Muslim and Middle Eastern Clothing, Jewelry, Make-up  

Introduction: What Influences What We Wear?

Clothing worn by all people is influenced by the climate, available materials, and cultural traditions which include social status, group identity, and religion.

Climate: People living in a desert environment often covered up in loose clothing to protect themselves from the sun and to keep cool. White clothing was cooler than dark clothing in the sunlight. And head coverings were important for protection against the sun, too.

Fabrics: Five main fabrics were available for clothing. Cotton was a cool fabric. In winter or in cold environments, clothing was commonly made of wool. Camel hair was also woven into clothing for cold weather. Some clothing was made from plant fibers called linen. Silk was imported from China or Persia and was very expensive, so only the rich could afford it.

Traditions, status, and group identity: Cultural traditions were also important in style of clothing. There were many differences in clothing throughout the medieval Islamic World. In each culture, clothing showed the social status of its people. Married and unmarried women might wear different clothing or head coverings. Young girls would not be required to wear the clothing of older girls nearing the age of marriage and married women may wear another style of clothing. Rich and poor, educated and uneducated, military or civilian might wear different styles of clothing which showed who they were and their occupation or status. Clothing worn out in public would be very different from clothing worn in the home, especially for women. (Long before Islam, Arab women were usually kept away from mixed society. But in Turkey, women had much social freedom.) A Muslim student, a scholar or judge would wear appropriate clothing showing his religious status. An older man would have a beard while a younger man might not. And a slave would wear very different clothing than a master. Moreover, clothing was also part of a tribal or group identity. People from one tribe, village, or culture traditionally wore one type of clothing to show their group membership. Finally, clothing would differ as to the situation one was in. Clothing while doing hard farm work, for example, would be different from clothing when going to a mosque.

Influence of Islam: But there were also similarities that were dictated by the Qur'an. The Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad had much influence on the clothing of all medieval Muslims. As Islam spread across its vast empire, traditional clothing styles were affected by the requirements of Islam.

Part II: Women's Clothing during the Middle Ages - A glimpse through time from paintings and written records

Look at the following paintings. By looking at these images, what can you generalize about Muslim women's clothing from Andalusia (Spain) to Persia (Iran)? Are there similarities and differences? Are any of these styles similar to modern clothing?

A veiled Berber woman in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) playing chess with another woman. Image from The Book of Chess, Dice, and Board Games by Alfonso X El Sabio, dated 1283.

A woman in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) playing chess with another woman, both with henna on their hands. Image from The Book of Chess, Dice, and Board Games by Alfonso X El Sabio, dated 1283

A woman in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) playing chess with another woman, with henna on her hands, wearing robes over tight pants. Image from The Book of Chess, Dice, and Board Games by Alfonso X El Sabio, dated 1283

Persian women (shown in preparation for a funeral at a home) painted by Shaykh Zadeh from a Khamsa of Nizami, 1494 in Herat.

A Persian woman with pants covered with a robe and head and face covering. From "
Rustam saves Bizhan from the well" in Shah-nama (Firdawsi's 'Book of Kings') by Ali b. Husayni Bahmani, Shiraz, 1330.

Turkish women were veiled and separated from the men in this mosque scene.
Topkapi collectionShaykh Baha'al-Din Veled preaching in Balkh Jami' al-Siyar, 1600. Hazine.

The clothing of the automated concubine is an important example of female apparel (clothing)in the 13th century. Her loose and long sleeved dress falls just below her knees and seems to be belted. It has tiraz bands on its arms, while similar bands go round the edges of her skirt and the short slit in the front of the dress. She has a pair of white lined red ankle length trousers and black house shoes with scalloped edges. [Automated Drink Server, Miniature from al-Jazari's "Kitab fi Marifet el-Hiyal el Handasiya (Knowledge of Mechanical Devices). Seljuk, Diyarbakir, 13th century.
(Topkapi collection)]

Not veiled? Shocking!

Ibn Battuta was a traveler in the 14th century. He tells us about women's clothing in many of the places he visited: In Turkey he tells us that the women did not veil themselves.

About Turkey, he writes: "A remarkable thing which I saw in this country was the respect shown to women by the Turks, for they hold a more dignified position than the men. ... I saw also the wives of the merchants and common [men]. [Their faces are] visible for the Turkish women do not veil themselves. Sometimes a woman will be accompanied by her husband and anyone seeing him would take him for one of her servants." [Gibb, p. 415 - 416]

In Mali, West Africa, Ibn Battuta observed ...

"Their women are of surpassing beauty, and are shown more respect than the men. These people are Muslims, punctilious (very exact, never late)in observing the hours of prayer, studying the books of law, and memorizing the Qur'an. Yet their women show no bashfulness before men and do not veil themselves, though they are assiduous(worked hard) in attending prayers. Any man who wishes to marry one of them may do so, but they do not travel with their husbands, and, even if one desired to do so, her family would not allow her to go. The women have their 'friends' and 'companions' among the men outside their own families." He also criticized the women of Mali for going topless: "Female slaves and servants who went stark naked into the court for all to see..." [Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, p. 300.]

Other men were shocked at women's clothing, too:

"About 1118 AD [the founder of the Almohad dynasty in Morocco], returned from the East... He seems to have dedicated himself chiefly to studying ... theology ... and was convinced that [North African] life was not what it should be. The moral laxity of Marrakesh [the capital city of the veiled Almoravids] scandalized (shocked)him so much when he was there that the sight of the Emir's (the prince's) sister riding unveiled on horseback through town, accompanied by her women, caused him to throw her down..." (Arabs in Europe, p. 31, quoted in
Sadar & Davies: Distorted Imagination). 

 See the image below: This picture shows a Mongol Princess on a promenade (a horseback ride) from a Persian miniature about mid-14th century. Note that the Persian women in the background are veiled. Mongol women had their heads covered, but their faces were not veiled. (This was after the Mongol Invasion and conquest of Persia, 1258.)