Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend, The Bitchy Historian. She currently lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband, Mr. Bitchy, and cat, Harald Hardrada. Follow the Bitchy Historian on Facebook!
Hi everyone! It’s me, the Bitchy Historian, and this is my seminal foray into guest writing! Pretty soon, I’ll be doing other things, like cutting ribbons in front of grocery stores. The possibilities are endless.
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the lovely ladies here at Frock Flicks for letting me come play on their swing set. I’ve been a fan now for some time, and we overlap into lots of various circles of finery outside of Facebook. It was really only a matter of time.
For those that don’t know, I focus predominantly on Classical, Late Antique, and Byzantine History. I also really like clothes and material culture, and the focus of most of my recent work has been on dress and appearance during these periods. As such, it seemed fitting that when Mr. Bitchy put on Rise of Empires: Ottoman (2020) for nothing more than to fucking spite me on a Sunday morning, the world knew what they were getting. In fact, it was 11am, and I reached for the cheapest bottle of white-girl wine in my refrigerator to help me out. By the time the second episode ended, the bottle was empty, and I was already hungover.
Let’s get this party started, shall we?
Rise of Empires: Ottoman is a Turkish-produced docudrama on par with some of the tripe Netflix has already graced us with in the vein of such productions. Being that this is Turkish, the drama is, well, pretty one-sided, but the cadre of supporting historians is impressive, as well as getting Charles Dance to narrate the thing. The inclusion of Lars Brownworth (of Lost to the West fame, as well as a stack of easy-to-digest historical podcasts that have gotten me through many road trips), is helpful, but they seem to have cut any real debate in favor of the waning Eastern Roman Empire in order to tout the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople in the most trope-tastic way possible. Don’t get me wrong, the Byzantine Empire was toast before the Ottomans even got into the Theodosian Walls, but the clashing imagery between Constantine XI and Mehmet II speaks volumes, here.
Despite this being billed as nothing more than an entertaining television miniseries, and not academic prowess on display, they do seem to get a good deal of the technical details correct regarding the siege. They correctly refer to the Byzantines as “Romans,” rather than Greeks, which is a small gold star in an otherwise steaming pile of leather and fur cast-offs from the set of the History Channel’s attempt at historical drama that shall not be named. No minute historical detail can save the series from the horrors that were unleashed from the costume shop.
The first scene of the docudrama takes us outside of the walls of Constantinople during what appears to be the final siege on the city. It’s a chaotic scene that mimics a blockbuster film, complete with washed-down palette, no doubt designed to be a hook for manly men looking for something manly to watch on the internet. This is where you get your first real glimpse of what we’re dealing with.
During the constant motion of the battle, I picked up on no less than three or four different types of armor from varying locations, hodge-podged together in order to make the scene. This is not uncommon in filmmaking, especially when you need to outfit many extras, so I tend to overlook egregious errors.
Mehmet II himself is not terrible. He’s wearing armor passable to the Ottomans of the mid 15th century, and there are enough pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to support this. For one fleeting moment, I had my hopes up.
… but then I saw Constantine XI. Wearing something out of tooled leather and a helmet that looks like some sort of repoussé Phyrgian cap. This is when I knew we were in for some shit. It’s not as if images of the Palailogos Era of Byzantium are slim to none, now. There is even a modern statue, in Athens, of the last emperor, clad in attire far more accurate than this show decided to portray.
And that, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg. I decided to spare you all a full analysis of the six episode series, and decided it was best to focus on the most egregious of sins unleashed upon my retinas early on. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be an article, it would be a thesis, and I’ve already done that.
To start, I’m going to provide simple, baseline images from actual 14th- to 16-century sources in regards to both the Eastern Roman/Byzantine, and Ottoman fashion of the periods.
The Lincoln Typikon is a great start for all things Late Byzantine Court Fashion. Note the rather Near Eastern/Ottoman look to the man’s coat and hat, and the baggy oriental carpet called a gown on the woman (I really hate that look). This codex dates to the late 14th century, so it is about 50 years prior to the Conquest, but I have found little evidence of any significant changes in fashion during this time. If anything, they could have become even more “orientalized” as the Ottoman continued to chip away at the dying Eastern Roman boundaries.
Sources on Ottoman clothing are usually drawn by outsiders that visited the Sultan’s court. This is because of Islam’s view regarding graven images. So when looking for accurate Ottoman attire, it’s important to make sure that the artist in question was actually present IN Constantinople, versus drawing by hearsay.
The source I’m using is the Codex Vindobonensis 8626, commissioned by the German (Neither Holy, Nor Roman, Nor an Empire) ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the late 16th century. While this is not smack dab in the period of the conquest, it’s in the confines of “close enough.”
What I love about both of these primary sources, but the Ottoman especially, is the wondrous amount of color used in the clothing of this period, which the creators of this show somehow felt beneath them, probably because color isn’t “edgy” enough, so eliminate color, add leather and gratuitous amounts of needless fur, film it too dark to notice most details in critical scenes, edginess problem solved.
I have no idea why they decided to clad the Ottomans in so much fur. While it was a used and important part of keeping warm during the winter months, even in Anatolia and the Balkans, the average temperature in April and May in that region hovers in the 50 degrees Fahrenheit range. My friend Konstantia pointed out that it was possible use of the “noble savage” trope, wherein the outsiders, uncorrupted by the decadence of civilization, take the moral high ground, but considering the show was written and directed for a Turkish audience, making the Ottomans appear some how a lesser civilization to the Romans doesn’t grok with me. I think they just wanted them to look needlessly badass, even in their colorful brocades.
By the time that I had gotten partway into the first episode, and saw what the Byzantine Emperor and courtiers were clad in, I was reaching for the wine. I don’t understand the gold velvet. While I don’t expect everybody to be Byzantine clothing nerds, you can ask a high school student what color the Roman emperor wore, and they could probably tell you purple.
The attempt here is … so-so. The right elements are there, as the loros (long skinny wrap thing for those playing “Byzantine Clothing Vocabulary: the Home Game”) costume was still worn by the Emperor for court occasions, but there’s just so much going on in the realm of Byzantine court costume as a whole in this hot mess I don’t know where to start.
The maniakion, or superhumeral, or jeweled collar, seems oversized on EVERYONE, to start. And that random drape of gold velvet emanating from beneath Constantine’s loros is bizarre, at best. There is a distinct difference between wearing the loros and the khlamys (cloak) for court costume, but they sure as shit aren’t worn at the same time.
Overall, the bulk of the courtiers appear to be in some form of passable Byzantine if you only took Western Civilization 101 and got to look at the San Vitale Mosaics in Ravenna of Justinian and his court, which were made almost 1000 years PRIOR to the fall of Constantinople. I see this probably outside of film and into living history organizations all the time. There’s a pervasive belief that the Byzantines existed for a window of time, and in that window of time, they wore what was encapsulated in the 6th century and nothing more. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, of course. Fashion in the Eastern Roman Empire changed as often as it did elsewhere during the Middle Ages. I just wish that film, even bad ones, wouldn’t support this nonsense anymore than it already has traction. But I digress. Take a look for yourself. There are a couple caftans, some generi-Byz, and the clergy are obviously in modern Orthodox attire with a twist.
A highlight in the first episode, of course, is when our double agent Megas Doux engages in sleazy dealings in a seedy tavern, and his bright blue noble robes become dark and full of material skinned from an old couch. Complete with obligatory renfaire hood of secrecy.
The common people of Constantinople look pretty good, overall, considering, but what I could not stop howling over, was the Genoese mercenary, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. Why put a dashing Italian in the fine attire of 15th-century Italy, when you can just make him look like an extra from any fantasy series currently ongoing on any network or streaming service, anywhere?
The absolute killing blow, at least for me, is the attire of the Byzantine noblewoman, first seen when she was gazing down longingly at the arrival of Giustiniani.
Compared to the image above from the Lincoln Typikon, it’s not even in the same damn BALLPARK as anything remotely accurate to the time. The mermaid scale brocade really does me in, too. You see her wearing this same outfit, again, while standing up on the walls, unchaperoned, at the close of the first episode.
For all meager attempts at trying to emulate men’s clothing, any and all inklings of portraying a woman accurately went out the window.
This gives me a great segue into the Ottoman women, poor dears, they never had a chance.
Keeping in mind what I give as an example above, this is what gets thrown at us: Fur, cap sleeves, gratuitous sparkles, and head necklaces. Not to mention loose hair for days.
Honestly, the best example of Ottoman costume is when we see wee Mehmet in episode 2, forlorn as he leaves his mother to go to Adrianople.
The janissaries come in close second, although I’m not sure what’s going on with the extra leather trimmings and kidney belts, other than adding onto the element of forced badassery, that honestly isn’t even needed. The janissaries were awesome on their own, without there being a fire sale at Tandy. Heck, even the cut scene that shows them training in the courtyard where this cap is taken from, albeit feeling very Zack Snyder, shows this badassery.
Throw that in comparison with this 15th-century sketch of a Janissary by Gentile Bellini, and you can see it’s close, but no cigar.
This is only a sampling of what I saw in the first TWO episodes out of six, and I am completely out of steam and spoons and cheap wine to keep going.
In short, Rise of Empires: Ottoman is a pile of documentary facts dispersed in edgy direction without a care for authenticity in appearance. Sure, give it a watch, enjoy it for what it is. Maybe pick up a few facts here and there, but I’d recommend hitting up the library afterwards as a palate cleanser.
Have you seen Rise of Empires: Ottoman? Are you into bitchy history?