12 August 2010

Medieval Islamic Women's Undergarments: Material Culture fifteen: A&S 50 Challenge

Figure A. Two woman observing a conversation. Baghdad, Maqamat al-Hariri, Late Eleventh to early Twelfth Centuries. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. MS arabe 3929 fol 134. Maqamat 40, detail.
Medieval Islamic Women's Undergarments
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Copyright August 2010, Julia May

Women’s undergarments are rarely a topic of conversation, even among friends—until you practice historical recreation! Figuring out how to meet some basic needs becomes readily apparent the minute you start putting on clothing that’s nothing like you’ve worn before. Supporting the breasts is not just a matter of style, but a function of comfort. Mundane nuisances such as urination, chafing, and menstruation become quickly magnified when your standard tools are no longer the standard choice. Only then do we recognize just how rare the conversations of undergarments have been held throughout history—and how little of it has been recorded.

When researching any kind of garments for the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, one will eventually discover the treasure trove of the Cairo Geniza. A forgotten collection of legal and trade documents, the Cairo Geniza gives us the tools to piece together a fairly good picture of daily life under the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. One of the re-creators favorite parts of the Cairo Geniza is presented primarily through the works of Yedida Stillman (chief among them Arab Dress and her dissertation Female Garments). She was able to review many bridal trousseaux from the period and discuss the different garments and fabrics listed there. A glaring omission, however, is still the discussion of underwear. Since men were the ones recording the trousseau lists, they didn’t want to talk about or look at such things which were frequently recorded along the lines of “a box and all of its [intimate] contents”.

Therefore, the information presented here is a compilation of conjecture. We can guess at some things, and use some secular images for a few more, and a little bit of suggestive poetry to fill in some voids. Included here are the undergarments that I typically recreate for myself when wearing Fatimid clothing. Starting from the top, they are:
  •            The ma'raqa  is a small fitted cap that absorbs sweat from the brow and protects the rest of the head gear from body soil (the root word of ma’raqa is “sweat”).  
  •             The qumîs is the chemise or shift: the layer closest to the skin.
  •          Under the qumîs might be a rifada to support the breasts.
  •          A tikka is an ornate decorative drawstring for the sirwâl
  •          The sirwâl are called drawers, but were more similar to pajama-bottoms in that they reach to the ankle. They were held up with a tikka.

            The ma'raqa is a simple two piece hat or cap pattern with a crown and band. There is a smidge more information about it because it is the absolute minimum headcover a person of either gender is expected to wear. It formed the base of the headwear such as a turban or hijab (veils).

 The cut of my qumîs is copied from several extant sources, though only one dates to the Fatimid period. See Figures 1, 2. The sleeveless style of the qumîs is based on the fact that 1.) a qumîs can be worn with a sleeveless fitted dress; and 2.) there is no evidence that a sleeveless dress was worn over an item with sleeves. Therefore I believe that the qumîs can be with or without sleeves. 

Figure 2. Child's Tunic with redrawing of pattern. From Scarce, Jennifer. Women's Costumes of the Near and Middle East. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987.

The rifada is wholly a guess: a band of soft linen wrapped around the body and pinned in place with a straight pin under the arm. This is similar to a style known to be worn by Roman women in the Late Antique period which was called a ____________, albeit about 700 years earlier.

Figure 3. Striped Mamluk sirwal. Musee de Cinqantenaire.
Master Rashid developed a sirwâl pattern in common use today in the SCA based on 16th Century documentation of Ottoman clothing. Sayyeda Sol al-Andalusia has developed a pattern based on careful study of imagery from medieval Andalusia (the article is well worth a read). Rashid’s pattern is suitable for earlier use by an extant pair of sirwâl dating from the Mamluk period. The sirwâl I make are modified from Rashid’s pattern to accommodate my luxury shape by making the gussets longer and starting the point at the waistband. This modification allows me to sit cross-legged, whereas the unmodified pattern rips at the intersection of the back gusset seams. Pictorial and extant evidence suggest that they would occasionally have a decorative hem, which could be seen below the hem of the dresses (tunics/dresses were typically ankle-length instead of floor-length during this period).  See Figures 1, 3, 4.  

Figure 5. Note tikka and sheer qumis. Alphonso X's Book of Games (In Spanish: “Libro de los Juegos" or "Libros del Axedrez, Dados et Tablas”) commissioned between 1251 and 1282 A.D. by Alphonso X, King of Leon and Castile.

While the sirwâl are seldom mentioned, there is somewhat more information about the decorative drawstring because tikhat (pl.) are an item of interest in writings of an intimate nature. Occasionally a young man would carry the tikka of his lover on his belt as an outspoken token of her affection (see Stillman’s Arab Dress). An extant tikka from the Mamluk period is embroidered with blackwork stitches on the ends. My tikka are often tablet woven. Though there is no evidence of tikhat made from this narrow ware, the Fatimids were no stranger to the art (see Nancy Spies' tome Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance). Further, there are examples of extant embroidered narrow ware that are remarkably similar to tablet weaving in ornamentation  (see Marianne Ellis’ Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt). See Figure 5.

            With a little more knowledge about what the foundation garments were, the historical re-creator can use some imagination about how to utilize them for suiting our so very personal—and common—needs.  Of course some questions remain unanswered and speculation abounds. With time, new information might come to light from yet-unknown sources. Plus, additional work is being done to translate the contents of the Cairo Geniza, making it more accessible to the armchair historian.  

If you have thoughts, research, or other tidbits of information, please feel free to share it with myself and others in the comments.