more muffled, flat figure that called less attention to the body beneath the garments. One can read­ily see this by comparing the semi-fitted effects in the famed Justinian mosaic with the statue of Tiberius Caesar.

          The shift from Roman to early Christian to Byzantine ideals in dress was a subtle process influenced first by the ideals of the new Chris­tian faith and then by the oriental influences af­fecting Roman dress after the capital of the Em­pire was moved to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine in 330. By the time that the famed Justinian and Theodora mosaics were created in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna about 547, the basic precepts of Byzantine dress had already been established.



          Byzantine culture and fashion is a fascinating mixture of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern elements-a mysterious amalgamation of abstract and realistic decorative elements brought together to create world of motifs, forms, and conventions that tied the world of Christian otherworldliness to Roman imperial power.  It created a distinctive kind of dress by mixing silk fabric with metallic thread and jeweled applique; light then reflected a rich mysterious glow of unreality from the still-clad human form.  Folds of soft, plain fabric were replaced by still garments that made the most lavish costumes seem like wall mosaics brought to life.  The splendor of a conventional unreality took the place of plastic, moving, and fabric effects on the natural human form.

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