09 January 2014

Ayyubid Urban Woman’s Garb, an Interpretation: Material Culture 24: A&S50 Challenge

Ayyubid Urban Woman’s Garb, an Interpretation (Cairo, twelfth century)
Material Culture 24: A&50 Challenge
Sponsored by Baroness Ellen de Wynter
Artist: Sayyeda al-Kaslaania

My model is a wealthy patroness of the Kingdom, Sayyeda Hannah. She employed me, under the sponsorship of Baroness Ellen de Wynter, to create a Middle Eastern outfit suitable for her rank that she could wear to a ceremony in a public venue.

Her outfit features a full face veil, the burqa. The garment bearing the same name in modern context is very different for our medieval counterparts. It does, however, serve the same purpose: concealing the face by swathing it in fabric serves to protect the honor of the family.

More than half of a woman’s trousseau consisted of head gear in the Middle Ages[1]. Researchers today can do little more than speculate about the connection between the named garments and the depicted garments. Even pioneering work such as Yedida Stillman’s analysis of women’s trousseaux does not provide the details that a re-enactor looks for[2]. For modern comparison, saying, “there are 4 neckties in x colors,” does not indicate how a necktie was worn, when it was worn, how it was cut on the bias, how it was tied, or specific garments it was worn with.

Figure 1 St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Ms C 23, detail.

Other headgear elements include a kerchief and a head veil. They are matched intentionally, as headgear garments in trousseau lists are commonly listed as matched and coordinated. Overall, garment ensembles could consist of up to 15 pieces[3].

The headgear is augmented by an undertunic, a tunic, and an overwrap.

Full face veil— burqa, to conceal the face

My goal was concealing the identity of the model so she could attend a ceremony in public without

Figure 2 Extant face veil, Eastwood.
heat-stroking her in July. The burqa style was chosen over other faceveils because it allows for easier use of modern eyeglasses, and permits breezes to get by.

During the Middle Ages, the burqa is as wide as the face. It is made in two pieces, upper and lower, connected in three places: above the nose and outside each of the eyes. Along the nose there is a ridge seam sewn in to shape the garment to the face. In the extant garment, the upper and lower pieces of fabric are touching each other; however, extant images do not always portraying this same proximity[4]. The distance I included allows for the eyeglasses of the model to be worn comfortably.

While the existing garments are unfinished in the same way as each other[5], I chose to finish the whole length of the veil and make it shorter—despise two extant pieces to the contrary—for a few reasons. First, both of the veils were coarsely made overall; they may have belonged to poor women who did not have time or inclination to complete the garments. Second, my garment will typically be worn so that the hem is visible, whereas the existing garments are believed to always be concealed beneath a large overwrap[6]. In the context of the SCA we do not wear the large concealing overwraps while out-of-doors that women did in period. These two garments (the burqa and the overwrap) went hand in hand during the Middle Ages.

Third, Vogelsang-Eastwood describes this garment as occasionally being decorated with beads, coins, chains, shells and so forth[7]. Having worn face veils of my own construction, I can say that this sort of adornment would be beneficial to keep the veil under control while walking or in a breezy area, functioning like the weighted hems on draperies. I believe this added weight is an alternative to the length, which would provide the same function.

Figure 3 Child's Tunic as it appears in Scarce, Jennifer.  
Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East
London: Unwin-Hyman Ltd, 1987, p. 118.
Kerchief—mandīl, foundation headwear

Most women had several head-kerchief mandīls in their collections[8]. It is described as one of the foundation garments available for men’s turbans as well. This type of mandīl protected the other head-gear from the oils of the hair and skin. Other options would include skullcaps. The mandīl was selected for the flexibility of passing it along to another person to wear in the SCA. In this period, the word “mandīl” is also used for a number of kerchief- and hand towel-like objects; some are garments, others are household linens[9].

Veil—Bukhnuq, to conceal the hair

In my speculation, this garment was triangular[10]. This shape would allow the garment “whose primary purpose is the cover the neck” the ability to do so as it “covers the head, goes down along the cheeks under the chin, and falls over the shoulders” and remain a comfortable, tug-free neck covering when “the two ends might be brought again over the head and there attached[11].”

Figure 4 Child's tunic from the Mamluk period. 
Jameel Center at the Ashmolean Museum, 
Univ of Oxford. No. EA1984.353.
Fabric Choice for Headwear

Many trousseaux survive from this period and give us a snapshot of women’s wardrobes at the time
of their marriage. Several of them list the fabric jari al-qalam (literally, "the flowing of the pen") which is described by clothing expert Yedida Stillman as a fine pinstripe[12]. Another indicates that an entire ensemble of garments is made from a common striped fabric[13]. In the Islamic Middle Ages, matchy-matchy garments were a sign of prosperity, this being a period where textiles were liquid assets and sale of second-hand garments was a thriving trade[14].

These trousseaux also teach us that people in this period had a “tremendous range of highly refined dyes[15].” Blues (and whites) were the most common of these colors.

Instead of copying the method of creating the anchors and ties, I used lengths of corded silk. This maintained consistency across the piece, and served as another step to raise the quality of the garment above the coarseness of the original. Not only was this a faster option, the specific fibers used have a “sticky” feel to them—with the goal of clinging better to the hair of a weekends-only (and therefore less experienced) hijab-wearer.


Garments from the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages were generally loosely fitted tunics for both men and women, augmented by unseamed rectangular lengths of fabric. Yedida Stillman refers to this as a Pan-Islamic style of dress because the basic elements were the same across Islamic communities, excepting Persia.

The shape of this tunic garment is drawn from extant sources[16]. I find it allows for greater movement because it fits a round body instead of a flat one. This works because the sleeve and side body intersect in an unusual way (see Appendix A). The pattern I chose to use is copied from several extant sources[17].  Tailored clothing such as this was a mark of an urban-dweller in the Medieval period, and fitted garments are listed among items in period trousseaux[18]. This pattern is strikingly similar to contemporary European clothing, and was intentionally selected for that reason (as the model also wears Saxon garb). One could speculate this is either from a confluence of ideas, or the active Mediterranean-European trade system.

Figure 5 Woman with sleeveless dress, 
head veil wrapped around her shoulders. 
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. 
MS. Arabe 5847 , fol. 138v. Detail.
Sleeveless undertunic –Badan

The badan is a short, sleeveless tunic often mentioned in women’s trousseaux[19]. Descriptions include white garments with a single-colored border decoration. I believe an illustration from a twelfth century Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī[20] depicts this garment (fig 5). In this image, the woman’s scarf is wrapped around her hair and drapes across her shoulders, visually connected by the decorative band.


The overwrap is a required garment for any woman leaving the house in an urban setting[21]. Of the several options available, the izār is a large rectangle of fabric geared toward being enveloping. Often they are plain garments, usually of wool, and can double as a blanket. This izār is purchased from a used clothing merchant, a common practice in the Middle Ages[22].

[1] Stillman, Yedida K. “Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza”. Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of Chicago, 1977.

[2] Stillman, Yedida K. “Importance of the Cairo Geniza Manuscripts for the History of Medieval Attire.” International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol 7, Num 4 (October 1976): 579-589.

[3] Cortese, Delia and Simonetta Calderini. Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

[4] Eastwood, Gillian. “A Medieval Face-Veil from Egypt.” Costume/London Costume Society 17 (1983): 33-38.

[5] Eastwood.

[6] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian and Willem Vogelsang. Covering the Moon: An Introduction to Middle Eastern Face Veils. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2008.

[7] Vogelsang-Eastwood.

[8] Stillman dissertation.

[9] Rosenthal, Franz. “A Note on the Mandil” Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam. Leiden, 1971.

[10] This could be achieved with little waste by cutting rectangle crosswise and sewing the two short ends together.

[11] Stillman dissertation  p 124

[12] Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress: a Short History. Brill 2003, p 59.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Goitein vol 1, p 222-3, 245.

[15] Stillman, Yedida K. “New Data on Islamic Textiles from the Geniza.” In Patterns of Everyday Life. Edited by David Waines. The Formation of the Classical Islamic World: 10th ed. Ashgate Variorum, 2002, p. 204.

[16] Godlewski, Wlodzimierz. “Naqlun: Excavations, 2000.” Polish archaeology in the Mediterranean/Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, Warsaw, POLOGNE Vol. 12 (April 19, 2000): p. 149-161. http://www.centrumarcheologii.uw.edu.pl/fileadmin/pam/pam_2000_XII/53.pdf (accessed 19 April 2011). ; Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001.; Syria, Materia Medica of Dioscurides, 1229, Two students; frontispiece. Iraq or Syria; 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.

[17] Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001. ; Syria, Materia Medica of Dioscurides, 1229, Two students; frontispiece. Iraq or Syria; 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.; Baghdad, Maqamat al-Hariri, Late Eleventh to early Twelfth Centuries.

[18] Stillman dissertation.

[19] Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress: a Short History. Brill 2003.

[20] Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 5847, fol. 138.

[21] Stillman dissertation.

[22] Goitein, Vol. 1.

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