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Chanel Brings Byzantine Gold Back for Fall-Winter

Mosaic depicting Empress Theodora
Mosaic depitcing Empress Theodora. Credit: Basilica of San Vitale / CC BY-SA 4.0 / via Wikimedia Commons

As summer comes to a close, the Byzantine aesthetic and its association with opulent gold is one of the continuing inspirations behind recent fashion trends.

Chanel just presented its new eyeshadow palette “Byzance” with its shimmering gold colors. None of the names of the eyeshadow palettes in the collection are a coincidence. Vénitienne, Impériale, and Baroque all remind us of the opulent beauty and style of a specific era.

Coco Chanel herself was fascinated by Byzantine style. Although her garments were streamlined and practical, she was known for wearing a signature chunky solid gold bracelet.

Like Empress Theodora, her story is rags-to-riches and controversial. Theodora was the daughter of a bear-keeper and ascended through marriage, while Gabrielle Chanel created her own empire and would be crowned by the history of fashion for her work.

Both of them were known for their beauty and were performers, and for both of the women, this signified leading a peculiar life 1,500 years apart.

For Theodora, this meant dancing and performing somewhat lewdly. A particularly outrageous act involved geese. She was the daughter of circus performers and also had a life as a prostitute. Nevertheless, Justinian even changed some of the laws to have her crowned with him in Hagia Sophia and to have her by his side. She was a woman of equal intelligence and ambition—an equal rather than a consort.

many images of a fashion show
Karl Lagerfeld’s pre-fall collection of 2010, Paris-Bysance by Chanel. Credit: Wonderlane / CC BY 2.0

Byzantine Fashion Continues to Inspire

I do not care whether or not it is proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; but in moments of extreme danger, conscience is the only guide.

–Theodora, during the Nika revolt

(as quoted by Brownworth)

Karl Lagerfeld was inspired by the lavish mosaics in San Vitale of Ravenna which depict her producing the photobook “Byzantine Fragments” and the pre-fall 2010 collection, which is named Paris-Byzance by Chanel.

Other Chanel collections inspired by the Byzantine gold of Venice followed. Venice was a city that the founder of the maison always returned to after the death of the love of her life, Boy Capel.

The city went under the rule of the Byzantine Empire after the Byzantine-Venetian treaty of 1082, and even today it is deeply influenced by its Byzantine era, having maintained trade with the East through the ages.

Chanel is only one of the great fashion brands that has been heavily inspired by the distinctive aesthetic of Byzantine gold and mosaics.

gold and red dredd with mosaics
thre D&G Fall/Winter collection, 2013. Credit: Peter Stigter, EUL

Romeo Gigli was the first to pay homage to the beauty and sensuality of Theodora in his 1990 fall-winter collection. Others such as Laura Biagiotti in 2012, Chloé in 2013, and Dolce & Gabbana later on also followed suit. They have tried to recreate the ideal of the elegant Byzantine woman in their collections.

The glowing golden cashmere and opulent purple, red, and green velvet with hand-woven golden thread and long pendant earrings like those of the Empress’ were featured in many of their works. The image of Empress Theodora and her distinctive and immortal look remains an ideal of beauty in popular culture as well as on Italian and international runways.

The Byzantine Empire is known for its glory and laws that greatly shaped it during turbulent times. However, its aesthetic, comprised of opulent gold and bright royal red, also continues to impress.

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