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Lisa Klassen-Barnes Brings the 'Isidora' Mummy Portrait to Life

By Brandon Barnes

Tell us about yourself and who you are portraying.

Iíve been reenacting for at least the past 15 years and have been with Legion VI for about four. Iím an experienced costumer and have been sewing for over 20 years. My specialization in the group is ancient garments and textiles, but Iím also very interested in the Roman military; thatís why I split my time portraying a soldier and being a Greek/Roman lady. I made this outfit for last yearís Roman Runway fashion show at the Getty Villa. For this event, the Villa staff asked us to recreate specific artifacts in the museum and I volunteered to recreate the Isidora mummy portrait which was produced sometime between the first and third centuries AD in the Fayum area of Egypt. I was amazed at the womanís haunting beauty and her wealth. It would be a challenge to recreate all of the details, but I was excited.

What makes up your outfit?

This outfit is made up of a deep red silk stola with black and gold stripes, a black linen subtunica worn underneath, a golden brown palla with a hand-beaded hem and dark brown leather shoes worn with turquoise wool socks. I also wore a golden laurel wreath and jewelry made of pearls, emeralds, gold and garnets (the gold and garnets were faux). The palla wasnít in the painting, but a wealthy and modest woman of the time would have worn the veil whenever she stepped outside. Her wealth also meant she could afford imported shoes. And the brightly colored socks paralleled ancient trends of wearing bright and often clashing color combinations. My mom knitted them by hand after consulting photos of finds from Egypt. I purchased replica earrings from the Getty Villaís gift shop and the shoes were replicas of an original find from Germany.

Tell us how you put it together.

I sewed all of my garments and did most of the work by hand. The hardest part was trying to match the scale of the stripes to the size of the garment. The drape of the stola was a bit tricky too. But the hardest part was finding the perfect stones for my jewelry. I sourced everything from the fabric district in downtown Los Angeles and I must have gone into every bead store there was to find the perfect size, scale and stone! I also bought all of my fabric there. I hand stitched and painted the laurel wreath and made all of my jewelry except the earrings. When I got my shoes, they were vegetable tanned plain leather. I dyed them using Eco Flow dye in a dark brown. And to really make the outfit come together, I decided to dye my hair a natural black color and use period cosmetics.

What sources did you use for your research?

I use two books frequently, The World of Roman Costume by Sebesta and Bonfante and Dress and the Roman Woman by Olson. I also found several catalogues of past exhibits from the Getty Villa featuring Romano-Egyptian gold jewelry that showed me how accessories were put together. I also began reading about the ancient origins of the Silk Road and how the Romans craved silk. It was so sought after that they would unravel silk fabric and re-weave it into new cloth to stretch out supplies. During this project I also learned a great deal about ancient dyeing and fabric production techniques.

Whatís next?

While the fashion showís over, the costume was so well received that the organizers of our Getty events asked me to wear it again. Some people have even asked me if I was related to Isidora! Well, Iím ItalianÖ so probably not. Unfortunately, the costume is not something I can wear on a regular basis so I only wear it on special occasions. Right now Iím working on building an auxiliary archer impression. I just finished modifying a lorica squamata to fit me and the recurve bow my husband bought me just came in this weekend. Iíll be organizing the Roman wedding thatís going to take place in May at the Getty Villa, so thereís probably another wedding dress in my future!