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Dress like a Byzantine Empress – Byzantine Art in Fashion Collections

Three models wearing Dolce&Gabbana Fall 2013 fashion collection inspired by Byzantine Art
Dolce & Gabbana, FW 2013 RTW collection - backstage photo. Pinterest.

Fashion

Dress like a Byzantine Empress – Byzantine Art in Fashion Collections

Have you ever wondered how Byzantine art stepped onto the catwalk? It all started with Empress Theodora and a Byzantine-inspired piece of jewelry from the 1930s – the Ravenna cuff owned by Coco Chanel.

Left: Coco Chanel wearing a cuff bracelet designed by Fulco di Verdura. Photo by  Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet. Right: Fulco di Verdura, a silver, enamel and simulated gemstone bracelet, private collection. Christie’s.
From left to right: Coco Chanel wearing a cuff bracelet designed by Fulco di Verdura. Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet; Fulco di Verdura, a silver, enamel, and simulated gemstone bracelet, private collection. Christie’s.

The great mosaics of the Byzantine Empire were a source of inspiration throughout the centuries to many artists and creators (Gustav Klimt’s golden paintings are the most obvious example of such inspiration). Let’s see what happens when Byzantine art meets high fashion! (Shall we?)

Alexander McQueen

Fall 2010 Ready-to-Wear

In the fall of 2010, Alexander McQueen presented what turned out to be his last collection, inspired by the Middle Ages. In this collection, among dresses inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, we find Byzantine-inspired long gowns – bejeweled and embroidered with gold (some of them also with a floor-length cape inspired by a paludamentum) – truly worthy of an empress.

Three photographs of Alexander McQueen's Fall 2021 collection; right: cream dress with golden leaf embroideries, centre: red gown with golden embroderies and gems with a cape; left: black, long sleeve gown with goledn embroderies on the corest.
Alexander McQueen, Fall 2010 RTW collection. Photos by Christopher Moore.

Chanel

Pre-Fall 2011 “Paris-Byzance”

“Coco Chanel is the new Theodora” said Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of the fashion house Chanel, when he introduced the Pre-Fall 2011 collection inspired by the Byzantine empress.

“Theodora was a circus artist who became an empress, like Chanel, who was a little singer and became a fashion empress.”

Karl Lagerfeld (attr.)
Three looks from Chanel fashion show inspired by Byzantine Art with mosaic embroidery and gems. All of the models are weraing golden jelwelry
Chanel, Pre-Fall 2011 collection. Chanel.

Rich colors, contrasted with gold, colorful gems, and mosaic embroidery reminds us of Byzantine splendor. This elegant collection is a tribute to Coco Chanel, who initiated the trend of Byzantine influence in modern fashion.

Three looks from Chanel fashion show inspired by Byzantine art:
left: Black long dress with lace and long coat with golden embroideries;
centre: purple dress with mosaic decoration.
Black dress with golden embroideries and mosaic-inspired decoration.
Chanel, Pre-Fall 2011 collection. Chanel.

The resemblance to empresses Theodora and Irene can be seen in the model’s hair pinned up high, with tiara-like headbands and jewelry.

Three dresses from Chanel Byzantine art - inspired fashion show; black and white dress with golden belt and tesserae-like buttons (left); costume with mosaic-like decoration (centre); off-shoulder jacket decorated with gems over white shirt with blue pants (right)
Chanel, Pre-Fall 2011 collection. Chanel.

Dolce & Gabbana

Fall/Winter 2013 Ready-to-Wear

For me personally, the most memorable fashion show inspired by Byzantine art is Dolce & Gabbana FW 2013. Take a look at those stunning golden mosaics from Sicily printed on the clothes, embroidered dresses decorated with cabochons and gems!

five looks from Byzantine-inspired fashion show;
knee-length dress with red skirt and golden top. Skirt decorated with red gems. Top with mosaic decoration.
Next, long dress with printed mosaic decoration with angel
Centre: gold skirt with printed mosaic, paired with black lacey top.
Fourth look: golden corset with cabochons and gems paired with short mini skirt decorated with gems and mosaic-like embroidery.
White dress with mosaic embroidery. In the centre fragment of the mosaic representing Virgin Mary.
All models are wearing large cross earings and four of them (except the first one) are wearing golden crowns decorated with gems.
Dolce & Gabbana, FW 2013 RTW collection. Photos by Filippo Fior.

In their ready-to-wear collection, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana represented mosaics from the Santa Maria Nuova Cathedral constructed in the late 12th and 13th centuries. They had 6,340 square meters of tesserae mosaics to choose from as their inspiration! (As some of you might know, Monreale cathedral’s mosaic decoration is the largest mosaic decoration in Italy).

three looks inspired by Byzantine art from Daolce&Gabbana fashion show:
left: golden A-line dress with angel
centre: black lace skirt paired with white blouse and golden belt with cabochons
left: golden, embroidered dress with mosaic decoration
Dolce & Gabbana, Fall/Winter 2013 RTW collection. Photos by Filippo Fior.

On these short dresses, we have a fragment from the dedication mosaic representing king Willhelm II offering the Virgin Mary a model of the church. The same motif can be seen on the short sleeve shirt. 

Fragment of the tesserae mosaic from Monreale cathedral representing king Wilhelm II kneeling inf front of Virgin Mary, offreing Her model of the cathedral (right). Two looks from the art inspired Dolce and Gabbana fashion show with the same mosaic printed on them (left).
From right to left: Dolce & Gabbana, Fall/Winter 2013 RTW collection. Photos by Filippo Fior; Monreale Cathedral’s mosaic representing Wilhelm II offering the Virgin Mary the model of the church. Web Gallery of Art. Detail.

As we can see, the designers truly covered everything and gave us a real head-to-toe look. Looks were topped with crowns, accessories – earrings, cross pendants (also seen back in 1988 in Christian Lacroix’s fall collection), belts, handbags, and oh my gosh those shoes…

details from Dolce&Gabbana Byzantine inspired collection;
left: red wedges with gold platforms decorated with cabochons and gems
centre: gold wedges with mosaic decoration
High heeld beige shooes with golden heel decorated with cabochons
Dolce & Gabbana, Fall/Winter 2013 RTW collection. Photos by Filippo Fior.
Three handbags by Dolce and Gabbana. Left: with the fragment of mosaic representing Evangelist Mark as a lion.
Centre: gold purse with cabochons and gems.
Right: handbag with mosaic decoration
Dolce & Gabbana, Fall/Winter 2013 RTW collection. Photos by Filippo Fior.

Valentino

Spring 2016 Couture

Yet another great example of Byzantine revival in fashion is Valentino’s collection for spring 2016. Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli stated that their inspiration for this collection were velvet gowns created at the beginning of the 20th century by Mariano Fortuny.

Photographs of three looks inspired by Byzantine Art, presented on Valentino fashion show in spring 2016. Right: sheer short dress with a black skirt and long cape, black gown wit a cape centre), shorst, long sleeved dress in purple velvet with golden embroideries
Valentino, Spring 2016 Couture collection. Photos by Yannis Vlamos.

Fortuny, in his model gowns Delphos and Eleonora, recreated ancient Greek chiton and Byzantine tunica. He also incorporated a long cape to his designs as well as shawls (inspired by lorum) and collars modeled by superhumeral.

photographs of Mariano Fortunys designs: long green Delphos dress, velvet gold Eleonora gown modelled on Byzantine tunica; Coat over red dress
From left to right: Mariano Fortuny, Delphos dress; Eleonora gown. Photo by Françoise Cochennec; Coat. National Gallery of Victoria.

The rich colors of the gowns, long capes, golden accessories, and mosaic-like ornaments definitely have a Byzantine touch to them.

three photographs presenting looks from Valentino's Byzantine Art - inspired fashion show: left withe cape dress, centre: black long gown with gold accessories, right: sheer-gold dress with black and gold embroidered cape
Valentino, Spring 2016 Couture collection. Photos by Yannis Vlamos.

Jewelry

And don’t forget that over the years Byzantine influence was present in the jewelry. Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, later the “American jeweler,” revolutionized jewelry with his Byzantine designs; the first of them being the Theodora and Ravenna brooches and costume jewelry line created for Coco Chanel. The inspiration for the iconic pieces were mosaics from San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna, which he had seen during his trip to Italy with Coco.

Verdura Byzantine collection jewelry: pair of earrings, cross broach,  cross earrings. All of the pieces are inspired by Byzantine Art and jewelry from Ravenna mosaics.
Verdura, Byzantine collection jewelry. Brand’s website.

Nowadays, Byzantine-influenced pieces are still present at Verdura, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and all of the listed above.


Want more fashion inspirations in art?

Art historian and proud member of the DailyArt team!
Her main interest in AH is art theory and Italian Renaissance.

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