Broke Byzantine: making a sartorial riot happen on a budget

All too often, when the term Byzantine and the Eastern Roman Empire are brought up in re-enactment and recreationist contexts, especially in a clothing context, we think opulence and splendour. We think “guess I’ll have to mortgage my house” or “time to rob the bank to afford this look.”

I’m here to say that no, you do not need to break the bank to have a Byzantine persona. With a few tips from me, here’s how you can look the part and not live on ramen for the next decade.

I want to preface this with the fact that I lived (and to some extent still live) this reality. Going broke for a hobby is not worth it. It’s more than okay to build up and start at the ground floor than to start at the penthouse. By that, I mean that it’s great to have goals and to work towards them at a pace that is comfortable for you and your pocketbook.

There are a couple of routes – one is starting with a type of persona or kit, and the other is sourcing materials for kits. Neither is better than the other – and it’s good to have a couple routes on doing things. If you have an idea of what you want for your persona, then the first route is better for you. If you’re not sure what sort of persona you want, but you have a few skills (like sewing), the second route might be better for you.

Of note: some of the suggestions outlined in this entry may not be particularly period. Use of synthetic fibres, fake gemstones, and other items may not be appropriate for all groups. Check in with your group leadership and make sure that the items that you’ve gathered are still okay for use.

If you’re in the SCA, the most you have to make is an attempt. If someone tells you otherwise, please feel free to have them email me and I’ll be glad to have a conversation.

First, let’s start with if you’re comfortable going with a particular type of persona.

1) choose a persona with a different class level
While groups like the SCA assume everyone is noble, you do not have to have a persona that is. By choosing a persona that isn’t of the nobility, this can free you to work with fabrics that are a bit more simple. You can also go with a persona that, like Kale Pakouriane, went into a convent. Sure, it’s not as shiny, and if you’re okay with that, this is perfectly acceptable, and there’s plenty of space for research in this department. Who knows? You might actually find something new out there!

2) start with less ostentatious pieces
So, going with a lower class level persona isn’t as appealing – that’s also okay. There is nothing saying that you can’t go with a persona with a higher class level. By going with more casual pieces, akin to casual wear, you can build up to a more ostentatious display. Look at using linen and wool instead of silk. A great place to get inspiration is the Madrid Skylitzes, which shows simpler garments, not as richly decorated.

Of course, these are not the only way – if you have a skill like sewing, jewellery-making, or even weaving, you can use these skills to look far more expensive. Here’s a couple of ways that you can do this.

1) pop some tags
That’s it – go to the thrift store. Sometimes, you can be lucky and find wool, linen, or if you’re lucky, silk. You might also find trim, beads, pearls, or even jewellery. If you’re really lucky, you may also end up finding shoes! It may, however, require a bit of elbow grease to get it to a point where you can do something with it.

2) use solid fabrics and trim with more expensive trims
Not everyone can afford an entire wardrobe out of Sartor. I certainly can’t. That said, there’s nothing wrong with using solid colours in documentable shades in documentable fabrics. Most of my wardrobe is made from silk from Silk Baron or linen from Fabrics-Store, cotton (yes, it’s period for this location for most of the time period of the Empire), or wool from places like Etsy or other locations, and trimmed using tablet-woven or inkle trim made of linen, silk, or brocaded cotton. If you do have a bit of flexibility in your budget that allows you to purchase a yard or so from Sartor (or another historical fabric supplier), you can use this in trimming your garments. Another place you can look for patterned fabrics are (though, read the descriptions carefully and maybe do a burn test when the fabric arrives, because they also use polyester and rayon). Of note with PureSilks – check the patterns. You’re generally going to be safe with using liturgical or geometric-patterned fabrics, but less so with overly floral or chinoiserie-inspired fabrics. If you really want to bling things out (though, perhaps less period than using tablet-woven), consider looking at companies that sell sari trim. You can get lucky and find some sari trims that aren’t too terribly shiny. Anna actually used sari trim that we found on Etsy when making my step down delmatikioi. It’s not always period (we have evidence of narrow fabrics being imported through the Silk Road, but the super-spangly is questionable), but it does pass the 10 foot test pretty nicely. Also, much of the trim from Calontir Trim is SCA-themed, but can also be used to nice effect – especially the more geometric or floral in nature.

2a) use solid fabrics and make your own trim
Okay, okay, so, you’ve got a skill in weaving or needlework. Try making your own trim by tablet or inkle weaving. You can also try embroidery (which you can then applique on). This is still reliant on how much time you have, but if you’re comfortable spending that time, you’re golden. You could also always bead a garment, or bead the trim, or bead both. A great place to look for beads is Fire Mountain Gems (I’m fond of the gemstone beads from their Deepak’s Gem Palace), but there are other companies out there. The sky is somewhat the limit – your budget, though, might be.

2b) repurpose other fabrics
Anna actually has a tutorial on repurposing saris for Byzantine-styled clothing. That said, old curtains (I’ve got old wool curtains that will eventually become something after being washed because yardage – and I think I paid $30 for two large lengths that just needed to be taken apart to removed the blackout portion), bedsheets, tablecloths, etc. can be repurposed. Where can you get these? Well, besides thrift stores, check out estate sales, hotels/motels revamping their decor, etc.

3) use synthetics
This is perhaps my least favourite option, and if you’re part of a higher calibre group that does not allow synthetics, you may wish to ignore this advice. That said, I once found a bolt of (polyester) fabric that eventually became one of my first pieces of Byzantine because someone was getting rid of it – and for a first piece, it worked pretty well. Places like liturgical supply companies, fabric stores specializing in home decor fabrics, and yes, I dumpster dove for the bolt of fabric can have the patterns you want. The downside is that these can be very warm and uncomfortable, so you may want to plan for use when you’re doing an indoor event.

4) some combination of all of the above
Like it says on the tin. Let’s say you’ve got time to spare, but not a whole lot of budget. The nice thing about Byzantine clothing is that as it is largely geometric construction, it’s not too difficult to pattern. I’m a weirdo and use an old t-shirt (that fits!) as my pattern. Is it period? Not particularly. But it fits my body, and it’s comfortable, and by using other skills like beading and trimming with other fabrics, I can create a garment that looks appropriate for the time period. Also, by adding jewellery that you’ve either made or sourced from other locations, you can make your outfits look more expensive and luxurious than perhaps they actually are.

And that’s it. This is how you can start looking fabulous on a budget.

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