Coptic Fashion in Late Antiquity
By: Lyric Ludwig/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Middle Eastern fashion and clothing are often subject to stereotypes throughout various forms of media. In movies and TV especially, Arabs and Muslim people in general are often depicted in the same manner, with men wearing long white tunics and banded head scarves, and women being extensively covered (not including the prolific stereotype of Arabs as terrorists in media). It is true that these modern pieces of Arab garb are rooted in cultural truth, although their prevalence in the western eye belies the true diversity of Arab fashion throughout history. In antiquity, the Coptic people of Egypt created a fashion that became popular for generations within the Roman Empire, creating an artistic legacy that lasts to this day.
The Copts are the indigenous population of Egypt, and this is the term primarily used to refer to them during Hellenic and Roman occupation and onward until the modern day. The Hellenic and Romanized legacy is important to the formation of Coptic material culture. In the late Roman era in particular, long sleeved tunics and trousers were in fashion. In Egypt, the locals were able to turn this basic form of fashion into a unique fashion statement that became popular throughout the Empire.
Egypt’s climate lends itself well to preserving the Coptic tunics in question. The basic shape of a men’s tunic would be two rectangles sewn together, with sleeves of varying length. The true flare and variation came in the decoration on each tunic, with each piece being akin to wearing a tapestry. The general trend seems to be two stripes or “clavi” running downward from the neck, with two orbs or squares called “orbiculi” or “segmentae” respectively, being placed at the hips and shoulders. Both of these decorations would have been “tapestry woven” from wool into each tunic. It is worth noting that men wore their tunics reaching to above the knees, while women wore longer tunics, often in the same decorative style as men, both would be belted at the waist.
The motif of each tapestry decoration would have varied considerably as well. There were floral, geometric and animal designs, but also full scenes and human motifs as well. Scenes could depict soldiers or Christian symbols such as angels, crosses or full scenes drawn from the Bible, or from nature. Color dyes were rich and varied as well, taken from natural plant and animal sources. The size of the tunic, intricacy of decoration and color dye (such as purple), would depend on the wealth of individuals. High Roman officials or nobility in the late would have worn the most expensive tunics, not to mention armor.
Mentioned earlier, this style of tunic pioneered by the Coptic people of Egypt became spread throughout the Roman Empire and its various people groups (Germanic tribes, for example). Long sleeved Coptic tunics and trousers were particularly popular with the Roman army, with soldiers wearing them from Britain to the Middle East. For the average soldier, this would have been paired with a pillbox hat, leg wraps and a cloak. In some ways, this Coptic ensemble would have been emblematic of early Christianity. Not only does this fashion appear in late Roman art depicting saints, it extends into the Eastern Roman era as well, notably appearing on a mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his retinue. This style of tunic would remain in the Roman and Arab territories until the various waves of people migrating into the region during the middle ages, would understandably change the fashion.
Overall, the Coptic fashion that endured for generations in the Roman Empire, is an important cultural legacy of the Middle East that is fascinating, but often overlooked as well. It is also an early example of religion and religious motifs influecing fashion. Much of Arab history before the rise of Islam is ignored as well, but within that vast era of history, there is still a wealth of culture and knowledge to be studied. The fashion of the Copts in the Roman Empire is just one small look into the diverse and long standing history of Arab garb, from ancient tunics, to modern Arab clothing.