Thursday, November 1, 2012

Return to Byzantium--The Tunic

I've been thinking about resuming work on my Middle Byzantine costume. The remaining component I need is to make the green overtunic, or himation (though it turns out that different names were used for such garments in period; see below) to wear with my collared, Manazan-style shirt.

Diagram from Timothy Dawson*, modified to show my planned design
The main problem I foresaw with making the overtunic was applying the trim. Although I am really happy with the design of the trim I selected, that trim is composed of synthetic fibers and is very stiff in texture. Making the trim conform to the curve around the neckline attractively is likely to be impossible.

Recently, I had an idea for solving this problem.

I have a number of scraps of dark blue linen available from my fitted wraparound apron dress project. It occurred to me that I could piece together enough of the scraps to make a strip long enough to go around the neckline and sleeves, and down the opening slit of the himation. If I make this strip wide enough (perhaps three or four inches wide), I could just run a piece of the store-bought trim down the center of the strip around the sleeves, and down the slit at the neckline. The part of the neckline that curves would be ornamented only with the blue linen, which should be easy to conform smoothly to the curve.

This idea was inspired indirectly by an article in the following book, which I obtained through interlibrary loan:
Garland, Lynda, Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200 (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2006).
This book contains an article by Timothy Dawson, author of the Levantia website, about women's costume in the Middle Byzantine period. His photographs of reconstructed costumes on the Levantia site inspired my Byzantine costume in the first place, and I have wanted to read Professor Dawson's article in the Garland book* for quite a while. It is fortunate that I finally obtained the book before proceeding with the tunic, because the Dawson article contained several relevant pieces of information of which I'd previously been unaware.

First, it's by no means clear that I should be calling the garment I have in mind a himation.  Apparently Middle Byzantine clothing terminology, particularly for women's clothing, is far from unambiguous. Terms for an outer tunic include himation, esophorion, roukhon, hypokamision, while delmatikion (from dalmatica), refers most often to the type of tunic with wide-ended hanging sleeves.  Dawson's essay in the Garland book uses esophorion most often for an overtunic with narrow wrist-length sleeves.

Second, it is Professor Dawson's hypothesis that the Manazan tunic belonged to a male. He bases this conclusion--reasonably, in my opinion--upon its shortness (given that it was apparently worn as outerwear) and upon the shortness of the slit giving access to the neckhole.   Eva Andersson has made a 12th century outfit with a similar slit for a similar purpose, since she was nursing her infant at the time; pictures of her outfit and her description of how she made it can be found here.

Third, part of the support for Professor Dawson's hypothesis that the Manazan shirt belonged to a male is that the neckslit associated was very short; it was only big enough to allow the head to pass through. He maintains, quite reasonably, that in an age where all but the highest-ranking people owned few changes of clothing, all women's gowns needed to be able to accommodate a pregnancy and the nursing period that would inevitably follow. Professor Dawson observes that these constraints dictated that women's gowns be relatively loose in the body, with very long neckslits to accommodate breast feeding infants. The sketch above, which comes from Professor Dawson's essay in the Garland book, shows the three types of neckline slit that he believes were likely to have been used for women's garments, namely: (1) a slit along the left shoulder; (2) a deep slit down the center; and (3) a deep slit down the left front of the body. These locations are marked on the diagram as "A", "B", and "C" respectively.

I don't intend to re-make my Manazan-style shirt now, partly because I still want to be able to continue to wear it after all of the hand-stitching it took to make and partly because, as an undergarment, its neckslit won't be seen when the shirt is worn under another tunic and I am old enough not to need to accommodate pregnancy or nursing activities. But I can make my esophorion consistent with Dawson's ideas, as his research contains the best information presently available to me on the subject.

I originally thought to place the slit for the neckline along the left shoulder. That would still be consistent with Professor Dawson's ideas, but gives me less ability to display the trim I purchased for decoration, particularly if I don't place the trim along the neckline curve as well as beside the slit. On the other hand, use of a long slit down the front of the tunic will showcase the trim nicely.  I think the left-side option labeled "C" is the most attractive option, so I will adopt it instead of the on-the-shoulder placement.   On the diagram above, I have highlighted the places on the tunic that I will ornament. The light blue highlighting represents the blue linen I will use, while the dark lines represent placement of my store-bought trim.

The Dawson sketch suggests that the long neckline slits extended down to, if not past, the waistline. I don't see why such a long slit would be necessary. Even if I needed to accommodate nursing a baby while wearing the tunic, a slit that ended an inch or two above my waist would be more than ample to allow me to pull my breast free (if duplicated on both shift and tunic, that is) and would be less likely to gape when the top of the slit is fastened closed.  I have already found a bead to use to close the slit at neck level.

I expect to be out of town for a week starting November 7, but hopefully I can begin cutting and sewing either this weekend or soon after my return.  If I run into further design issues, I expect to blog about them.  Watch this space for new developments!

* Dawson, Timothy. "Propriety, Practicality and Pleasure: the Parameters of Women's Dress in Byzantium, A.D. 1000-1200", in Garland, Lynda, Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, pp. 41-75 (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2006).


  1. Thanks for another interesting post. I like your idea of linen decoration with only strategic trim embellishment. If you really want to make stiff trim go around a curve, I've used a couple of work-arounds. If it's a shallow curve, you can do a running stitch on one edge and pull it slightly. With luck and patience you can make almost invisible gathers to make that edge shorter and make the trim curve. (Not an option with poly, but you can get a tighter curve on cotton or wool trim if you steam iron the gather edge edge and then repeat the tighten and steam process.) I've also successfully taken lots of carefully placed little darts in trim at points of symmetry in the pattern. You end up with a polygon rather than a curve but if you do enough of the annoying miniature darts, it isn't noticeable. This is a time-consuming and fiddly process. I like your linen and strategic trim idea better than either of these options.

    Regards, Beth Schreiber

  2. Hi, Beth! Thanks for stopping by. I could have sworn I posted a reply comment to yours, but it doesn't seem to be here, so....

    Middle Byzantine tunics typically had high round necklines. The neckline of the himation I'm planning is meant to hug the base of the Manazan shirt I made a few years ago. So this isn't going to be a tunic with a shallow curve at the neckline.

    I thought of the running stitch idea, but the trim in question is stiff as a board; I'm not sure that my thread is strong enough to gather it into a sufficiently tight curve. Carefully placed little darts might work, but would be a nightmare to make, because the trim is so stiff it's tough even to drive a needle through it by hand (I'm dreading the thought of simply sewing the stuff down onto my garment as it is). Hence, the linen idea. Use of the linen as trim befits period ideas of thrift, and gives me some decoration if I decide not to go ahead with adding the store-bought trim at all. I'm glad you like the idea too.