[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

Notes on Islamic Clothing

One of the problems with having a Muslim persona is that it is often difficult to get information on garb. In part this is because most people writing in English are more interested in medieval Christians than in medieval Muslims; costume books rarely have much that is useful for our purpose. In part it is because Sunni Muslims regard the making of pictures of living creatures as forbidden by religious law. Fortunately, the injunction was not always obeyed.

Persia eventually became (and still is) a predominantly Shia area. If you have a late Persian persona, you should find it fairly easy to get information on clothing. Simply find a book containing reproductions of lots of period Persian art. One particularly good source is the Houghton Shah-Nama, reproduced by the Metropolitan Museum under the title A King's Book of Kings.

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The purpose of these notes is to pass on a few facts I have turned up about period garb, in particular period garb from southern and western Islam (my persona is a Maghribi, a North African Berber from about 1100 A.D.).

Figure 1 shows the cutting diagram for a garment presently in the Royal Ontario Museum. It is described as a shirt or Camis. The material is linen bound with silk. It is cut from a piece of cloth 32" wide.


Period pictures show several sorts of robes, with both tight and loose sleeves; the latter are sometimes short-sleeved and worn over a tight-sleeved garment. Mayer mentions that in early period the tight-sleeved robes would have had sleeves many inches longer than the arms, and been worn "ending at the wrist in many folds." Period pictures also show what seems to be a jacket, open in front, with wide sleeves possibly trimmed in fur. Mayer says that the robe worn in the Fatimid period (i.e. Egypt before Saladin, who ended the Fatimid dynasty) was a tunic with a traditional straight slit; it is not clear to me if he means that it was open all the way in front, or closed with a vertical slit at the throat. Some period pictures from Muslim Spain show particolored robes.

I have generally based my robes on the shirt described above, which has a slit (and, I conjecture, a button) over the left shoulder. This is probably a mistake, since neither slit nor button is generally visible in period pictures; it may have been a feature of the shirt but not of the robe over it.

Figure 2

A piece of cloth tentatively identified as a turban end. Egypt, 12th century.

Length 85 cm, Width 42 cm. From Kü hnel, piece '04, 284


Kü hnel lists several pieces of cloth tentatively identified as pieces of turbans from 12th century Egypt; typical widths are from 35 to 48 cms. There is also one possible turban from later (Egypt 13th-15th centuries) that is 70 cm wide. I accordingly make my turbans about 20" wide.

He also shows a picture (reproduced as Figure 2) of a piece of cloth believed to be a turban end from 12th century Egypt. It is made from blue dyed linen. The bands labelled a are red-brown, salmon yellow, yellow and light green, with black outlines; he does not say which parts are which colors. The bands labelled b are black and yellow. The middle section is in yellow linen on blue, and consists of repetitions of the Arabic "Help from God."

I have no precise information on the length of turbans. At various times, non-Muslims were restricted to maximum turban lengths ranging from five to ten ells, which suggests that Muslims would at least sometimes wear turbans longer than that. If one interprets the ell as the English ell of 45 inches (Mayer, my source on this, does not say what ell he means), ten ells would be twelve and a half yards. I find that a length of about fifteen yards works well. Mayer describes the restrictions as a response to increases in turban length. Since he is describing a period later than my persona, it is possible that my turban should be somewhat shorter, but since I have no precise information for my exact period it is hard to be sure.

Other than this, my only basis for the way I tie my turban is what works-that is to say, what produces a result that looks like period pictures, such as those in Arab Painting. I generally use a piece of light cotton 15 yards long by about 20 inches wide, although I occasionally use twice that width to get a very bulky turban. Before starting to wind the turban I put on a turban cap-a plain skullcap of heavy cloth. Its function is to keep hair from getting wrapped into the turban and to make sure that no hair shows through; while not essential, it is useful.

I start with one end of the turban about six inches below the base of my neck; this is going to be the tail which one sees on some period turbans. The turban passes from there over my head to just above the forehead and then starts being wound. A single wind is a circle (clockwise seen from above) tilted somewhat from the horizontal. As I wind the turban, the circle precesses; the low point moves around my head by about 90deg. each wind. So if the first time around the low point is under my right ear then the next time it is at the back of my head, then left ear, then ... (this is very approximate). As you go, you can let the tilt increase, since the bottom of the circle will anchor itself below the bulge of cloth already there. When you are down to the last two yards or so, make a horizontal circle around the whole thing and tuck the end in. The result is the horizontal band that one often sees on period pictures.

I am afraid this is not a very good description. Tieing a turban is easier shown than described. Practice when nobody is watching.

Rogers has a picture of a surviving Egyptian hat from the 11th-12th century. It is described as "probably used with a turban," but appears elaborate enough to be usable by itself. I plan to try to reconstruct it one of these days, as an alternative to wearing a turban.

Tiraz Bands

Period pictures of Islamic garments frequently show ornamental bands on the sleeves. These are called tiraz bands. They normally consist of an Arabic inscription with associated decoration.

Figure 3

A Tiraz Band from Egypt, 946-947 A.D., Based on item 2631, Tafel 1, Islamische Stoffe

Tiraz bands are supposed to have started as a feature identifying cloth woven for the ruler's own use. Since giving away garments was a common form of generosity, those favored by the ruler wore such clothing. After a while, everyone wore robes with tiraz bands. The inscriptions commonly called down blessings on the current Caliph, although other religious formulas might appear instead. An example from tenth century Egypt is given in Kü hnel, p. 17. The inscription on the garment, the equivalent in ordinary Arabic letters, and the English translation are shown as Figure 3. The translation is:

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Blessing from God and mercy upon the Caliph, the slave of God al-Muti li'llah, the prince of the believers. God lengthen his existence.

Sometimes, especially on later garments, the tiraz inscription seems to have become pure ornament, no longer meaning anything. I do not know whether the ornamental bands on European sleeves were a development from the tiraz band, but it seems likely. In Arab Painting, the tiraz bands seem often to be black on gold

Notes on Mameluke Costume

The following information is from Mayer. It applies to the Mamelukes, who ruled Egypt and much of Syria from 1250 to 1560 A. D. I do not know how much of it would be true in other parts of al-Islam or at other times.

There was a religious injunction forbidding gold and silver on the clothing, except for the belt; as a result, belts were often very rich. There was a similar injunction, which I believe applied through most of al-Islam through most of history, against garments with too much silk in them. Interpretations of exactly what was forbidden varied, and the injunction seems to have been widely violated.

The sultan changed into white garments for the summer in May; he changed back into woolen clothes (color not specified) in November.

Turbans are especially associated with the Masters of the Pen; the military aristocracy (i.e. the Amirs) wore the Sharbû sh (probably "the stiff cap trimmed with fur, rising to a slightly triangular front, and characterized by a metal plaque above the forehead") and the Kalauta ("a yellow cap worn by the Sultan, the amirs and the rest of the military, with a broad border band and clasps.") The Sharbû sh is mentioned as far back as the time of Saladin; he founded the Ayyubid dynasty which preceded the Mamelukes.

A common form of footgear was the Khuff boot, described as a long leather stocking; it apparently had a vertical seam up the side, which is sometimes visible in pictures. The winter Khuff was yellow or black leather, the summer Khuff was white. A shoe was worn over the Khuff.

"Above shirt and drawers the Mamluk amirs wore Tartar coats, above them takalâ wâ t, and above those `Islamic Coats.' Then the sword was girded on to the left and the saulaq and the kizlik on the right." The Tartar coat was a crossover robe, like a modern bathrobe, with "a hem crossing the chest diagonally from left to right (in contradistinction to Turks, who preferred a hem from right to left)." I cannot clearly identify what all of these things were; the saulaq seems to be some sort of bag of black leather, possibly for carrying food.

According to Mayer, women wore a chemise under a gown; by the early fourteenth century, the latter was short with wide sleeves. They wore pants under the chemise, or trousers, the latter possibly instead of the chemise. Over everything they wore a wrap, typically white, fastened by a girdle. It appears that women sometimes wore turbans, although the practice was disapproved of and frequently forbidden.

On the subject of veiling, Mayer writes:

"It goes without saying that women went about veiled. Various forms of veils ... existed, mainly of the following types:

(a) a veil of black net covering the entire face.

(b) like (a) but leaving two holes for the eyes.

(c) a white or black face-veil covering the face up to the eyes.

To appear in public without the veil was a sign of great distress.

It is quite possible that dancers and singers used no veils, but of course we have to take into consideration that on miniatures, metalwork, etc. they are invariably shown indoors."

Mameluke women apparently wore khuff boots, with a low shoe over them outdoors. They also used wooden clogs. Red trousers were one of the signs of a prostitute.

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I have two sorts of sources for Islamic underpants. Arab Painting shows several pictures of men with the robes pulled up and the underpants exposed; the general impression is of a loose drawstring garment roughly knee length. There are similar pictures in other books. Also, Tilke shows detailed pictures of several types of modern (i.e. 19th or 20th century) Islamic underpants, which seem consistent with the period pictures. Figure 4 shows how I make mine; I believe the cutting pattern is somewhat simpler than for the garments Tilke shows, but the only copy of his book I currently have access to is missing some of the relevant pages. There is a drawstring. Aside from some tendency to pull out at the crotch, where four seams meet, they work fine; perhaps there should be an additional piece there. The figure also shows another design, from Tilke; the original is North African.

There are a number of traditions of the Prophet in which he recommends that pants should reach to somewhere between knee and ankle.

Mayer shows a surviving pair of pants, but I suspect from his text that they are for a woman.

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The aba is an Islamic over-robe, like a poncho but open in front; Figure 5 shows how it is made. It exists in modern Islamic societies; Tilke shows many different types. The earliest picture I have seen is in Nicholas de Nicolet, who shows something that looks like an aba. It is, however, frequently mentioned in period, most commonly as a wool overgarment. There seems no reason to believe that it was any different then than now, although, absent pictures or surviving garments, one cannot be certain. Silk abas are also mentioned.

Seal Stones

There are traditions of the prophet according to which he recommended Carnelian for making seals.

Christians, Jews and Samaritans

The Covenant of Umar was a set of rules for the tolerated religions, supposedly laid down by the second Caliph. One part of it was the requirement that Christians wear blue turbans, Jews yellow and Samaritans red. This requirement seems to have been enforced intermittantly.


Contrary to many movies, anecdotes, and historical novels the Saracens at the time of the crusades used straight swords. The curved sword seems to become popular in the Middle East somewhere between the thirteenth and fourteenth century (see Nicolle and sources he cites). The traditional way of wearing the sword was on a baldric slung over the shoulder.

The kaskara, a straight bladed sword used in the Sudan and Northern Africa, appears to be a survival of the medieval Islamic broadsword; Stone shows one with a tenth century blade. If you have a pre-fourteenth century Islamic persona, want to wear a sword, and have access to someone who deals in antique arms and armor, you should be able to get a real kaskara for about the cost of a reasonably good replica broadsword.

The yataghan is a slightly curved Turkish sword sharp on the inside of the curve. I have seen a reference to a surviving yataghan dated to the sixteenth century, and I believe they go back earlier than that.


I have not been able to find any book with detailed information on what styles of knives were used when in al-Islam, but have come across the following fragments of information.

Jambiya: This is the Arabic term for dagger, and is used to describe a number of rather different weapons. Islamiske Vå ben shows what I would describe as a Persian Jambiya dated to the sixteenth century. It is referred to as a Khandjar, another Arabic word for knife or dagger and one applied by Stone to a rather different type of knife. As this example suggests, terminology is not entirely standardized.

Kard: This is a straight-bladed Persian knife; the smaller ones look rather like modern eating knives. Some have reinforced points, presumably for going through mail, but many appear to be general-purpose utility knives. Most surviving specimens are out of period, but Islamiske Vå ben shows one (Persian) from 1616 and another (Indian) from 1524, so (assuming they are correctly dated) kards exist in period. One sometimes sees them for sale, at Pennsic and elsewhere. Kards I have seen range from about nine to sixteen inches in overall length.

Khatar: This is the Indian punch dagger. Two appear in a picture in Islamiske Vå ben dated 1528. A large Khatar, or possibly a Pata (the sword version of the Khatar) is described by Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century as a weapon of the Hindus in India.

Pesh-kabz: This is a Persian and North Indian armor-piercing dagger. It is single edged; the back edge has a reinforcing rib, giving it a T cross section. Typical length is about sixteen inches.

All of these are probably appropriate for late Islamic personae, and very possibly for early ones. Examples can be purchased from arms and armor dealers. A catalog I have from a few years ago lists kaskaras, khatars, jambiyas, pesh-kabz's and kards, with prices starting at about a hundred dollars. In general, antique Islamic weapons, although not cheap, are much more reasonable than their European equivalents. Since the general form of many of the Islamic weapons remained the same from (at least) late period until the nineteenth or twentieth century, a specimen dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century may be reasonably close to what your persona would have worn.

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Figure 6: Two Islamic Knives


Arab Painting, Richard Ettinghausen, Macmillan, London 1977.

"An Introduction to Arms and Warfare in Classical Islam," by David Nicolle, in Islamic Arms and Armor.

Islam Stoffe aus Ä gyptischen Grä bern by Ernst Kü hnel, 1927: Berlin Verlag Ernst Wasmuth.

Nauigations in Turkie, Nicholas de Nicolet .

Cut My Cote, Dorothy K. Burnham, Textile Department, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Early Islamic Textiles, Clive Rogers Editor, Rogers & Podmore, Brighton 1983.

Islamiske vå ben i dansk privateje (Islamic Arms and Armour from private Danish collections), Udstilling på Davids Samling, Kø benhaven 1982.

Le Costume * Coupes et Formes, de L'Antiquité aux Temps Modernes, Max Tilke, É ditions Albert Morancé , Paris 1967. This is a wonderful book, full of detailed photographs of real garments. Unfortunately, most of them are out of period.

The Modern Egyptians by Edward Lane, 1860 (facsimilie from Dover).

A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor, by George C. Stone.

[An earlier version of this article appears in a Creative Anachronist Islamic pamphlet.]

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