Elizabeth Coatsworth

title.none: Ball, Byzantine Dress (Elizabeth Coatsworth)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.009 06.10.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elizabeth Coatsworth, Manchester Metropolitan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Ball, Jennifer L. Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth- to Twelfth-Century Painting. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 176. $69.95 1-4039-6700-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.09

Ball, Jennifer L. Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth- to Twelfth-Century Painting. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 176. $69.95 1-4039-6700-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Coatsworth
Manchester Metropolitan University

In this book, the author argues that "a fashion system--one in which clothing was designed, created and continued based on the desires and tastes of the Byzantines--existed in the Byzantine Empire alongside and intertwined with a traditional, prescribed dress code" (3). However, while the author shows that some items of costume and some details of style "emerge, spread and often peter out" (9) over a period, the argument about a "fashion system" is not entirely convincing, since the "fashion season" identified comprises the whole of the Middle Byzantine period as defined in the title. This argument seems an attempt to relate the surviving evidence to modern theories of fashion and its meaning, and is a pity since the material presented is important in its own right, and the author seems to have reached some interesting conclusions, in spite of the difficulties presented by the fact that no one source of evidence is valid either for the whole period or for all the classes of people she attempts to cover. In this, which results from the patchy survival of some kinds of evidence, and the non-existence or relative unavailability of others, she is grappling with the problems faced by all historians of material culture in pre-modern periods.

The source on which most weight is laid in this book is painting, both wall paintings and manuscript illumination (although mosaics and some sculptural representations are also used under this heading). Only secular subjects, especially donor portraits are used, but as these are relatively few and are all of members of the elite sections of society, historical scenes and depictions of everyday life are allowed in the chapter devoted to non-elite dress. The author rightly raises issues of accuracy and the degree of license allowed to artists at several points in the book, but considers "the reliability of portraits for correct depictions of dress is greater, as the artist's intention was to create an accurate picture of a real person, and the artist was painting during the person's lifetime" (6). However, this statement begs a number of questions, and no evidence is provided here for the non-Byzantine specialist on the differences between the dress of saints in purely religious scenes, for example, and that of secular portraits, to show that the one was more conventional or static than the other, while the use of genre scenes for depictions of non-elite dress cannot be entered under the caveat allowed for portraits, as the author herself acknowledges in the relevant chapter. Portraits of elite males also outnumber those of females.

Literary and documentary sources are also used. For some areas there appears to be a rich source of information in wills and dowry settlements, and other documents detailing salaries, which were often paid or partly paid in textiles and clothing appropriate to the rank of recipient. Such sources also apply in western Europe, although survival is patchy, as here. The author is fortunate, however, in having two books contemporary with her period which detail dress appropriate for court and religious ceremonies (although again only for the elite, and also only for males), and another which deals with commerce regulations, including those pertaining to textiles and clothing. A problem dealt with throughout, where this evidence is used, and one which is also familiar in western Europe, is the difficulty of relating dress and textile terms to specific textile survivals or depicted garments.

The third source adduced is material evidence for surviving dress fragments, of which a select catalogue is provided at the end of the chapter dealing with this material: its position in the book reflects the author's difficulty in relating it directly to depicted dress.

The discussion is organized partly on socio-economic, partly on geographical, and partly on evidential grounds, the format dictated by the poor fit between the different types of evidence. Nevertheless, some changes over time are deduced within particular chapters. Only the elite dress, which forms the bulk of the work, is organized geographically, in three chapters on "Imperial Dress," "Court Dress" and "Dress of the Borderland Elite" (that is of those living within or actually just outside the borders of the Empire). This last grouping provides one of the most interesting suggestions for development in dress, which can be described as fashion. The chapter on non-elite dress is not localized, using genre scenes from all available sources. The textile evidence, as indicated above, is dealt with separately.

The section on "Imperial Dress" (chapter 1), contra other writers in the area, but convincingly, identifies only three garments as exclusive to the imperial family: the loros (descendant of one version of the Roman toga, worn over a long tunic); the stemma or diadem (crown, in female dress often decorated with hanging jewels and pearls); and tzangia (jeweled slippers or sandals). This section would have greatly benefited from a diagrammatic representation of the loros , of which there were apparently two types, one X-shaped, one with a slit for the head like a poncho. A most interesting aspect of this dress, which seems unique to the Byzantine court, is that it is ungendered, a fact which the author suggests possibly relates to the number of Imperial women powerful in their own right: this may be true, but powerful women in other regions did not wear, or are not depicted in, dress which could also be worn by men. This purely imperial dress is one with which we are the most familiar from paintings and mosaics, but Ball makes the important point that it was actually worn on very few, specifically ceremonial, occasions. The usual dress, it appears, was a cloak (chlamys ) which as a dress item was shared with other members of the social and economic elite. A comparison of this with the modern "business suit" for formal wear is not entirely happy for a situation in which the other constituents of the dress are not so easily identified, and in which we also do not know what, if any, "informal" wear was like. However, this should not detract from the important point in the author's argument for some fashion development, in that this garment at the end of the Roman period/early Byzantine period was an item of military dress which became accepted as a more general ceremonial and indeed everyday garment. In its ceremonial aspect, it also appears to have been the dress of Imperial women.

Chapter 2, on "Court Dress," excludes from consideration all but nine depictions, six of men and three of women (the last all in one manuscript), but is able to make considerable use of documentary sources, while acknowledging the difficulties of relating the many terms which seem to mean "tunic" to a specific type. The one manuscript depicting secular females in relation to a royal wedding seems highly significant in that the costume portrayed is gender-specific; does not seem as far as can be seen to carry rank-signifying detail as is noted for the depictions of male dress; and the variation in dress detail and head gear, and the wide drooping sleeves (a style imported from the late tenth, eleventh century West) suggest the possibility of fashion choice. The author rightly points out, however, the paucity of the evidence. This chapter is the only one to appeal directly to surviving textile evidence, from archaeological finds particularly in Egypt and central Asia, but only in respect of hats, depicted in the male portraits used.

"The Dress of the Borderland Elite" has even fewer visual sources to rely on; and one of the areas discussed, Kastoria, seems to lie outside the Empire for much of the period covered. However, two of the most interesting speculations of the book belong to this section. The first is that the dress of these borderland elites reflected local and regional fashions, including Islamic areas, rather than those of the centre, and in the case of Kastoria, those of the Normans who ruled it for a short period. The other is that fashions in dress in these areas spread to Byzantium from these outskirts, citing turbans and caftans (sic) from the Islamic world and wide drooping sleeves (which probably came from the West via the Normans) as examples. Wills and dowry accounts seem to be a rich source of information from these areas. One of the most convincing female portraits (from the point of view of depicting contemporary dress) illustrated here comes from these borderland areas.

The section on "Non-elite Dress" which includes general sections on women and children, both groups under-represented among portraits, fairly acknowledges that genre painting of, say, pastoral scenes only occasionally appears to break away from standardized, conventional, depictions of working people. The author however suggests the few that do may be a more reliable guide to the actual variety of clothing worn by all sections of society than the portraits, just as the archaeologically recovered dress surviving from Egypt shows both that children wore clothing similar to that of adults, and that many garments could be made in textiles of a variety of costliness, to suit all pockets, and were therefore not worn only by the elite.

This insight makes the separate final chapter on the surviving dress the more disappointing. Only thirteen items make it into the catalogue, on very strictly defined grounds. One problem clearly is that much in museums is uncatalogued, but one could also argue with the criteria employed, one of which is that the presence of a seam in a fragment implies dress--to which one could reply that unless the seam is shaped in such a way that it can be nothing else, it could equally indicate some other shaped textile object, such as a cushion cover. On the other hand, all the archaeological evidence, which includes complete garments, from Egypt and Central Asia, and some from Greece, some of which is earlier and some much later than the defined period, is mentioned but excluded as direct evidence, and becomes comparative material only--but is used at least twice in the text to provide evidence of actual dress. That there seems to be none from the central area of concern is a great pity, since she states that people were generally buried in their clothes.

The book would have benefited from more illustrations of this interesting material, and it is disappointing that there are no colour illustrations--black-and-white reproduction makes detection of details such as jeweled footwear almost impossible. Diagrammatic drawings of garment types would also have been useful, and so would a glossary of the many dress terms used, even if it had to be admitted that many terms are difficult to define beyond the general category, of tunic, for example. There are some odd modern comparisons--members of the British parliament will be surprised to hear that they wear "wigs and robes of a bygone era" (as an illustration of ceremonial conservatism). The work on dress in western Europe (such as that of Gale Owen-Crocker on Anglo-Saxon dress, which does look at the material chronologically and does show evidence of outside influences on changing dress styles) might actually have been helpful for its analysis of common problems. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting book, with some real insights into the variety of dress styles across the Byzantine Empire, contrasting with the relatively static ceremonial dress of the court.