- Extant Textiles
Sasanian Period (224 – 632 C.E.)
There are varying theories on both men’s and women’s clothing of this period. Due to the fact that the heart of Persia was in modern day Iran and Iraq, there has not been a great deal of archaeological activity in this area. The majority of digs focus on stone carvings, temples, and other more durable goods. Though much of the scholarly research focuses on these carving for information on clothing, I have been able to find a few pictures of extant garments. Consequently, this document will discuss paintings and stone carvings from this period, translations of period descriptions, scholarly dissertations, and extant garments.
Many religions were present in Sasanian Iran, including Buddhism, thus robes were definitely a common form of attire (Frye, 1975). Buddhist oases were found in most parts of Iran, these oases were often remote and provided a haven for those traveling through the region (Frye, 1975). The official religion of Sasanian Iran was Zoroastrianism. Fire was an important part of Zoroastrian worship, as was burning one’s clothes, thus extant garments are relatively rare. Though this tradition prevented wide spread diseases, it leaves modern researchers to their own devices. In the early twenties many Sasanian robes were uncovered, however the archeologists discarded most of these robes and kept only a select few for study.
Archeologists studying paintings and rock carvings have suggested that the Sasanians showed fealty by sealing the ends of their sleeves (Curtis, 1998). Many rock carvings show women wearing dresses with long sleeves, these depictions do not show the ladies hands, thus archeologists believe that the sleeves were sewn up (Curtis, 1998). It is thought that the sewing up of ones sleeves probably served as a symbol of the person’s inability to harm the noble that held their fealty oath. My own experience has been that one cannot effectively grip many things, though one can cup round objects such as bowls or the bottom of a mug. In order to assist in daily function, the Sasanians put slits at the middle or top of the sleeve. This allows the wearer’s arms to be freed from the sleeve. As discovered in some extant garments, this slit is achieved by not sewing the sleeve all the way up.
General Clothing Information
Though stone carvings suggest that tunics were a popular mode of dress, scholars, such as Mary Houston (1954), have found mention in period writings to robes of honor. These robes would be given by a king to someone he highly respected or owed a debt of gratitude (Houston, 1954). Nobles also gave these robes as a sign of fealty between noble and student (Houston, 1954). These robes are described as being highly decorated and were only worn by nobles whom the king or high-ranking officials had bestowed the privilege upon (Houston, 1954). Thus the highly decorated robes of honor, given by the King served a similar purpose to our peerage cloaks, but were not exclusively reserved for those of a peerage level. Houston (1954) also points out that robes were probably a common form of dress among the nobility and upper classes. The Persians also apparently had a taste for long flowing ribbons that they attached to headdresses, belts, shoes and any other feasible location (Houston, 1954). Persia was a main thoroughfare for the Silk Road, therefore silk was a commonly used material; other materials also included Egyptian cotton, wool, and gauze. Any goods traded along the Silk Road would have been accessible to the Persian nobility.
This carving is of Ardashir II, and was done during the Sasanian period. Each Persian King had a distinct Kulah that he designed; this allowed his subjects to easily identify his image on coins and other art. The Kulah is the traditional Persian hat and was worn by many Persians, but only high-ranking nobles had highly decorated Kulahs (Houston, 1954).
This depiction also shows a shoulder girdle that was popular among the nobility. This girdle wrapped around the shoulders several times and then tied in the back (Houston, 1954). It is also clear that he is wearing a sash that is wrapped around his waist twice and tied in a decorative manner, as well as loose fitting pants and shoes that are tied with long flowing ribbons (Houston, 1954). It is likely that if this was indeed the fashion for men, it may have also been a popular female fashion. Some Sasanian literature indicates that women and men wore similar clothing (Curtis, 1998; Houston, 1954).
As Sasanian society was highly structured, there were many sumptuary laws, and each class had it’s own dress code. For example, only scholars were allowed to were extremely loose sleeves, this was due to the fact that for one whom lives a scholarly life, very loose sleeves would not be detrimental (Curtis, 1998). Whereas scribes were restricted to tight fitting sleeves because loose sleeves would get in the way of their work (Curtis, 1998). Color was also an important way of distinguishing between the classes. Red and purple were reserved for the military and those who worked in the military, and blue and green were reserved for artisans (Tafazzouli, 2000).
The picture right is a picture of a extant kirtle and leggings found in Egypt (Tilke, 1990). This kirtle is constructed in the same manner as an European pieced tunic. Though originally cited as Coptic, archeologists later placed them in the Sasanian Empire. The leggings (shown above) would have been attached to a woven belt via woven bands and a heart shaped leather toggle. The trim on the bottom is silk. The legging themselves are wool. The kirtle is also made from wool and is trimmed with a woven band. The kirtle is constructed (shown above) as a tunic with inset sleeves, and gores.
As you can see the leggings are simply constructed by cutting out the leg and rounding the top. You then sew up the calf and stop the seam about mid thigh. You can then either leave the back of the thigh open or add a gore. The trim is made from silk, this was probably a remnant from another garment, which is used to spice up the wool leggings.
I have found that the geometric construction of garments proivdes for nice draping and an excellent fit overall. Although at first this method of construction may seem daunting for a beginning sewer, I find that this style of construction goes faster and is far easier as all the seams are straight! I would however note that I cut my sleeves as all one piece and use a square gore rather than the 3 piece sleeves shown in this garment.
This is a picture of an extant riding coat. Many of these coats were found in Egypt (Tilke, 1990). This coat is one of the few that survives today. This coat and it’s red military counter part are almost exactly the same. This coat is constructed using no side seams (illustratioin by author based on Fluck & Vogelsand-Eastwood, 2004). As you can see below the front is cut with a rounded edge. This round seam and the selvedge are sewn in the back to the narrow back flap. When the front section is folded to the back is becomes shorter than the back section, this coat has extra fabric added to the bottom. I usually the fabric slightly longer than necessary and then trim the front and back to be even. The sleeve opening is actually cut down the side and the sleeve is not wholly sewn up. As you can clearly see (above) the sleeves are not inset, they are merely extended using extra fabric. Also note that the sleeve narrows slightly then it bells out just a bit before the cuff. This coat is made of silk, though wool; linen and cotton were likely also used in construction of these coats. This coat has a small flap, which is probably not full length, because this coat was intended for riding. It is possible that coats there were worn for court or other special occasions had full length fold over flaps. Also note that the flap obviously folds over to the left side.
There are many questions that cannot clearly be answered at this time. These questions include details pertaining to how the coats were worn and fashion of the day. My philosophy on these matters is that everyone should do what you think you would have done if you lived in this time period. Therefore, I believe that you should tailor your clothes the way you like them to fit.
The pciture shown left was taken at teh Freer-Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. This is a close up of a women depicted on a silver plate. This depiction is a good representation of what scholars blieve was the typical mode of dress for Sasanian noblewomen. It appears that she wears a hat, the ball at the top maybe additional ornamentation or her hair, scholars disagree on this issue. Her crown or diadem is either tied with a wide piece of material or rests on top of a cloth circlet with flowing ties. These ties are seen in many depictions of women of varying ranks. She is wearing layers of dresses and has a robe, similar to the riding coat above held together at the neck. You can see the sleeves of the robe are not worn on the arms in this depction. The notable difference between her robe and the riding coat is the additional rectangular flap utilized on the riding coats. I base my robes on the extant coat pattern, but leave the flap off and leave the front seams straight as depcited here.
Several stonecarvings are cited by Houston (1954) which depictsseveral Persian women and show the similarities between the depiction of men and women’s clothing. There are several points of interest in these carvings. First, you can see several headdress styles, from square veils to a simple head tie. All the women are wearing layers of dresses and skirts or robes (Houston, Fig. 179). Houston, Fig. 181 appears to be wearing a wrapped skirt over her tunic. You can also see the flowing style of tunics, robes and sashes (Houston, 1954). Houston’s theory is that Sasanian women wore two dresses with a skirt wrapped over top. For further illustrations you can also refer to Goldman’s article in Iranica Antiqua, though I disagree with some of his assumptions (1997).
I recently discovered an online archive of the Encyclopedia Iranica, which provided a helpful article on Sasanian clothing. This article supports the theory that Sasanian women wore both dresses and robes. This article also supports Houston’s theory that Sasanian women also wore skirts, which appear to be wrapped like sari’s over their dresses (Encyclopedia Iranica, 2003, also see Accessory 3 below). The Encyclopedia Iranica (2003, p 739-740) article describes this fashion as a chiffon with a “veil draped around the lower body and passing over the left shoulder.” Noble women, court musicians, and dancers wore this fashion (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003). Please note that the article indicates the dress worn under the skirt is a full-length dress, see above how the skirt of the dress is clearly visible under the wrap skirt.
The Encyclopedia Iranica “Clothing” (2003) article states that royal women’s fashion centered around dresses, though some queens were depicted wearing the same style robe as the men wear. The difference being that these royal women are often depicted wearing the robe open rather than closed (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003). I would strongly caution the reader against assuming that women never wore their robes closed. I would assume that this was merely an artistically pleasing depiction, not necessarily a point of fashion. The article also notes that the robes were fitted with round closures that were often tied at the breast (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003).
This is a section will discuss accessories worn by both women and men, because these are nearly gender neutral. The distinction between what men and women wore will be noted when appropriate, otherwise you may assume that the accessory was worn by either gender.
Starting at the top of the body is the headdress. I know many of you will be excited to know that I have finally documented women wearing turbans! The Encyclopedia Iranica “Clothing” (2003) article states that lower ranking women wore soft turbans! While higher-ranked women are exclusively depicted wearing veils (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003).
Sasanian royal women often wore a collar that was decorated with large round stones (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003). Other parts of their clothing, such as cuffs and hemlines were also often decorated with stones and embroidery (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003). Noble women often also wore beaded necklaces (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003). Finally, lower class women wore heavy collars with two or three pendants (Encyclopedia Iranica, Clothing; 2003).
Belts were almost exclusively worn by men, because they are a sign of a bond between the wearer and the person who bestowed the wearer with the belt (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003). The term used is karma band meaning literally “waist bond” (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003). However women were sometime depicted wearing belts, though girdles (which are worn higher on the torso) are more common for women (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003). These girdles are describes as a ribbon high on the torso, with two loops that are pulled through a circular clasp (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003). Kings and Queens are often depicted wearing a ribbon tied in a bow around their waist (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003). Finally, some nobles are depicted wearing a ribbon belt that is held on by a double clasp (Encyclopedia Iranica, Belts; 2003).
Extant Accessories and depictions
Man wearing a cowl (Freer-Sackler Gallery)
1 version of a woman's diadem, note the apparent jewels. (Freer-Sackler Gallery)
Note the cloth diadem and the wrap skirt (Freer-Sackler Gallery)
Encyclopedia Iranica. (2003) Belts. Retrieved from http://iranica.com/ on December 20, 2003. pp 130-136.
Encyclopedia Iranica. (2003) Clothing. Retrieved from http://iranica.com/ on December 20, 2003. pp 739-752.
Fluck, C. Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. (2004). Riding Costume in Egypt: Origin and Appearance. Studies in Textile and Costume History. Vol. 3. Brill. Leiden Boston.
Flury-Lemberg, M. (1988). Textile Conservation and Research. Pp. 423-429/501. Abegg-Stifting Ber. Berline.
Geijer, A. (1968) An Iranian Riding Coat Reconstructed.pp 22-25 Bulletin de Liaison du Centre International d’Aetude des Textiles Anciens. Lyon.
Grevers, V. (1983). Medieval Garments in the Mediterranean World. Pp. 279-316. Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd. London, 1983.
Goldman, B. (1997) Sasanian Women’s Clothing. In Iranica Antiqua. Gent Ed. Vol. 32.
Houston, Mary G. Ancient Persian Costume. A Technical History of Costume: Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian Costume. Vol. 2. Adam & Charles Black. London. 1920. (Out of print, but I got my copy through Amazon.com)
Hume, E.M. (2005) Pictures taken at the Freer-Sackler Gallery. Washington, D.C.
Tafazzouli, A. (2000). Sasanian Society. Center for Middle Eastern Studies: Harvard University. Bibliotheca Persica. New York. (Available through Amazon.com)
Tilke, M.(1990) Costume Patterns and Designs. Rizzoli. New York. 2nd Ed. (Pictures available from first edition, which has many date and origin errors at http://www.indiana.edu/~librcsd/etext/tilke/p1.html).
Notes from correspondence between Linda Blowney and E. Houpeaux.