RECREATING THE COSTUME OF MEDIEVAL PERSIA

Originally presented at the Dismal Fogs Eastern Collegia, March 6, 1999. Subsequently published in Cockatrice

Overview of the various styles.

Persia is a country of rich history that also provides us with the opportunity to recreate a fascinating set of clothing that contrasts greatly with the styles of Europe.

The many schools of Islamic miniatures provide a wonderful resource for researching the clothing of the area and period in question. Some of the earliest surviving miniatures are found at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. [1] These miniatures give a good guide to the overall appearance of early 13th to 16th Century Persian clothing.

13th Century

As Figures 1 & 2 show, Persian costumes of this period are typically long flowing robes, with turbans, boots or shoes and possibly leggings or pants. It appears that the robe has wide sleeves, and slits front and maybe back to allow for horseriding. The turban can be either on it’s own, or wrapped around a low knobbed cap. We also see tiraz on both the turban, and upper sleeves of the robes. The robe also appears to be of tunic or dalmatic construction. 


Figure 1 - Two Horsemen, Kitab al Baytara (‘Book of Farriery’) by Ahmed ibn al-Husayn ibn al-Ahnaf. Baghdad, 1210.
Ahmed III 2115, folio 58a


Figure 2 - 
Dioscorides and a pupil, De Materia Medica of Dioscorides by Yusuf al-Mawsili.
Mosul, Dec. 1228. Folio 2b

There is also a caftan variant shown in Kalila wa Dimna, which appears to be a form of overlapping front for the coat opening. Archeological examples of Sasanian garnents excavated in Antinoe in Egypt also show this type of front opening overlap. Examples of the garment are held in Lyon Museum [2], (figure 4a)  and the Met (figure 4b). Whilst the Lyon caftan is dated to the 6th or 7th Century, it does give an indication of possible construction for the caftan variant shown in figure 3.


Figure 3 - The Birdcatcher and the Doves, Kalila wa Dimna. Baghdad, first half of 13th century. Hazine 363, folio 99b


Figure 4a - Sasanian coat held at Lyon Museum

Manteau Inv. 968 III.1 (34.872)

Figure 4b - 
Persian-Style Riding Coat, 443–637.
Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin (9695)

Material is usually depicted as a highly patterned geometric design, indicating possibly a brocaded material. The colours depicted are usually strong background colours, with a softer muted colour or contrasting colour for the patterning. Turbans are also depicted in greens, reds and gold. Some individuals are shown wearing a cloth wrapped over one shoulder, which is usually assumed to represent cloaks [3], however this may be an anachronistic allusion to the classical Greek costume, as the texts are discussing the life of famous classical Greek philosophers. This was a time when the Islamic world experienced a fascination with the classical philosophy texts, many of which were translated. [4]

Figure 5 provides on of the few clues we have to underclothes of the region. The field workers are shown wearing reasonably close fitting knee length shorts. It is presumed that these breech type shorts are held up with a drawstring. The leg's ends also appear to be quite tight above the knee and are possibly possess ties to secure them at the knee.


Figure 5 - The physician Andromakhos watching labourers at work, Kitab ad-Diryaq (‘Book of Antidotes’),
Pseudo-Galen. Probably N. Iraq, 1199. Ms arabe2964, folio 22

14th Century

Persian clothing began to be heavily influenced by the Turkic and Mongol styles during the 14th Century, whilst retaining some of its traditional elements. This is where the Asiatic style coats start to become prominent in the illustrations of the period. Not surprising when you consider the fact that this period was dominated by successive incursions by Mongol and Turkic tribes. It is unclear whether the ruling Il-Khan Mongols actually influenced Persian clothing styles to any great degree, however as one of the main patrons for production of miniatures, styles were most probably shown as those most pleasing to the commissioning patrons, part of the new, more dynamic style of miniature favoured by the Il-Khans. [5]


Figure 6 - Mongol Ruler and consort enthroned, Jami’ al-Tawarikh (‘Universal History’ of Rashid al-Din). Il-Khanid Tabriz, 1330. Hazine 1653, folio 23a

Figure 6 shows some of the elements of this transition style, as worn in the Il-Khan courts. The inner garment appears to be a variant of the earlier tunic or robe, with a front opening slit at the neck, closed with a button or bead. The picture also gives the impression that a light, almost sheer material has been used. The under tunic reaches to about mid-shin and is a contrasting colour to the outer coat. One figure also appears to have an under tunic with differently coloured sleeves and hem to that shown at the neck. Overall though it appears that this tunic is of one overall colour. It should also be noted that the ‘typical’ horseshoe cuff of the Mongols is not depicted in this miniature
The outer coat appears to invariably be a crossover coat with short sleeves. Note that the coats are depicted as crossing the left side over the right. The coats appear to have a bias or decorative strip around the sleeve edges and the edges of the coat opening down to the hem. The bottom hem does no appear to have any decoration applied. The coat is most probably closed with ties under each armpit, and is secured at the waist with a belt. The outer coat is depicted in natural earth colours, such as blue, brown, white, mulberry and green. There is no distinction in colour between the general courtiers and the Il-Khan. The only men shown wearing red appear to be servants to some of the female court members. One of these ‘servants’ is holding a satchel slung over his left shoulder.

Costume accessories shown are boots, which have their tops covered by the full-length coats. Male figures are typically shown wearing their swords hanging from the belt. Several different styles of hat are shown, most hats are of similar style, that of a crown with an attached 2-part brim, the brim separations being on the sides of the hat. The hats are decorated with what appears to be feathers, possibly attached to some form of hatband, around the base of the crown section. Several men are holding a cane that is approximately of waist height, and grasped around the shaft. No top pommel is evident.

This is one of the few extant pictures showing female Mongol costume. All the women are depicted wearing a red, mostly voluminous crossover coat except the Il-Khana who is wearing white. The women are also depicted wearing an under gown, possibly of similar design to the male under garment. The women also wear a most fanciful hat, in red, and seem to be secured through ties under the chin. As the women are all depicted seated, we can not definitely determine the length of the garment. Judging from the draping shown, I would assume that the garments are approximately ankle length. This depiction does not allow us to determine what form of covering is used for the legs, be it leggings or pants.


Figure 7 - Presentation of the City, Mi’raj-nama (‘Ascension of Muhammad’).
From the Sarai Albums. Tabriz, beginning of the 14th century. Hazine 2154, folio 107a

Previous regional styles also remained in use, as shown in figure 7. The coat has maintained its wide sleeves, but is now depicted as a front opening, floor length caftan, with a wide collar that turns back revealing a contrasting colour. Tiraz are still shown on the upper arm, but are now a geometric pattern, or possibly gold brocade. The caftans are also depicted as being of a plain overall colour, with a good variety in the choice of colours. The collar material also appears to be a form of brocade, and a similarly patterned bias strip is shown inside the sleeve cuff. Where the inside of the sleeve is visible, it tends to indicate that the coats are fully lined with a material of contrasting colour.

The only dress accessories visible are a little portion of the undertunic (?) which is depicted as a round neck hole, in a contrasting colour, and the turban wrapped around a low cap. All the turbans are shown as white and a long portion is draped around the neck. The caps are yellow, blue or red, fashioned using a panel construction, twelve panels being shown.

This style is also confirmed by Figure 8, where similar coats that are missing the collars are shown on the Muslim envoys.


Figure 8 - Embassy to the court of the Negus of Abyssinia.
Universal History of Rashid al-Din. Tabriz, 1307-8. Ms 20 folio 52r

15th Century

The 15th Century is one of the richest illustration periods for the region. There are several variants shown in the many illustrations. Figures 9 and 9a shows a full length, tight sleeved robe or kaftan under a short sleeve cross over coat. Coat length is typically just above the ankle, and the outer coat has side slits to the hip, or gores for fullness. The coats are secured with narrow belts or sashes at the waist, which also have fittings for the attachment of accessories such as swords, quivers or purses. Headwear is either a turban, or a brimmed hat. The feet appear to be covered by boots that go past the ankle, possibly to the knee.


Figure 9 - Kay Khusraw’s disappearance related to Luhrasp, Shah-nama for Baysunghur. Herat 1430


Figure 9a - Garden Scene, Aq Quyunlu period (1396–1508), ca. 1430, Iran, possibly Tabriz,
Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1956 (57.51.24)

 

In contrast, figure 10 shows men to generally be wearing front opening robes, the inner robe secured with a belt and the outer robe left unbelted. The outer coats also have the prominent collar. A type of slipper shoe or a longer boot usually covers the feet, and loose pants cover the legs. Headwear is either an unbrimmed cap or a turban over the cap. There is also examples of men wearing cross over coats with full-length sleeves. Sleeves are generally tight on the wrist, however the outer front opening coat is also depicted as a looser sleeve.
This figure also depicts women and their clothing. The women are depicted wearing floor length tight sleeved front opening robes, with at least an inner and outer robe. No footwear is visible, but headwear is shown as a headscarf, possibly secured with some form of headband, when indoors, but the women depicted outdoors is wearing the full chador (open face) typically associated with Muslim women. For a clue as to female undergarments we must turn to figure 11 where we can see Shirin wearing reasonably full trousers that do not appear to have ties for the ends. Once again we must presume the use of a waist draw cord. We also see the boots depicted as one that reaches past the knee in front then cuts back to below the knee at the back. The depiction of Khusraw also shows some variant for the male outer coat as a front opening, short sleeve version and a variation in the turban cap arrangement. This is also one of the first depictions of feathered turban ornaments.


Figure 10 - Genre Scene (Public punishment of three miscreants),
From the Sarai Albums. Tabriz, second half of 15th century. Hazine 2153, folio 99b


Figure 11 - Khusraw surprises Shirin bathing, Khamsa. Tabriz, 1481. Hazine 762, folio 38b

16th Century


Figure 12 - Khusraw and Shirin listening to night singers, Khamsa of Nizami.
Persian, 1539 – 43. Or. Ms 2265 folio 66v

The main illustrations from the period come from Nizami’s Khamsa. Figures xii shows typical clothing for the nobility, and figure xiii shows the more common clothing. The styles shown are very similar to that of the previous century, except cross braids are shown as being used for the nobility’s front opening coats, and the variation in turban style.


Figure 13 - Building of the fort of Khwarnaq, by Bizad, Khamsa of Nizami.
Persian, 1494. Or. Ms 6810 folio 154v

Appropriate Colours and Materials

Much has been written about the fabrics woven in Islamic Areas. There were well-established centres for the weaving arts. Fabrics were made from linen, wool, silk and cotton. Cotton itself did not become a major crop until the 13th Century [6] and was one of the more expensive fabrics. It was also fashionable to work patterns into material, particularly silk, with metallic materials such as gold and silver. There are also records of silk tapestry-woven decoration worked against a linen background, loop pile and cut loop fabrics, and blended fabrics such as mulham, a fabric with a silk warp, and a weft of a different yarn [7]. The designs are many and varied and are not an area that can be covered adequately in a short article such as this. It is suggested that the reader look into the many available materials before commencing any project. On the whole, plain coloured materials can be used to make garments for any period, but the use of patterned materials should be investigated a bit more closely, as the use of various patterns in different periods is far more pronounced. It is also important to note that silk is one of the hadith-restricted materials, and whilst used extensively, it was also used judiciously, either as a blended material or as patterning strips not more than 2 or 3 fingers wide [8].

Colour was very important to Muslims. There are various colour restrictions in different times and places, due to religious reasons. The main problem colours are reds, which is supposed to be the colour of the devil, and yellow, which is the colour that all non-Muslims are required to wear, or was worn by female entertainers. However these are customary restrictions that could be ignored by rulers at various times, and is commonly depicted in miniatures. Wearing these colours did leave the wearer open to political or religious censure or attack by religious leaders of the day. The Muslims themselves were highly skilled in the use of dyestuffs, and produced a fantastic array of colours. Dyes such as weld, madder, safflower and indigo have been found in grave goods. References to exact fabric shades include 'pistachio green', 'Egyptian onion purple' and 'African thigh black'.

Construction

Tunics and Robes

One of the problems with garment construction for eastern clothing is the actual pattern to use for the garment. The main problem arises because the most expensive fabrics, such as appear in miniatures, were seldom if ever buried with their owners9. Fortunately we can make an educated guess of how the garments were put together by looking at some of the extant garments held in museums. Firstly we have the previously mentioned example from Lyon Museum (Martiniani-Reber). Similarly, textile finds in Birka, Sweden, provide some evidence for the garment pattern (Figure 14).


Figure 14 - Birka Coat pattern

9th and 10th Century Rus coats which are believed to based on the Byzantine skaramangion, a garment which is itself based on the Persian riding coats of that time [10]. However, I am not entirely convinced that these styles would apply to all the garments demonstrated, particularly given their early provenance. Gervers does show a 14th Century Mamluk period shirt which demonstrates the frugal patterning process possible (Figure 15), and is very similar to the Birka coats in it's construction.


Figure 15 - Shirt of bleached linen tabby, embroidered in crimson silk floss with patterned darning (loom width c. 58 cm).
Egypt: Mamluk period, 14th Century

 

We also have the robes in Topkapi (Figure 16), which use a variant of this method.


Figure 16 - Ottoman Kaftan robe, 16th Century

From this it is possible to develop a generic pattern which is compatible with the cutting styles shown. (Figure 17)


Figure 17 - Garment pattern and cutting diagram

The construction is basically all straight sewing with little dress making skills being required. If you are attaching braid, decoration, or embroidery it is usually easier to apply it before you sew up the garment.


Figure 18 - Garment construction diagram

The construction method is as follows (Figure 18):

  1. Sew the gores to the garment body.
  2. Sew the gusset and sleeve together as follows:
    1. Sew one side of the gusset to a sleeve corner. Angle the seam line towards the point as shown as this makes the next step easier.
    2. Sew up the sleeve, folding the gusset point out of the road
    3. Repeat for the other sleeve
  3. Turn a sleeve inside out and pin to the garment body, ensuring the center of the sleeve is at the center of the garment body. Starting from the gusset point, sew the sleeve about ¾ of the way around. Remember to angle out from the gusset point as before. I've found it is then easier to remove the pins and re-pin the next section, down the garment body and out the gores. The gusset corner is folded out of the way as when we did the sleeve. You may find it easier to iron the gores out flat before you pin it. Once pinned sew the rest of the sleeve and side seam. If you have done this properly, the bottom corners should line up together. If they aren't lined up it usually means the sleeve and garment centers weren't lined up properly.
  4. Repeat for the other sleeve.
  5. The garment now just needs to have its neck hole cut and the edges finished. Unless I'm making a lined garment, I usually just roll the edges and whipstitch them by hand.
  6. One trick I've found that works well is to trim the gores so that the hypotenuse is the same length as the long side. (See figure Error: Reference source not found) Mark the 90° corner before you trim. This stops the corners drooping when you wear it and you don't need someone to trim the hems when you are wearing it once it is made.

The pattern can be turned into a coat by opening all the way up down the front, sewing in extra pieces once done to make a cross-over coat. The gores must start from the top of the hips for comfort; otherwise you end up with a garment only Morticia Addams could wear. Finally, I've found this construction much more comfortable to wear, as the gusset does not place any seams in the armpit.

Trousers and Pants

The miniature from Kitab ad-Diryaq (Figure Error: Reference source not found) is one of the few clues we have for trousers and pants. The variations notes are all in whether they are close or loose, but I would surmise that the general pattern remains similar. Using the principles of minimal wastage, I follow the pattern shown in figure 19. Basically, the knee length style appears to be underwear, and the full-length trousers are outerwear. The trick is to make sure the crotch is large enough for comfort. However, if you make the outer trousers too large, you will need closer fitting inner pants, such as those in Kitab ad-Diryaq, to prevent chafing.


Figure 19 - Trouser pattern and cutting diagram
 

Turbans

I find a light fine cotton material is best, as something that breathes has proven more comfortable. Turbans generally appear to have been a width that allows the head to be fully covered, when wound around the head. I have found a width between 45 - 50 cm works well, and similar widths are shown in Rodgers et al. To achieve a reasonable looking turban, lengths of at least 4 m are required, and longer widths can give you the bigger turban styles.

Footwear

Footwear appears to be either low slipper type shoes or knee length boots. Gervers does show knitted socks11 was being used in the 12th Century. The slippers can be approximated by the cheap Chinese slipper types, or made in leather to fairly simple patterns. The boots can also be made from fairly simple patterns.

Belts and Sashes

Sashes can be made from lengths of material roughly 2 m long. A heavier material appears to work best, but lighter materials can be used. Belts if worn are fairly narrow, no more than about 3 cm wide.

Endnotes

 

Acknowledgments

I'd like to thank Mark Calderwood for producing the artwork for the garment patterns, and turning my chicken scratchings into understandable art.

References

Allsen, Thomas T., Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A cultural history of Islamic textiles, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, ISBN 0521583012.

Baker, Patricia L., Islamic Textiles, British Museum Press, London, 1995, ISBN 0714125229.

Geijer, Agnes. “The Textile Finds from Birka”, in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson, edited by N.B. Harte and K.G. ponting, Heinnemann Educational Books; [Edington]: Passold Research Fund, London 1983, ISBN 0435323822

Gervers, Veronika, “Medieval Garments in the Mediterranean World”, in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson, edited by N.B. Harte and K.G. ponting, Heinnemann Educational Books; [Edington]: Passold Research Fund, London 1983, ISBN 0435323822

Gray, Basil, Persian Painting, Pizzoli International Publications, Geneva, 1977, ISBN 0874800806.
Lui, Hsin-ju, Silk and Religion: An exploration of material life and the thought of people, AD 600 - 1200, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996, ISBN 0195636554.

Ipsiroglu, Mazhar. S., Masterpieces from the Topkapi Museum: paintings and miniatures, Thames and Hudson, London, 1980, ISBN 0500233233.

Martiniani-Reber, Marielle, Lyon, Musée historique des tissus: soieries sassanides, coptes et byzantines: Ve – Xie siècles, Paris: Ministère de la culture et del communication, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1986,
ISBN 2711820092.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn An Archaeological Guide to Viking Men's Clothing, © 1993, viewed on 27/2/99 at http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/mensgarb.html.

Rice, David Talbot, Islamic Art, Praeger Publishers Inc., New York, 1975, ISBN 027570310X.

Rogers, J. M. and Ward, R. M., Süleyman the Magnificent, Wellfleet Press, 1988, ISBN 1555216579.

Last updated on 17 Nov 2013, 5:06:44.