Medieval Arabic Clothing
Men and women generally dressed in a basic tunic over which they draped large rectangular wraps, known as haik in Berber/Amazight and khellal in Arabic. These were a long-standing type of outer garment dating back to Antiquity.
Textile processing and production formed the mainstay of the Islamic Middle Eastern economy until the nineteenth century, so unsurprisingly Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature contains numerous references to fabrics and clothing.
The Fatimids’ robes, known as the izar or rida, were long garments of silks and fine cottons that draped down the body. The main colours were white and various shades of blue and black, although striped fabrics could also be worn.
The robe was worn over the sirwal or qamis (the chemise and undergarments). A long sleeved outer mantle, the haik, covered the head at night. Both were decorated with arabesque patterns of foliated teardrop shapes or lobed rosette forms, with a patterned hem and fringes.
The wealth of Fatimid Egypt enabled a new class to emerge in medieval society, and textiles became an important social symbol of the affluent and urbane. A Crusader epic describes a noble receiving a “khil’a” from a Muslim ruler, bestowing a special robe as a mark of honour. The aristocrats of the Latin West eagerly absorbed this new universe of fabrics, and a refashioning of aristocratic dress was underway.
The main garment was a long woollen coat called the haik. This was buttoned from neck to chest and had long ample sleeves. Some had a lining, usually of a darker color. It was belted at the waist. It was worn over a robe or a dress.
In surviving portraits of women, it’s clear that they left the outer layers unbuttoned at the neck and at the bottom to show them off. The coat was often adorned with a variety of embroidered or woven patterns. Two popular fabrics were baldachin, made with a warp of gold thread and a weft of silk, and damask, a richly patterned fabric named after the city of Damascus.
High office was signified by a fur-covered mantle over these coats: the sultan’s investiture mantle was black fox, while the grand vizier, chief eunuch, and bostanci bashi wore sable. Over this was a headwear that resembled a tall turban or fez. It could be small or large, depending on rank and social class.
By the seventh and eighth centuries people throughout the Muslim world were accustomed to covering up as much of their bodies as possible. This was especially important in a desert region where it was hot and people believed that God wanted them to be covered so as not to sin.
The basic garment was a long tunic, belted at the waist. This could be worn over trousers and on top of a head cloth, called a kaffiyah or turban.
By the 11th century men’s robes became shorter and they were paired with tight woolen stockings called chausses or hosen. Initially these were separate leg coverings tied to the cuff of each pant leg, and then they came together into fitted covers that extended from the ankle to the knee or calf. These were true medieval pants.
In the medieval Muslim world no free person, whether man or woman, would have left home without covering his or her head. The khirqa was the foundational brimless cap from which the ‘Imama’, kalawatta, shashiyya, and other caps developed.
For men, a ‘bashiyya’ or ‘taqqiya’ was worn to protect the head and ears from sun and cold. Some of these were made with embroidered designs, while others incorporated decorative metal chains.
A ‘burnous’ was an inner mantle or hood that could be worn to keep the head warm day or night, although trousseau lists indicate that it was used only on short trips. It was a garment of fine linen or silk, and may have been lined. It could be attached to the ‘ardiyya’ or worn as a separate article. It is similar to a modern Jordanian’shmagh’ with its red checked pattern and fringed edges. The ‘burnous’ was also worn with the outer cloak or gown.