16th Century Persian Women's Clothing

This is a revised version of a paper I wrote for an English Composition Class at Folsom Lake College (California) in December of 1996. Now, nearly 10 years later, it need still more revision. The longer I look at this stuff, the more I learn. What smatterings of new knowledge I have acquired are not reflected in this paper.

Clothing insulates us from extremes of temperature, it satisfies a need for adornment, it helps accentuate or disguise the human figure. What we wear determines who we are, or who people think we are. We wear clothes every day, probably the same kind of clothes from day to day, but what would it be like to make a wear clothing from another time and place? How would we go about finding information about historical clothing? What kind of research would this require? The clothing and fashions from some eras are easy to study and re-create; there may be pattern books, photographs or extant garments to help us determine what clothing looked like and how it was made and worn. Other times and places are more difficult: we may have only painting and written descriptions, no surviving pieces at all. One such difficult era is Persia in the 16th and 17th centuries. With a careful study of 16th century Persian miniature painting, along with an understanding of clothing construction from neighboring areas, it is possible to make a fairly accurate reproduction of women's clothing from Persia. (Persia refers to the areas of modern day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan (Hammond 95).)

Map showing cities where Persian Miniature paintings were produced during the period in question.

Persia was more or less united under Safavid rule during much of the 16th century (Bacharach 42, 105). The Safavids provided a measure of stability in an otherwise turbulent era and encouraged a climate in which the arts and sciences could flourish.

One of these arts was Persian miniature painting. These paintings were intended to illustrate on episode from a story or an historical event and were published in book form. Most of the surviving paintings and manuscripts were commissioned by the rulers of a particular region and produced by highly trained artists, working under royal or court patronage (Canby 23).

There are several elements to consider when looking at Persian miniature painting for costume study. The painting are small, they lack perspective as we think of it today, and some of the materials used to creating the paintings degrade with time. The paintings are small and filled with tiny detail. The smaller ones average 5 x 6 inches and are usually of one or two people, or a small landscape. The larger ones can be up to 10 x 12 inches and are used for crowd scenes, battle scenes, or large landscapes. One painting of a funeral scene is 8 x 12 inches and contains over fifty individual people. Some of the best paintings for costume study are portraits, although the paintings of crowd scenes often yield a variety of costume elements.

To modern eyes, Persian miniature painting looks flat and artificial, not very realistic: it lacks the illusion of three dimensions we have come to expect from European renaissance painting. Canby attributes this to the desire to portray things as they should have been, not as they were (7), to maintain a sense of distance, and to avoid impinging on the viewer's world. Another possible reason for this unrealistic style of painting is the Islamic prohibition against drawing people or animals.

Although most of the materials used in the paintings were of good quality and have held up well over the centuries, some of the pigments used were corrosive or have discolored with time. White and red lead eventually discolor and turn orpiment (yellow) black with time. Azurite (blue) and verdigris (green) both eat through paper. Fortunately, many of the paintings used nondestructive alternatives to these corrosive pigments (Canby 18, 19).

Aside from the effects of time and stylistic considerations, some assumptions about clothing must be made. The first assumption is that clothing was worn in multiple layers, not in false layers. In other words, a woman wearing what appears to be multiple garments, one over the other, actually did so, and was not wearing one garment with false sleeves or dickeys. A second assumption is that garments were cut with the greatest conservation of fabric possible: i.e. very few leftover pieces. Many cultures around the world wear or have worn multiple layers of clothing, either for fashion or warmth, and many folk or ethnic clothing is cut with a minimum of wasted fabric. The Ottoman Turks during the 16th century wore multiple layers, and many of the surviving Ottoman garments are cut to make the most use of the available fabric (Martin, Ottoman).

The clothing in Persian miniature paintings can be described as four basic elements: pants, shirt, a robe or coat, and some variety of head covering. Pictorial evidence shows that these elements have persisted at some level of Persian society form 500 BC until almost the present day. A description of Persian costume of 500 BC serves equally well for 1970 AD. "[A] coat that was open down the front, had a fitted waist, and long tight sleeves sewn into the armholes. At first it was knee-length, later calf length. Trousers were wide but close at the ankle" (Davenport 5). Photographs taken by the Michauds (28, 19, 50, 65) in Afghanistan during the 1970s show coats, trousers, and boots that are remarkably similar to those described by Davenport and also to those found in Persian miniature painting.

There are very few surviving garments that definitely come from 16th century Persia. Even with few available surviving textiles, some assumptions can be made about the kinds of fabric available in Safavid Persia. These assumptions are based on the textiles available in neighboring areas and the weaving technology of the time. Fabric was produced locally, in other Islamic controlled regions, and imported from Europe. Linen, silk, cotton, and wool were all produced locally (al-Hassan 182). Because cotton and silk were widely available, it is likely that they were commonly used in garments of that time. Brocaded silks and cottons were available, and, although there is little discernible surface patterning in the fabrics shown in Persian miniature painting, there is a surviving piece of brocaded textile from 16th century Persia in the Los Angeles county Museum of Art (LCAMA). Ottoman Turkish clothing of the 16th century used brocaded textiles (Scarce, Ottoman 14), and it is likely that brocades were also used in Persian clothing.

Persian miniature paintings employ both vivid and muted colors for clothing, colors that are also available from textile dyes. Shades of brown, green, blue, red, yellow, orange, and pink were used. The dyes used for textiles were derived from animal or vegetable sources. Depending on the mordents used, both brilliant and muted shades can be obtained from a single dye source (al-Hassan 175-6).

Before moving to a detailed examination of the paintings, we must touch on the subject of veils. Throughout most of Islam's history, women were veiled and 16th century Persia was no exception. Painting of indoor scenes show women with their veils turned back over their heads, and outdoor scenes show women with their faces veiled or unveiled. Scarce gives three basic styles of veiling: a large shawl or cloak, a small headscarf with or without a face veil, and a shawl combined with a long rectangular piece of fabric with a lattice for the eyes (Scarce, Veils 7-8).

The large shawl does not normally cover the face unless the woman wearing it holds it there. It is worn draped around the head and shoulders, and reaches to the knees or lower. It can be left to hang free or wrapped closely around the body. It is very similar to the large shawls worn in this century by women in Afghanistan (Michaud 20, 22, 24).

Smaller, shoulder length headscarves may be seen occasionally in paintings throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. This small headscarf was more or less popular, depending on the relative orthodoxy of the current ruler. Sometimes, an end of the scarf was pulled over the face when necessary, or, as shown in some of the paintings from Meshed, a small face veil was tied around the head over the headscarf.

A later development was a long linen or silk rectangle with a latticework in the area where the eyes would be. This rectangle was tied around the head over the large shawl (Scarce, Veils 7). This kind of veiling may have evolved into the all-enveloping tent-like garments frequently seen today in the cities of Afghanistan (Michaud 9).

The first painting to look at is from the late 15th century: "Khusrau at Shirin's palace" (Canby 72). Shirin is standing at a window at the very top of her palace. Only her torso, arms, and head are visible. She is wearing at least 4 layers of clothing. The first layer is visible as a dark blue area at the chest with a close fitting v-neckline. There is a row of white flecks down the center front; perhaps buttons. The next layer is a dusty pink colour. It is also visible only at the neckline and has a moderate v-neck. The next layer is a light green dress with a deeper v-neck and long close fitting sleeves. Most of this dress is visible. A row of dots down the center front might represent buttons. The outermost layer is a red garment draped over Shirin's shoulders in the fashion of a cloak. There is one double fold visible in the side of the red garment, and there are buttons or dots visible all along one edge. This may be another sleeved robe. She has a draped, white, shoulder-length headdress (see figure 2).

Another painting, from 1530 (Lewis plate 22), shows a woman wearing a dark blue v-necked robe with a light green lining. The robe is full length and has long, close fitting sleeves. The white under-robe also has a v-neck. She is wearing black slippers with what appear to be white socks. Her pants are a rusty red colour and are long enough to wrinkle slightly at the hems. Her outfit is completed by a white sash and a white headscarf (see figure 4).

1553 "Alexander the Great visits Queen Nushaba" (BLPS). Queen Nushaba is the central figure in this painting, although she is only about 1/2" tall in this British Library postcard reproduction. She is seated on a raised hexagonal dais, wearing a blue and red outfit. The red over-robe has loose above-elbow length sleeves, and is not closed in the front. If it does fasten shut, the closures are not visible. There appears to be a white or light colored lining in the red robe, visible near her right knee, where the robe is folded back. The light blue under-robe has wrist length close fitting sleeves and a v-neck. There are tiny dots down the front of the robe, perhaps representing buttons. Her left foot is covered in either a boot or a brown sock. There is a small patch of bright yellow near her left knee; it could be the lining of the under-robe or, more likely, part of her pants. Her headdress is blue with white flecks. Her hair is not visible (see figure 3).

1450 "Khusrau sees Shirin bathing" (PLBS). Shirin's clothes are in a pile near a tree and the only costume element clearly drawn is a boot, standing by itself near a rock. The boot is knee high, with a slanted top, higher at the front than the back. There is a separate heel and the toe in profile appears pointed (see figure 6). The boot is black, with a medium blue band at the top. Shirin is wearing either long loose pants or a full skirt. In this part of the story, she is traveling by horseback, so I shall assume she is wearing pants. Because she is sitting down, it is hard to see the hems of her pants. The pants do not appear to be gathered at the ankle.

1540 "Sultan Sanjar and the old woman" (Canby 81). The old woman is wearing a large white shawl that covers her from head to toe. Under the shawl, she is wearing a long dark blue robe. The sleeves of her robe come to her wrists and are close fitting. Her boots are brown and straight across the top. The boots have a distinct heel.

1640 "A lady watching her dog drink wine from a bowl" (Canby 105). This very interesting portrait reveals a little information about a woman's undergarments. The woman is reclining on a pile of cushions. Both arms are draped over her head. The skirts of her robes are rolled up to reveal her drawers and/or leggings. She has a pair of drawstrings drawers in a rather busy flower pattern (may be printed fabric). They either end just above the knee or are covered by close fitting horizontally striped leggings. Her robe is a medium blue with a moderate v-neck. Under the blue robe, she wears a green robe with a higher, round neckline. The green robe has a center front opening trimmed in a dark color. Both robes have long sleeves that wrinkle up at the wrist. Green is visible under the blue at the wrist. The blue robe has little bows down the center front (see figure 5).

The last painting to examine is from 1650: "Prince being entertained in the countryside" (Canby 105). All the women's robes have long close-fitting sleeves. The cuffs of the sleeves have many wrinkles, suggesting that they could extend over the hand. All three women have sashes tied around their hips. The visible necklines are v-necked robes over round-necked garments. One robe has four bows down the center front.

One thing is clear from these paintings: clothing did not change very much for 200 years. Clothing was still a mixture of colors, still worn in layers, the robes remained full length, and at least one of the garments worn had long tight sleeves. The necklines of the various layers were all visible at one time, and most necklines were vees, sometimes changing to round. Buttons were replaced by bows, but the clothing was still basically robes and pants, still the same basic shape.

After studying these paintings, and before we begin to design garments, we must remember that our conclusions about the construction of the garments will be based on what we have observed from the paintings, from a brief examination of surviving Ottoman Turkish clothing, and from the practical experience of making some representative garments.

How can we go about re-creating Persian woman's clothing? What patterns do we use? How can we be reasonably sure that the patterns will work? Making a pattern requires a leap of faith: it can be quite intimidating to turn a simple piece of fabric into a garment that is recognizably part of a historically representative Persian costume. One of the ways we can develop a pattern is to briefly examine Ottoman Turkish clothing.

The Ottoman Turks controlled the area around the Black and Azov Seas, and the region between Budapest and the Black Sea for most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Earlier, by 1481, they had expanded almost to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Bacharach 106). Because they were such close neighbors of the Persians, and because of extensive trade between to two areas, Ottoman clothing may be considered a good source for clues about Persian clothing.

Many examples of Ottoman woman's clothing are available for examination. Scarce has written a very good article about Ottoman clothing in general, and Martin has provided documentation for an entire female Ottoman outfit. Ottoman clothing is similar in appearance to Persian clothing. A late 16th century water-color, titled "The Harem in the Topkapi Palace", shows Ottoman women's clothing that bears a striking resemblance to Persian woman's clothing (Croutier 43). The woman are wearing long robes, fitted through the body, with medium to long sleeves. The sleeves of the Ottoman robes seem to be looser than Persian sleeves, however, that difference aside, a pattern derived from an Ottoman garment might be a good beginning for a Persian robe.

Robes are the most visible garment, and therefore, the easiest to re-create. Scarce included a photograph of a robe in her article on Ottoman clothing (24). It is made of rectangles, squares, and triangles, and is highly conservative of fabric. Because this garment is made of striped fabric, it is quite clear how the various pieces were cut from the cloth and assembled. It is possible to cut this garment from less than four yards of fabric (if you are on the small side), making it a very economical garment (see figures 10 (layout) and 11 (assembly)).

Pants were worn by both sexes in the Islamic controlled regions of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are several hadith (traditions of the Prophet) which recommend pants that are at least knee length (Freidman). Even though there are no available representations or accounts of women wearing short pants under long ones, it makes sense from a practical and hygienic point of view. It would be easier and more practical to have several changes of plain, inexpensive pants, than to constantly wash a highly decorated, expensive garment. Martin gives a very clear description of how to construct simple pants based on two rectangles and a small square (Harem). This pattern can be used for both pants and underpants (see figure 13).

Although there is no pictorial evidence of a shirt in Persian miniature painting, the same argument for under pants can be applied to an undershirt. It would be easier to wash a shirt than an entire robe, and a robe, even an inner one, may be made of some uncomfortable fabric.

Martin gives information on a shirt pattern for Ottoman clothing (Documentation). This pattern is very simple and conservative of fabric. Many ethnic garments are cut with a minimum of wasted fabric; this is a carryover from a time when fabric was not easily available. In an era when fabric began as handspun fibers, economic use of cloth was very important.

A very reasonable shirt pattern similar to an Ottoman shirt documented by Scarce (Ottoman) can be constructed from squares and rectangles (see figure 12).

Veils are perhaps the easiest costume element to devise; they are little more than squares, rectangles, or possibly circles of fabric. Silk works best because it has a drape similar to that of veils shown in Persian miniature paintings. Perhaps the best way to devise a veil pattern is to drape various squares of fabric of differing weights and sizes. Compare these attempts to the desired results and modify as necessary.

What kind of fabrics should we consider for re-creating Persian costume? Croutier provides a description of the garments and the fabrics that were used in an Ottoman outfit. These garments for indoor wear were described by Lady Montague in 1717.

"The first piece of my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes...They are of a rose Colored damask, brocaded with silver flowers. My shoes are of a white kid leather, embroidered with gold. Over this hangs my smock, of fine white silk gauze...a waistcoat, made close to the shape, of white and gold fringe, and should have diamond or pearl buttons....a robe exactly fitted to my shape, and reaching to my feet, with very long straight falling sleeves...a loose robe that they throw off or put on according to the weather, being of a rich brocade (mine is green and gold)" (73,74).

All the fabrics listed by Lady Montague are available today, in one form or another. Upholstery brocades, many varieties of silk, linen in a wide range of colors, cottons and many African-inspired fabrics with metallic threads are all potential candidates for Persian costume.

Now we have at our disposal several patterns for garments; a coat, a shirt, and pants. With these patterns, and a short series of drawings showing how the garments would be worn, we are ready to recreate 16th century Persian clothes. The robe pattern is based on those seen in Persian miniatures and on a surviving Ottoman robe. The robe pattern is also very similar to a coat seen in an Ann Arbor, Michigan gallery in the winter of 1992. I had the opportunity to study the coat and help the gallery date it. The coat in the gallery was from Afghanistan and was between 75 and 100 years old. The Afghan coat was made up of squares, rectangles, and triangles.

The shirt and underpants patterns are also based on information about Ottoman clothing and on practical considerations of modern convenience; they are not necessarily documentable, although it makes sense that such garments would have been worn.

All of these patterns were developed after a close study of Persian miniature paintings, from a combination of modern ethnic Afghan and 16th and 17th century Ottoman Turkish patterns, and after several trial runs. They represent the most successful patterns for emulating 16th century Persian costume and re-creating the colorful, multi-layer clothing found in Safavid miniature paintings.

An example of recreated clothing

Works cited

Bacharach, Jere L. A Middle East Studies Handbook. University of Washington Press, 1986.

British Library Postcard Series. Banbury: British Library Board.

"Alexander visits Queen Nushaba in the guise of an envoy, but she recognises him from his portrait". 1981.

"Khusrau sees Shirin Bathing". 1976.

Canby, Sheila R. Persian Painting. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Croutier, Alev Lytle. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. New York. Abbeville, 1989.

Davenport, Milla. The Book of Costume. New York. Crown, 1948.

Freidman, David and Elizabeth Cook. "Notes on Islamic Clothing." Cariadoc's Miscellany. URL: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cariadoc/islamic_clothing.html (26 June 1999).

Hammond World Atlas. Map. USA: Hammond, 1993

al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Donald R. Hill. Islamic Technology: an illustrated history. Over Wallop: UNESCO, 1986.

Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Martin, Merri. "Documentation for a reproduced Ottoman costume." URL: http://octopus.hmsc.orst.edu:80/~martinm/ottoman.doc (4 Dec. 1996).

---. "Harem pants." med-dance@world.std.com (11 June 1996).

---. "Ottoman women's clothing." URL: http://octopus.hmsc.orst.edu:80/~martinm/ottoman.art (4 Dec. 1996).

Michaud, Roland and Sabrina. Afghanistan: Paradise Lost. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

LACMA. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Costumes and Textiles. "Fragment of a dress or furnishing fabric." URL: (6 Dec. 1996).

Scarce, Jennifer M. "The Development of Women's Veils in Persia and Afghanistan." Costume 9 (1975).

---. "Principles of Ottoman Turkish Costume." Costume 22 (1988).

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Last revised November 8th., 2007. Comments to: E. A. Young