How great was Empress Theodora (500-548)? This great: she outlawed wife-killing, banned sex trafficking and sex slavery, expanded women’s property rights, gave mothers the right to raise their own children, and generally endowed women with higher legal status than they’d ever had in the entire history of the Roman Empire. Yay, Theodora! She wasn’t a reigning empress in her own right—it would be another three centuries before the Byzantines crossed that bridge—but she exerted enormous influence over her husband, Emperor Justinian. For all intents and purposes they were co-rulers: Theodora’s name is on all the laws, and functionaries swore allegiance to both Justinian and Theodora.

Byzantine clothing looks ferociously complicated at first, but it’s actually quite easy to mimic with modern pieces. Our main illustration above shows Theodora as she appears in the famous mosaic at the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna (that’s her in the middle holding the jeweled chalice). These are the chief elements of her outfit:
Empress Theodora costume

  • A full length chlamys (cloak) in imperial purple, fastened on the shoulder;
  • A wide collar called a maniakis, embroidered with gold and encrusted with jewels;
  • An imperial crown with prependoulia, pearl-and-gem dangles that hang from the sides;
  • A full-length dalmatica (or tunica), a long-sleeved T-shaped gown of silk brocade.

To fake it, here are the pieces we suggest, from left to right:

1. Purple reversible cape. This fabulous cape is perfect for an imperial chlamys; just wear it to the side, with the opening at your shoulder.
2. Queen of the Nile collar. This costume piece is supposed to be Egyptian, but it doesn’t really look it at all. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to an imperial maniakis, especially with those dangly things.
3. Gold crown with pearl beads. This new “queen crown” from Elope has a vaguely Byzantinish feel to it; it works very well for Theodora. To add the prependoulia, just snip some strands of fused plastic pearl beads and Scotch-tape them to the inside of the crown. (Mardi Gras beads or plastic pearl necklaces would work too.)
4. Moroccan caftan with embroidery. A fancy Moroccan caftan is probably the closest thing in existence to an imperial Byzantine dalmatica. Theodora would have worn a white silk dalmatica for special occasions—in the Ravenna mosaic her gown is white with an enormous border of gold embroidery at the bottom—but we thought this rich bronze caftan looked better with the outfit.