Reconstructing a late antique tunic

As part of her work for the Visualisation project, PhD student Faith Morgan has used a combination of her research and dressmaking skills to reconstruct a late antique tunic. Tunics were a staple of the late antique wardrobes of men, women and children. We see them in depictions of people from the period, their remains have been found archaeologically and they are referenced in a variety of textual sources. The importance of this type of clothing made it an obvious choice for attempting a reconstruction. Faith explains the process:

“The type of tunic I chose to reconstruct is a narrow sleeved example; a great many of the narrow sleeved tunics of the late antique period appear to be extremely wide, and I wanted to see how they actually looked when worn, so I chose a simple one to reconstruct. The basic measurements of the tunic came from one catalogued in A. De Moor’s 1993 book ‘Coptic Textiles from Flemish Private Collections’ (cat. no. 6). This complete example dates from the 3rd to 5th c. AD and is a narrow-sleeved tunic of undyed linen. It features a waist tuck and bands, possibly for reinforcement running vertically from shoulder to hem. It was probably worn as an undertunic beneath another tunic of either wool or linen that would feature coloured decoration. The tunic’s dimensions are 188 x 248cm, including 2 sleeves of 44 x 35 cm each.

cuff hem

Detail of the cuff hem and hand-stitched sleeve seam

My reconstruction was made in 100% linen fabric that had been pre-washed. Narrow sleeved tunics such as this were normally ‘woven to shape’, however as this was not possible I had to find fabric wide enough to cut the garment out in one piece. This too proved difficult and in the end it was cut out in 3 pieces: one large rectangular piece going across the garment from cuff to cuff and including the neck opening, and 2 smaller equal sized pieces making up the back and front body of the tunic.


Detail of the neck opening and re-enforcing stitches at the sides

The pieces were then seamed by hand, and the seam was included in the waist tuck – a number of tunics have been found that were assembled in this way. The sleeves were tapered to the cuff by folding the excess fabric inside the sleeve in a triangular shape from armpit to cuff and then hand stitching it in place. An opening was left at the underarm going from the top of the waist tuck and continuing approximately 10 cm along the underarm. The measurements of the waist tuck and the underarm opening were based on measurements taken (by me!) on a number of extant garments in collections across Europe.


Dr Ellen Swift wearing the reconstructed tunic

In most modern reconstructions, these kinds of tunics are shown with the sleeves worn fully. However, there are several contemporary depictions that suggest the wearer’s arms could actually be put through the underarm holes, as seen in the image above. This would give a greater freedom of movement, as well as allowing the sleeves to be tucked away during manual or messy tasks.”

One response to “Reconstructing a late antique tunic

  1. Pingback: #ThrowbackFashion Cossack, 1952 by Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) | DUC C. NGUYÊN BLOG·

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