LATEST: The outfits were completed December 2013, and worn the same month.

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is known for it's Byzantine structure and its amazing mosaics. By the apsis is the two most famous mosaics of the era; those of the emperor Justinian and the empress Theodora, taking up a wall each and facing eachother. They are both dressed in white tunics with gold decorations, and in Tyrian purple cloaks. They wear elaborate crowns, and they carry an eucharistic item each; Justinian the bread tray, and Theodora the wine mug.

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The mosaics were made ca. 547.

My reason for recreating these outfits is a former art history professor. He's arranged art history courses in Rome, Ravenna, Greece and New York these last 15 years, and he's had the mosaic outfits in mind for years. When traveling he's bought suitable fabrics, trims and beads, and in the autumn of 2013 he approached me, asking if I was up for recreating the outfits. Because I like when people want "hardcore" historical outfits, and because I very much enjoyed his courses in Rome, I agreed to make him and his wife the mosaic outfits. It was a joy going through the materials he had bought, because he had picked very suitable materials - historical purple, Greek crosses, rich gold trims, pearls. This was an art historian shopping for sure!

The emperor is dressed in a kneelength white tunic with gold decorations. In the mosaic only the gold trim around the knee and around the wrist is visible. But looking as extant tunics from around the same time, it was also common with trims around the neck opening (clavi) and at the hem, plus roundels or squares at the shoulders and around the knee area (orbiculum). The latter accounts for the gold roundel with a green duck on the emperor's right shoulder. The tunic is secured in the waist by a red/orange belt.

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Three extant Coptic tunics at the V&A, from ca. 400 to 700. They were very wide, usually made of wool, and with distinct decorations.

Over the tunic he wears a large purple cloak (chlamys), worn over the left arm so only the right arm is free. It's fastened at the right shoulder with a large jeweled clasp (fibula). The cloak has tablions (squares of another colour and fabric) of gold with red circles. The red circles has green ducks inside, matching the roundel at the tunic shoulder. In addition he wears purple tights or stockings, red and white shoes or sandals, and a crown on his head.

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Emperor Justinian, as depicted in the Ravenna mosaics ca. 547.

Because I'm using already bought materials, I am not using the amounts of wool I would have used if making it 100% historical. Instead I'm using a damask with Greek crosses for the male tunic, and a rough silk for the female tunic. There were heaps and heaps of gold trims in the stash I got, so I've played around with layering them, several on top of eachother to create a rich look and the broad trims needed. On top of that I add freshwater pearls, to get the ornamental Byzantine look.

Whereas the materials used are very rich, the pattern for the clothes are kept as simple and square as possible. I've used a period pattern for the male tunic, making much of the sleeves a part of the corpus, and with an additional piece around the cuff. The seam was hidden by two broad bands of gold trims on each cuff, to mimic what's seen in the mosaics. The hem has gotten a similar gold trim, made of the same materials but without the freshwater pearls. Instead the trims end in large golden metal brooches, and there's also rich, square decorations at each side. I originally thought this gold trim indicated a split, but period tunics shows this was not the case.

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Layering trims and adding freshwater pearls to create a rich effect

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The tunic in making and finished

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I really enjoyed the silly details. Here's the duck shoulder decorations from the tunic in making

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Another detail I enjoyed was making the fibula (brooch) for the cloak

The cloak - mantle as one would say in English, or "chlamys" in period terms - was worn over the left arm, closed with a big brooch (fibula) over the right arm. This cloak is made of ten meters of fabric . five meters of a purple damask with Greek crosses, and five meters of a purple synthetic silk. It would probably be a more obvious choice to wear the cross pattern out, but here it's used as lining. It's basically two triangles with one curved end, sewn together so the middle of the cloak has a seam. I sew the two layers separately, and then sandwiched them together. This gave an even look and allows the cloak to be used on both sides. It was alas not time to make the decorated square fields (clavus) on the cloak this time around. Maybe one day. The cloak is, as mentioned, held together with a big brooch over the right shoulder. This allows a bit of the tunic's gold decorations to be seen.

Emperess Theodora also wears a white tunic, but hers is floorlength. The trims on the hem is gold with green stripes and (probably) red roses. On top she wears a purple cloak. Hers has gold embroidery on the hem, showing the three magii presenting their gifts to the baby Jesus - echoing the position of the empress. Over the cloak she has a large maniakis, a pearl collar with gems, and a matching crown on her head. She also wears a green necklace and earrings, it looks like emeralds. On her feet shoes of gold and green, matching the hem decorations.

For the recreation I had to buy fabric for the tunic. I bought a slubby silk which feels beautiful towards the skin, while maintaining some of the woolen look these tunics often would have. The hem got broad and narrow gold trims with green velvet trims on top, as did the cuffs. Narrow gold trims with green velvet trims was repeated for the neck opening. The cloak (chlamys) was made of 10 meters of fabric - 5 of synthetic purple silk, like the emperor's version. But it wasn't enough of the Greek cross damask for this one. To match the green elements of the tunic and to create a dramatic effect, I went for an emerald green synthetic silk. This isn't indicated in the mosaics, I just liked the look of it. The cloak in the mosaics have a broad field with gold trims and embroidery at the hem. The embroidery shows the three magii. There was not time to recreate these splendid embroideries, but I did make the gold trims so the field might get embroidery in a near or distant future. Another possibility is gold print of some sort.

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Full version and close-up of the empress

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The maniakis would most likely be beaded. I made a gold lamé base and added decorations on top. The beads used are HUGE

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The cloak (chlamys) and tunic in making and finished. The cloak was lined with green to create a dramatic effect

So, there weren't time to recreate all details from the mosaics in the three months I have to complete the outfits. The decorations on the cloaks had to be dropped, at least this time around, and I didn't make any of the crowns or eventual footwear either. But the tunics got a period cut and all the details visible in the mosaics (interpreted through surviving garments). The cloaks also got a period cut, and can be decorated later on. Of accessories, the Emperor got the big fibula (brooch) holding the cloak together, while the Empress got the splendid maniakis (beaded gold collar) to wear over the cloak.

These garments are simple in cut, but rather detailed in decorations. The gold trims were build by layers of trim in purple and gold shades, and with freshwater pearls on top here and there. This is so the wearers will feel the weight and see the intricate details. Period plausible (in looks and colours, not fibres) fabrics were also used for the garments. All in all, the couple looked very Byzantine and very imperial when receiving their guests for the 2013 Saturnalia.

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