Womens clothing in the Near East in the early Islamic era has been rather poorly treated to date, a great liability for practical medievalists. Happily this is not due to an absence of sources, and some serious attention to them has paid spectacular dividends, yielding something most unusual in dress of the medieval era, a complete and adaptable wardrobe.
The costume described here relies most heavily on two manuscript sources; a frontispiece to Galens De Materia Medica from the Mesopotamian school attributed to c. 595 AH (1199 CE) and pictures from the extensively illustrated novel Warqa wa Gulsha of c. 622 AH (1225 ce). These corroborate each other in some details, complement one another on other details and find further corroboration in a diverse range of other sources.
The terminology given is primarily from Gerard Clausens Etymological Dictionary of pre-thirteenth century Turkish Oxford 1973.
This wardrobe must be regarded as being quite socially specific. It is that of an aristocratic woman of those Seljuk tribes who in the preceding century had established themselves as a settled ruling elite in the heartland of Persia and most of Anatolia. They rapidly shook off the primitive ways of that lifestyle, embracing the comforts, and to some degree the customs, of older settled cultures, indeed by the time the time they appear in pictorial sources around the end of the 6th century after the Hejra (late C12th CE) there is little that cane be discerned in their dress which can be recognised as being native to them. Seljuk womens clothing shows this assimilation even more than that of men, for it is almost certain that the Seljuks had been much like the various other ethnic groups who remained nomadic with relatively minor gender differences in dress.
The major elements of the wardrobe are a coat for general wear, a lounge coat, a dress, shirt and choice of trousers. The accessories which can be mixed with these are a sash, belt, purse, head scarf with turban or head-band, slippers, shoes or boots. These are illustrated in the accompanying diagrams. The pieces will be described in more detail and then we will discuss how they may be worn.
The precise form of the head scarf, yashmak, is hard to determine from its depictions, but it appears to be just be a plain square or rectangle of fabric draped over the head with one side drawn across the face and the whole secured with a strip of cloth or ribbon tied around the head, or with a turban (chalma) tied over it. The modern practice of a large square folded diagonally would probably work, although a primary source shows extensive draping around the shoulders which this method would not produce.
Details of the distinctively Seljuk cross-over coat, called yalma, can be found at Turkish male costume. The coat which seems to have become more prevalent in womens dress as time wore on, the kaftan, is a style common throughout the region since late antiquity. It opens down the front, over lapping right to left, with the inside of the opening edged with a contrasting material, and better quality ones were always lined. (Low class woollen coats were called chekrek.) Winter coats were also padded or lined with fur for warmth. It is almost identical with the male kaftan which is extensively illustrated, but the noteworthy point of difference is that the womens style has sleeves which flare out from the elbow. This may well be a fashion adopted from the Armenians. Surviving examples of these coats, have button loops set on the facing band, usually on the outside.
The name recorded for this garment is Arabic and a Turkish term has not yet been established, which perhaps indicates its origin. The robe is very similar to the familiar Chinese style with a wide, straight opening down the front devoid of any fastening. The robe would also often be lined, and has tiraz bands on the sleeves. It can be made with a contrasting edging around the neck and down the front opening.
The dress has full length, close fitting sleeves, and falls to mid-calf. It has a deep V neckline down to just below the nipple line. A narrow band of plain edging may line the V. The dress could also have been lined.
The under-garment could either be a shirt, changshu, short enough to be tucked into the trousers, or a chemise, terinchek, of a length similar to the dress. It is of a cloth rendered as transparent in both the manuscripts. The textile producing region of northern Egypt was particularly noted throughout the early Islamic era for its fine and sheer linen fabrics, some examples of which survive, while Mesopotamia predominantly produced cotton, silk and mulham, a cotton/silk blend. A garment of such fabric were called a derlik. The Fatamid Caliphs of Egypt restricted the textile trade from the mid-fourth to the sixth century AH (tenth to twelfth centuries CE), but it is not clear whether they stopped the export of linen and wool from Egypt as much as they stopped the import of cotton and silk from Persia and Syria. Yet it is likely that the trade resumed quite quickly after Salah adDin destroyed the Fatamid Caliphate in 566 AH.
The trousers, ichton, are moderately loose and come in three styles. Two are for general wear, the Persian style fitted with drawstrings at the ankle, and another type simply left to hang loose brushing the tops of the feet. The third is purely for indoor leisure wear, and fall some 20 cm beyond the foot and hang loose with a slit on the front of the leg up to mid-shin. All are depicted as being quite a light weight of material.
The sash is a long narrow strip having contrasting bands and fringes on each end. Dress belts (as distinct from those used for heavy wear like bearing arms and armour) were very often made of cloth rather than leather. Both types of belt had a large and ornate buckle plate and were decorated with metal ornaments ranging from a simple mass produced bronze casting to repousée plaques in precious metals
A distinctive and useful item of this costume is the purse or kabchuk. It is flat, probably about 3cm thick, and almost round, with the covering flap being an unequal pentagon, of which each point bears a tassel. It hangs from a long strap.
All the items of this wardrobe could not be worn at once, of course. Its beauty lies in part in its adaptability to varying social and environmental situations. The accompanying illustrations give just some of the permutations which are possible. Further explanation is needed.
The head scarf would mainly have been worn while travelling and for general public contact in those communities which were stricter in their interpretation of Quranic mores. This picture represents a salutary anecdote from a medieval writer who told of a woman who was so committed to conventional morality that even when rushing forth to defend her home from brigands she ensured she was properly dressed and veiled. Yet it was as much a cosmetic protection than a moral obligation, since any woman who could do so sought to maintain as clear and pale a complexion as possible by protecting it from sun and weather, because that was the ideal of beauty and social status.
Outdoor travel was also the situation for boots. Gulsha is a robust heroine who at one point in the tale rides out to rescue her lover, Warqa, at that time she is depicted as wearing warriors garb including hose and high riding boots. This may be atypical, but on the other hand it is quite likely that when a woman had to travel in harsh conditions she would have worn such normally masculine accoutrements for its greater practicality. See Turkish Male Costume for further details of this practice.
Short boots just above the ankle can be found in other sources, and would be more normal for travelling in less trying circumstances.
Indoors was exclusively where the robe was found in view. Its use seems to quite closely parallel the dressing gown or lounge coat. It is quite probable that the robe could even have been worn under the coat when visiting friends, giving the wearer the option of dispensing with the coat if the informality of the occasion made that appropriate. In this situation the dress could also be dispensed with. The Galen frontispiece shows the main figure thus, the robe over just the shirt, with the long open bottom trousers.
Similarly it seems that the dress could be worn without the shirt, perhaps as a concession to summer heat. Such casual dress was only worn in the company of other women, or husband, or just perhaps, closest male relatives.
The purse hung on the hip, the strap diagonally across the body from the opposite shoulder. The Galen frontispiece actually shows the figures wearing two purses, one on each side.
Indoors low slippers, bashmak, or else, very commonly for both sexes, bare feet, would usually have replaced boots.
Here, we have something like a full and adaptable wardrobe, in contrast to the western medieval paradigm of one or two garments varying in little more than colour and trimming. It is another indication of the cultural sophistication and superiority of the Near East in the middle ages.