History of Islamic Dress in Middle East

History of Islamic Dress in Middle East :: Dress in the Islamic world has historically conveyed the wearer’s rank and status, profession, and religious affiliation. Official recognition of loyal service was expressed in gifts of dress fabrics and clothing (in Arabic, khilca; Turkish, hilat; Persian, khalat) until the late nineteenth century. Wearing clothing of one’s social grouping signified contentment, whereas to be seen publicly in dress worn by a higher class proclaimed dissatisfaction with the prevailing order. Likewise the refusal to don the color or headwear associated with the controlling authority, whether imperial or fraternal, formally demonstrated the withdrawal of allegiance.

The ruling household was presumed to be both arbiter and custodian of “good taste,” and any deviant behavior could be used to legitimize rebellion to restore “order.” The theologian/jurist constantly reminded the authorities to uphold dress standards to guard against serious social repercussions; thus the 1967 Israeli occupation of Egyptian Sinai was understood by some to be a consequence of Egyptian young women adopting Western fashions. The numerous legal edicts regarding dress (such as the prohibition of cross-dressing, ostentatious female attire, and non-Muslim clothing) were difficult to police, but market regulations (hisba), concerning weaving, tailoring, and dyeing practices, were easier to enforce.

Muslim girl wearing hijab

The Qur’an contains few details concerning “proper” dress; most guidance is contained in the Hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) literature, an important component of Islamic law. However, it is concerned primarily with certain Muslim rituals, such as the hajj, or burial, rather than with everyday wear. Each major grouping and sect of Islam relies on its own Hadith compilation for legal guidance, and over time and in response to regional requirements historic judgements were clarified or superseded. So there is no universal ruling regarding the nature and character of “proper” dress, including female veiling. Maliki law, for example, permitted one finger’s width of pure silk for (male) garment trimming, while pure silk outer garments were acceptable in Hanafi circles. All theologians, whether Sunnī or Shīcī, preferred the devout Muslim male to dress austerely in cotton, linen, or wool, and Muslim mystics were known as sufīs “wearers of wool.” However, it was generally agreed that the prosperity and power of the Islamic state was best demonstrated through ostentatious dress and ceremonial; Muslim philosophers, such as Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), acknowledged that cultured societies were recognized by their tailored garments, and not by simple Bedouin wraps.

History of Islamic Dress in Middle East

Personal wealth was expressed by ownership of textiles and dress as recorded in the eleventh and twelfth century Cairo Geniza trousseau lists. Certain Muslim festivals were celebrated with gifts of new clothing, while other periods (e.g., the month of Muharram in Shīcī communities) were associated with mourning dress, the color of which depended on regional conventions. Cutting and tailoring of court clothing were undertaken on auspicious days determined by the royal astronomer. In the general belief that spells were more effective when secreted in clothing, the protective formula bismillah (“in the name of God…”) would be uttered when dressing to deflect any evil. As further protection, many wore items decorated with talismanic designs incorporating Qur’anic verses and associated symbols. Clothing of saintly persons, especially those of the prophet Muhammad, was understood to be imbued with baraka (divine blessing), and so the master’s cloak (khirqa, burda) was publicly draped over the initiate’s shoulders in Sufi and guild rituals.

Hijab in Islam

Textile processing and production formed the mainstay of the Islamic Middle Eastern economy until the nineteenth century, so, unsurprisingly, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature contain numerous references to fabrics and clothing. However, meanings are imprecise and, until recently, many scholars assumed that repetition of a specific garment term over centuries and across regions signified that its meaning and appearance remained unchanged and universal; this assumption has not fostered academic interest in the subject.

Most pictorial evidence is found in post-twelfth-century manuscripts, metalwork, and other artwork, but it rarely relates to family or working life. The advent of photography in the nineteenth century resulted in valuable insights into village and rural dress, but records contain few details of the wearers’ ages and social placing, and of garment and fabric structure. Textile finds have rarely been recorded in archaeological reports of excavations, and few museum pieces have been published with full seaming and decorative details.

The basic garment structure was very simple: the loom width formed the main front and back panels, with additional fabric inserts to create extra width and shaping where required, even on many Ottoman and Iranian court robes. Drawstring waists created gathers and unsewn pleats. It was not until the nineteenth century and the introduction of European fashions that shaped armholes, padded and sloping shoulders, darts, and so forth were used in garment structure.

History of Islamic Dress in Middle East

Umayyad and Abbasid Dress

After Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., Islam spread across North Africa and into Spain, through Syria to southeastern Anatolia and Central Asia, reaching the boundaries of Imperial China and India by around 750. Chroniclers wrote extensively about such conquests, but little on dress matters. Some information is contained in Hadith compilations and in later criticisms of earlier regimes-for example ninth-century disapproval of the trailing robes of perfumed yellow silk worn by the Umayyad caliph Walid II (r. 743-744) as demonstrating a dissolute lifestyle, and the excessively large wardrobe of Hisham (r. 724-743).

Turban and traditional Arab clothing

With the establishment of the Islamic state, there was no immediate change in dress if only because non-Muslims, then the majority of the population, were required not to dress like Arab Muslims, and it is known that Egypt paid its annual tribute in Coptic garments. The simple wrap (izar, thawb) of pre-Islamic Arabia, along with a sleeved, collarless qamis (shirt) probably came to be recognized as “Muslim” dress for both genders. On top was worn a mantle (caba) formed from wide fabric, folded twice into the center along the weft and sewn along one selvage (forming the shoulder), and slit in both folds (armholes). At least six other terms for mantles were in use at this time, indicating that each differed in some way. By the eighth century the turban (cimama) of rolled, wound fabric became the acknowledged sign of a Muslim male, and at least sixty-six different methods of winding are mentioned.

As Muhammad disliked the color red and richly patterned fabrics, finding them distracting during prayer, devout Muslim men were advised to avoid such fabrics and colors along with green, the dress of angels. Such recommendations did not apply to Muslim women, but they were enjoined not to parade jewelry, to “cover” (hijab, meaning curtain or drape) themselves modestly, and to wear sirwal (drawers) of which, the Hadith records, Muhammad approved. Various footwear terms are mentioned, but the camel leather nacl sandal, worn by the Prophet, with two straps, one across the foot, the other encircling the large toe, became an enduring favorite and was required men’s footwear for hajj pilgrims.

In his lifetime Muhammad honored certain individuals by giving an item of personal clothing or fabric length, and this became established court custom (khilca) in the Umayyad period from 661 to 749. An additional honor was an embroidered or tapestry band (tiraz) bearing the caliph’s name and other details, sewn or woven near or on the dropped shoulder positioning of the caba and of the jubba, a long centrally-fastened garment with fabric rectangles joined at right angles to form sleeves. The earliest known tiraz fragment in red silk (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) records the name of the caliph Marwan I (r. 684-685) or Marwan II (r. 744-750).


Decorative collar and cuffs were features of kingly dress and possibly formed part of the caliphal insignia. The plaster statuary depicting the ruler in Sasanid regal dress (e.g., Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi) perhaps records actual Umayyad caliphal dress, but possibly it merely utilizes a recognizable regal imagery. The Umayyad dynastic color was probably white, worn with a white cimama for the Friday prayer, but otherwise, as depicted on coins, the “crown” was similar to the Sasanid crown (taj) or a tall sugar-loaf cap (qalansuwa).

In this period depictions of women’s dress are limited to female entertainers and attendants, with few exceptions. As noted above, sirwal were often worn along with a qamis, but whether or how these differed from the male garments is unknown. The early eighth century Qusayr Amra murals show half-naked entertainers in checkered skirt wraps, but the ladies in the enthronement composition have long garments with wide necks, and head veils. The Hadith disapproves of artificial tresses, indicating a seventh- and eighth-century fashion, but these entertainers have kiss-curls and ringlets.

A favorite dress fabric at court, especially during the reigns of Sulayman (r. 715-717) and of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), was washi from Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen-probably a weft-ikat (tie-dyed) silk because examples, albeit in cotton, have survived. However, the man and woman of fashion avidly sought garment fabrics from across the empire: Egyptian linens, silks from Iraq and the Caucasus, Adenese mantles, Iranian silk and cotton mixtures, and so on, avoiding, if possible, noticeable textural contrast (e.g., cotton and linen) and vivid, contrasting dye shades.

With Iranian support the Abbasid family, proclaiming the right of the Prophet’s family to the caliphate, seized control from the Umayyad house in 749. Within decades Spain, North Africa, and then Egypt and southern Syria broke away from direct Abbasid control while hereditary governorships in the eastern regions had virtual independence, provided they paid tribute promptly to the Baghdad court. From 945 if not earlier, the overriding cultural influences in Abbasid court ceremonies and dress were Iranian (the bureaucrats) and also Turkic (military).

As Ibn Khaldun explained, the Abbasid dynastic color was black, commemorating the violent deaths of Muhammad’s son-in-law and grandsons. Failure to wear black robes at the twice-weekly audiences demonstrated the wearer’s dissatisfaction with the ruler and regime. On ceremonial duty, the caliph usually wore black, with the Prophet’s mantle over his shoulders (signifying his blessing) and carrying other relics associated with Muhammad, or he sometimes wore a monochrome overgarment embroidered in white wool or silk. The qalansuwa was still perceived as the “crown,” but individual caliphs preferred one model over others.

History of Islamic Dress in Middle East


As court ceremonial became more complex, the main professions of bureaucrat, army officer, and theologian had distinctive dress. The vizier (minister) was recognizable by his double belt, and his colleagues were known as the ashab al-dararic (literally, men of the durraca) because of their long woollen robes, buttoned neck to chest, probably with long ample sleeves.

Army officers (ashab al-aqbiyya) wore the shorter, close-fitting qaba, probably introduced from Iran by Caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-775), with trousers or leggings. Its exact structure is debatable, but perhaps it was like the tailored eighth- and ninth-century silk robe, patterned with Sasanid motifs from Mochtshevaya Balka, Caucasus. The highest ranks wore black, an honor not permitted to lower ranks, but the caliphal personal guard dressed in patterned silks with gold belts.

The military were allowed a form of qalansuwa, although by the late twelfth century the highest ranking officers displayed their Turkic origins-and indeed support for Saladin-by donning the sharbush, a furtrimmed cap with a distinctive triangular central plaque. The theologian on the other hand was identifiable by his voluminous outer robe of black cotton, linen, or wool, decorated with gold-embroidered tiraz bands. When giving the Friday sermon, he wore a black turban, but various thirteenth-century Maqamat al-Hariri illustrations show him on less formal occasions in a white turban, covered by a shoulder-length black taylasan hood.

A lady’s ensemble still consisted of sirwal, qamis under a long robe belted with a sash or cummerbund, and a similarly-colored head covering, all covered by one or more long head- and face-veils for outdoor wear. White was worn by divorced women, and blue and black were reserved for those in mourning.

Multi-colored and striped fabrics were best avoided for street wear while bright monochrome colors were associated with female entertainers. Theological criticisms reveal that royal ladies spent wildly on clothing for special occasions, a single robe sometimes costing more than sixteen hundred times a doctor’s monthly salary. Unfortunately, specific descriptions of such costly garments are never included.

The Maqamat al-Hariri illustrated manuscripts, probably produced in northern Syria or Iraq, contain valuable visual information, and occasionally peasant and working classes are shown in other illustrated works. For the earlier Abbasid period, pictorial evidence is more or less limited to early-twentieth-century archaeological drawings of excavated mural fragments from the palace complexes at Samarra. The painted ceiling of the Capella Palatina (Palermo, Sicily) is more closely related to Fatimid (Egypt and North Africa) dress, while wall-paintings in the Xinjiang region (western China) and Lashkar-i Bazar (Afghanistan) depict regional costume styles.

Dress of the Mamluk Sultanate

With the Mongol capture of Baghdad in 1258, the Abbasid caliph fled to the Mamluk court at Cairo, where he was accorded respect but no power. It has been usual for Western historians to consider the sultanate in two periods: Bahri military rule (c. 1250-c. 1293), and Burji rule (c. 1293-1516). In the Bahri army there were at least five main ethnic groupings, and three divisions, each with distinctive dress, which were fiercely protected, as well as a special uniform for attending the sultan, and another for royal processions.

At least six different types of military qaba are named, but none can be securely assigned to the various military garments shown in late-thirteenth-century depictions. The sharbush and the sarajuq, favorite military headgear until the late thirteenth century, were replaced by the kalawta or small fabric cap, sometimes costing almost two months of a doctor’s salary, worn with or without a turban cloth. Army and court officers were allowed to display their own blazon (rank) on their belongings, whether shoes, pen cases, or servants’ clothing; several, made of appliqué felt, have survived (for instance, those in the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.).

As the Abbasid caliph was still theoretically the head of Muslim Sunnīs, black robes and head coverings were retained as “official” theological dress although Sultan Barquq, tiring of it in 1396 and 1397, ordered the wearing of colored woollen outer garments. Highest-ranking qadis (judges) wore the dilq, while other magistrates had the farajiyya, a garment term in use since 1031; the precise characteristics of either robe are not known. That said, it is evident that there were regional differences, though undefined, as provincial theologians were recognized by their dress, perhaps in the manner of today’s foreign tourists visiting another country.

Certain sultans had highly individual fashion tastes, such as al-Nasir Nasir al-Din Muhammad (r. 1294-1295; 1299-1308; 1309-1340), of Mongol parentage, who shocked court circles by wearing Arab bedouin dress. To proclaim the legality of Mamluk authority, the sultan was invested with Abbasid black by the caliph, but generally for court audiences he wore military dress, acknowledging his debt to his fellow Mamluk officers.

The khilca or system of honorific garments, described by al-Maqrizi, offers an insight into Mamluk court complexities. Highest-ranking commanders were awarded, among other things, garments of red and yellow Rumi (possibly Anatolian) satin, lined with squirrel and trimmed with beaver, with a gold belt and kalawta clasps. A white silk fawqani robe, woven with gold thread and decorated with silk embroidery, squirrel, and beaver was given to chief viziers while less-costly fabrics of other colors, only hemmed in beaver, were presented to lower-ranking bureaucrats. Such khilca was presented to mark a new appointment, an individual’s arrival and departure from court, the successful conclusion of an architectural project or medical treatment, and similar occasions.

In 1371 and 1372 the sultan ordered members of the prophet Muhammad’s family, men and women, to wear a piece of green fabric in public so that due respect could be paid to them. From then on, the leaf-green color, obtained by dyeing first in blue then yellow (thus more expensive than single-dyed fabrics), was formally restricted in Sunnī circles to this grouping. In Mamluk society a bright red worn in public denoted prostitutes, although elsewhere in the Islamic Middle East it was the ceremonial color for the highest-ranking Mongol ladies, and for bridal apparel.

By this time tailored garments were the norm, formed from ten or more shaped units sewn together, as seen in garment fragments in museum collections; regrettably none has been published adequately. Many “Mamluk” dress-weight fabrics have patterns based on foliated teardrop motifs, sometimes edged with Arabic inscriptions blessing the wearer, or lobed rosette shapes surrounded by running animals.

Dress in the Ottoman Empire

From a small Anatolian principality, the Ottoman family quickly extended authority into most of Anatolia and the Balkans. In 1453 the court moved for the last time to Constantinople (Istanbul), continuing its territorial expansion into central Europe, Egypt and North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and western Iran.

Within the Topkapi Saray Museum (Istanbul) collections, there are more than two thousand dress items associated with the Ottoman sultans and their household; few are linked with the royal ladies and children. This source is augmented by numerous manuscript and album paintings, and other items.

Ottoman kaftan

Even the sultan’s robes were essentially simple in construction, with shaping achieved through joining inserts to the main front and back panels. The central fastening of thread buttons with fabric loops was accentuated by horizontal lines of chaprast braiding, the number of rows denoting the wearer’s higher status.

The typical ceremonial garment, fashionable from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, was the ankle-length, elbow-length sleeved kaftan worn over another sleeved garment, collarless shirt, and trousers; a calf-length version was also available. A similarly tailored robe but with wide sleeves tapering sharply to a buttoned wrist-cuff was the dolaman, a seventeenth-century style. Over these garments, the sultan and high-ranking officials wore a long, ample mantle (kapaniche) with a furcovered, shoulder-width, and shoulder-length square collar flap; for the sultan’s investiture mantle, the fur was black fox, while the grand vizier, chief eunuch, and bostanci bashi (commander of personal guard) usually had sable.

Sleeves were often extra long and worn loose to allow lower ranks to kiss the edge. The arm had access through a slit at the elbow or shoulder-sleeve seam. High office was also shown by excessively tall or wide headwear in various shapes, made of padded fine muslin cotton over a balsa-wood form. Breeches with drawstring waists were generously shaped, presumably to allow extra padded linings for winter wear.

There was no noticeable difference between the Ottoman ceremonial garments of the chief bureaucrat and army commander, but there were various distinct regimental uniforms, which became more ornate and less functional over the centuries.

The bostanci was recognizable in his red, calf-length, long-sleeved outer garment worn with either a red felt cap, drooping over the right ear, or a tall, brown conical cap (perhaps denoting rank). The ceremonial archer solak corps wore tight-fitting shalvar (trousers) or hose with ankle boots, over which was worn a filmy underskirt and an elaborately patterned sleeved outer garment; an asymmetrical conical headdress with a wide gold headband completed the ensemble.

The peyk troop of court messengers had a distinctive rounded “helmet” of gilded and incised copper, while the other Janissary regiments demonstrated their association with the Bektashi Sufi order by wearing the keche, a white felt “tube” rising some twelve inches from a stiff gold-embroidered band, then falling down the back; it symbolized the garment sleeve worn by the order’s founder.

Muslim theologians continued to wear ample outer robes, the cubbe (in Arabic, jubba), sweeping the floor and buttoned from the waist, with very wide sleeves. The chief theologian was permitted a sable lining, but urban mullahs were restricted to ermine. In early-eighteenth-century Sur-name illustrated manuscripts, lower-ranking jurists are identifiable by their conical “lamp-shade” turbans, but important theologians wore the urf, an enormous spherically shaped rolled turban, white in color, while from the 1590s the nakib ul-eshraf (in Arabic, naqib al-ashraf), leader of the prophet Muhammad’s descendants, had his in green like his outer robe. Thereafter, Europeans wearing green risked physical attack. Also depicted in various manuscripts are various Sufī (mystic) orders, whose garments and, especially, headgear had specific symbolic connotations according to the order.

There were four main grades of court honorific garments (in Turkish, hilat), costing the treasury each year half of what was spent on clothing the ninety-nine Janissary regiments: “most excellent,” “belted,” “variegated,” and “plain.” As the terms imply, the difference lay in fabric quality, fur lining or trimming, coloring, and number of items offered. Presentations were also made to provincial and regional governors and to visiting foreign delegates.

Status through dress was also found in the harem, conveyed in the type of fur trimming and lining, and the richness of the bejeweled “marital” belt. European reports regarding female private dress probably relate to entertainers and women in similar occupations, and to non-Muslim women, as access into the harem by a non-Muslim male was strictly curtailed. Similar constraints applied to Ottoman court painters before around 1710, so it is unclear how accurate these dress representations are.

Even with the detailed album paintings of Levni (flourished 1710-1720s), there is little indication of fabric texture and seaming. The late-sixteenth-century street clothing was a long-sleeved, voluminous ferace (in Arabic, farajiyya) with its long yaka back-collar and two-piece mahrama face covering, worn with a black oblong horsehair peche over the eyes. This garment covered various robes, including underdrawers, ample trousers, and a fine chemise. The main visual difference between female and male attire was not the direction of fastening as in later European dress, but the revealing necklines of women’s dress.

Various headdresses are depicted, but it is unclear whether these were exclusive to court ladies and whether they indicated ranking. One had a tall, waisted cylindrical form, similar to that worn by fourteenth-century Mongol princesses in Iran and Mamluk ladies in Cairo. Another two frequently illustrated were a small cap with an oval metal plate placed like an angled mirror, and a truncated conical form, sometimes four inches high covered with luxurious fabric.

The choice of fabrics was staggering. Fine wools were manufactured domestically along with choice water-marked silk-mohair mixtures and printed cottons, often used for linings. Sericulture had been in full operation in Anatolia since 1500, producing superb fabrics, often with large pattern repeats highlighted in woven gold and silver thread.

As yet, the fabrics manufactured elsewhere in Ottoman territories-for example the Balkans, North Africa, Syria, and Iraq-cannot be securely identified, and there are no detailed descriptions of regional dress outside eastern Europe until the late eighteenth century. The favorite sixteenth-century patterns, often in four or more colors, were based on geometric compositions, meanders, and ogival lattices, formed by or infilled with stemmed flowers, such as the carnation, rose, and tulip, perhaps reflecting the contemporary court interest in gardens; inclusion of figural representations probably denotes non-Ottoman manufacture.

Plague outbreaks in the eighteenth century with subsequent loss of skilled weavers perhaps led to the increased use of embroidery and small pattern motifs carried in stripes, as in contemporary French silks.

Middle Eastern Textiles Industry

Dress in Safavid Iran

Ismail of the Safavid family, relying on the support of some ten tribal clans (qizilbash), assumed control of Iran, eastern Turkey, the Caucasus, and present-day Afghanistan, sweeping aside the remnants of Timurid and other regimes. Although the majority of Iranian Muslims were then Sunnī in belief, Ismail ordered that the state religion be henceforth Shīcī Islam of the Ithna Ashari branch, which held that the twelfth descendant (Imam) of Muhammad would return to prepare the community for the day of reckoning. Accordingly early Safavid shahs required their supporters, especially the qizilbash (Turkish for “redhead”) to wear a distinctive bloodred cap (taj) with twelve vertical padded folds ending in a baton-like finial, usually wound with a white turban cloth, symbolizing devotion to twelve Imams and willingness to die for the Safavid cause.

The typical early Safavid court garment retained the simple structure worn in fifteenth-century Iran under a similarly structured outer robe with loose hanging sleeves; both had horizontal chest braiding for fastening. By the 1570s, it was fashionable to don a heavier outer garment, again simply tailored but with the front left panel extended to fasten diagonally, with three or four fabric ties, under the right arm.

Neither style was apparently the exclusive prerogative of any office or rank, as probably court and military officers carried identifying wands of office. As the qizilbash lost position to Caucasian Georgian mercenaries during the early seventeenth century, so the court turned to Georgian-styled garments with a more fitted line, still achieved by fabric insertion rather than by darts and pleats, accentuating the waist and hips with a calf-length, bell-shaped skirt and central fastening. Likewise, the taj was replaced by a fur-trimmed cap with a deep, upturned rim, or by various flamboyant turban forms.

As in the Ottoman court there was a rich variety of silks and velvets, many incorporating metal threads creating a shimmering background for twill weave patterns of isolated floral sprays.

Unlike their Sunnīcī counterparts, – theologians were not overly concerned with the presence of figural representations on textiles, so motifs of people, animals, and birds were often incorporated into the pattern. Tailored within the palace, the honorific khalat garments were graded, according to a court administrator, on the percentage of gold used in silver-gilt metal thread. However, such rich clothing was set aside for black or dark garments during the Muslim month of Muharram, to commemorate the tragic death of the Prophet’s grandson, Husain (Third Imam in Shīcī belief).

Examples of mid-seventeenth-century garment styling were described and drawn by Engelbert Kaempfer, John Chardin, and other European visitors, but without precise details of profession and status, and the pictorial accuracy of women’s dress is questionable, as access would have been limited to Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian females.

Iranian album paintings of the mid-seventeenth century depict languidly posed ladies, their heads covered by various patterned and shaped kerchiefs, and the whiteness of their faces emphasized by double strands of pearls draped over the head and under the chin. Their robes are narrow-fitting, full length, and sleeved, with fitted trousers patterned in diagonal stripes, whereas the dancing girls with their multi-plaits shown in contemporary “palace” paintings (e.g., Chihil Sutun, Isfahan) wear hip-length, sleeved tunics and jackets over bell-shaped, calf-length drawstring skirts.

Early Ottoman and Iranian Dress

Both the nineteenth-century Ottoman sultanate and the Qajar regime in Iran from 1775 to 1924 decided that military reorganization and reequipment on European lines were vital to counter European and Russian expansionist policies.

Theological antipathy was immediate, proclaiming that Islam was being betrayed, and that the wearing of European-styled uniforms signified nothing less than the victory of Christianity; a peaked army cap prohibited proper prostration required in Muslim prayer ritual, while ornate frogging on Austrian-styled military jackets signified belief in the crucified Christ. Both regimes resorted to drastic measures to achieve military reequipment, and then initiated other dress reforms alongside major changes in criminal and civic law, education, and religious endowment management.

The 1839 Gulhane edict removed legal and social differentials between Ottoman Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, including sumptuary legislation relating to non-Muslims. Thirteen years earlier, all adult males, except theologians, had been ordered to wear clothing based on European styling: straight trousers, collared shirts, cravats, and the fez, instead of multicolored long, loose silk robes and turbans. Women were not included, but by the mid-nineteenth century Ottoman ladies of status were eagerly ordering copies of the fashions worn by visiting European ladies.

After World War I Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” undertook further dress reforms as an integral part of his modernization programs, secularizing the new Turkish Republic and linking it politically with Europe rather than the Middle East. Viewing the fez as the symbol of allegiance to Ottoman values, he ordered the wearing of brimmed hats and Western-styled suits for men, with harsh penalties for noncompliance. Once again women’s clothing was not included; however, salaries were not paid to female government and public employees (for example, teachers, nurses, lawyers, and clerks) unless they dressed in European style and abandoned any face or head veiling.

In nineteenth-century Iran, similar policies were followed by the Qajar shahs. Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) had introduced a new type of kulah headgear of astrakhan lamb in an obliquely-cut conical form, eighteen inches high, and a close-fitting, narrow-sleeved, full-length garment designed to accentuate his height and slender form, which was worn with a dazzling array of jewelry.

However, by the late 1840s, the shah’s ceremonial dress was military in style with straight European trousers and shoes and a long buttoned jacket with high “mandarin” collar, embellished with gold frogging including epaulettes. Court officials followed suit. A fur-trimmed open overjacket of Kirman wool and white gloves completed the outfit.

Court ladies posed for oil paintings in richly patterned, full-length, wide “culottes” (zir-jamah), and a fine, filmy sleeved pirahan undershirt often slit vertically over each breast (symbolizing fecundity). Over this a short, hipped jacket (chapkan, kurdi), richly patterned, was worn.

All this finery was concealed outdoors by a voluminous full-length dark-colored head veil (chador) and a fine, waist-length, white cotton or silk face veil (ruband). A radical change resulted from the shah’s state visit to Europe in 1873. Seeing the calf-length ballerina skirts and white stockings of the Paris opera chorus, he ordered similar garments for his anderun (harem) which, over the years, became markedly shorter, about twelve inches.


In 1924 the military commander Reza Khan (d. 1941) took control and listened sympathetically to Iranian intellectuals, increasingly questioning the relevance of women’s veiling and of social discrimination. Theological hostility erupted with the official abolition of the veil in Afghanistan in 1928, and was fanned in December that year by Reza Shah’s Uniform Dress Law, which required all Iranian men, including nomadic communities but excluding licensed theologians, to wear Western suits, shirts, ties, and brimmed hats or the peaked Pahlavi kulah, similar to the French Foreign Legion’s kepi.

In 1934 female university students and teachers were ordered to wear hats, and by August 1935 women had be unveiled for renewal of identity documents. The Iranian queen appeared in public unveiled in early 1936, and in February of that year the chador, the ruband, and pichah (in Turkish, peche) were officially banned.

The Middle East ; Which Are The Middle Eastern Countries?
The Middle East ; Which Are The Middle Eastern Countries?

Rural and Tribal Dress

Before the 1930s, some 55 percent of the population throughout the Middle East were ruralist, and a further 25 percent were pastoralists (“nomads”), but centralized government, land legislation, economic development, and ecological changes resulted in massive migration from the land to the cities; in Iran and Turkey less than 5 percent lead a “nomadic” life in the early 2000s. Generally speaking, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European and Russian studies of nonurban communities were subjective, romanticizing the societies as “unchanging” and “unpolluted,” although knowledge of nonurban and ethnic dress (such as Iranian Kurdish or Bakhtiari) before photography was negligible. Since the 1970s, the anthropological approach has resulted in markedly more objectivity.

Generally, after the 1930s, legislation required men to wear Western dress except during communal celebrations, but occasionally a “national” or “community” emblem was adopted, such as the distinctive felt cap of the Qashqaci (Iran) tribal subclan, introduced in 1941, or the Palestinian kufiyya headdress. Most married women over the age of forty continue the dress conventions of their mothers while adopting the required outer wraps for town visits but, as Shelagh Weir concludes, styles and fashions within the community are constantly changing, albeit less overtly than in the West. The variety of garment structures and dress conventions are as numerous as the clans and ethnic groups within each region.

By Patricia L. Baker


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Related News

South Asia Textiles Cuts Idle Time by 74% with FastReactPlan

Leading Textile Manufacturer, South Asia Textiles, Reduces Machine Idle...

Trützschler Group; Innovating for the Future

Interview with Dr. Bettina Temath, Trützschler Head of Global...

Savio Italy Unveils Groundbreaking Libra AirJet Spinning Machine

In an exciting development for the textile industry, Savio...

Picanol’s Innovations in Sustainability, Digitalization, and AI at ITM 2024

Interview with Mr.Kurt Lamkowski - Worldwide sales Manager at...

Zimmer Austria: Beyond Camouflage Printing – New Inks, AI Design, and a Global Vision

Interview with Mr. Andreas Rass Managing Director of Zimmer...

Jeanologia Receives the ‘Cristobal Balenciaga’ Award from the Spanish Fashion Academy

Jeanologia has been honored with the title of 'Best...

Mario Jorge Machado Elected President of EURATEX

Portuguese textile entrepreneur, Mario Jorge Machado, has been elected...

ACIMIT: Pioneering Sustainable Textile Machinery with Strong Ties to Turkey’s Market

ACIMIT- Association of ltalian Textile Machinery Manufacturers, represents an...