Sasanian Women's Dress

Introduction

The Sasanian Dynasty began in 240 AD and ended around 650 AD (Fowlkes-Childs). The Sasanian Empire, at it's height, stretched from Egypt to the Hindu Kush mountains, from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Some have made the analogy that the Sasanian Dynasty was the Rome of the Middle East. Sasanians viewed themselves as the legitimate successors of Parthian and Achemenid dynasties. Thus, the clothing of this era closely resembles that of the Parthian Era and some examples from this era will be included here. The Sasanian dynasty spanned 4 centuries and the wide expanse between Rome and China. This covers not only a large time frame, but also land mass. Within this time and space it is likely that regional variations were common, but are now difficult to separate. This study will not attempt to indicate in which region(s) each style was more or less popular.

The information here is drawn from a variety of academic articles on the topic, which focus on silverworks, seals, coins, and the remaining stone carvings. This page also contains information drawn from my studies of a Sasanian silver works at the Freer-Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. and the British Museum. This article will also discuss my studies of extant textiles held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The main scholarly article referenced in this page is Goldman from the Iranica Antiqua publication. Goldman's paper included a survey of rock carving, silver table wares, coins, and a few remaining extant textiles. Goldman stated in his paper that this was not a comprehensive study, but was the best information available at the time.

Sasanian society was not as limiting for women as later periods, however much of the archaeology was conducted in the early 19th C, when women were not as valued, and much of what was found did not have good accompanying records. Items thought of little value were often auctioned off to private collectors and often dismantled and made into"art". Goldman's article contains a few photos of extant works, many drawings made by the author. So the images shared here will not come from this article, but will come from the works I have studied, as said above.

Clothing Styles

Three main forms of women's dress can be identified in the silverworks, seals, coins, and stone carvings. These forms of pictorial evidence focus on nobles, deities, and entertainers, using these sources for recreating a noble woman's wardrobe must be done with care. It is important to get as much information as possible about who is being depicted in order to use it as evidence for a noble woman's dress. There will be examples of each, it is worth noting that academics believe the style of dress used to deptict deities was based on the common forms of dress for noble women and these will therefore be used as evidence of noble women's clothing.

The basic styles are generally include a loose flowing dress with one of the following: Goldman Loose, sleeved shift sometimes exchanged with a peplos, that may have a decoration at the cuff, can be cinched under the bust or at the waist (author uses girdled at the waist) and cut with excess fabric, out of light fabric that drapes loosely from the belt to the floor with one of the following:

  • Mantle
  • Scarf
  • Shawl
  • Coat/Robe
  • Cloak

I have counted the number of times each form of dress appear in depictions of noble women and deities in the items included by Goldman. The following lists are ordered by the most number of examples to the least.

Noblewomen from (17 in total) Note: Goldman only provides drawings, some of which are too difficult to decide what is being depticted. 

  • Mantle 8
  • Coat/Robe 3
  • Cloak 3
  • Scarf 1

Non-noblemwomen or not enough information to determine 17:

  • Mantle 4
  • Shawl 1 as there is only one example, this will not be discussed later on, but I will say I assume the scarfs seen in other works may well be shawls folded to be a narrow version of the whole shawl.
  • Coat 0
  • Cloak 0

Looking at this small sampling of available examples; it appears that noblewomen mostly wore mantles, robes, and cloaks, examples of which will be provided below.

Mantle

This example shows a silver gilt bottle held at Freer-Sackler Galleries followers of Dionysis's cult. This depcition shows a woman wearing a mantle that is commonly seen amoung depictions of noble women. Goldman included examples of 3 ways women draped the mantle around their body. Goldman also studied a silver dish held at the Walters Art Gallery, this dish can be viewed here. Goldman stated that he believed this mantle was based on the Greek himation or pall, rather than the Indian sari. I support this assertion, as the Sasanisn period comes after the Greek rule over this area. I have also not had time to research the origins of the sari and do not know when the sari comes into use in  India. The mantle could have been a rectangle of fabric; 1) wrapped once around the torso, up and over the left shoulder going from front over the back , 2) wrapped once around the waist over the shoulder from back to front on the left shoulder and bunched up on the shoulder, or 3) the same as 2, but not bunched on the shoulder with the mantle covering the arm. 

Note: I have begun to really experiment with recreating this look. So far I have determined that the minimum length needed for me to create such a mantle is 3 yards. I initially tested this look with 2 different lengths and different ways of wrapping. I initially tried the sari wrap style, which means tucking the fabric into a belt. After reading Goldman again, I noted his description of these warps regers to both the Roman palla and Greek himetion. I am trying those methods out and having photos taken of me for comparision. I will include this information after my next event, when I can try it more extensively.

 

Coat/Robe

The robe is my favorite style of 7th C Sasanian dress, The image, left, is one example of the robes worn. This silver and gold plate is held in the Freer-Sackler Gallery, item number S1987.113 . It depicts a couple wearing crowns, indicating their royal status. Goldman suggested this was a banquet scene and may even be a coronation scene. This is the inspiration for my own Coronation garb for my stepping up as Queen of Drachenwald. Robes feature heavily in Sasanian court proceedings, most references of a noble receiving a new position/honor state they received a "robe of honor" to mark their accomplishment.

The noble woman/queen is wearing a long flowing dress, possibly with an exaggerated hem, and a robe. Rather than wearing the sleeves of the robe, she has it clasped at the neckline, which is a common depiction of how Sasanian women wore their robes. I would not assume this means that Sasanian women never actually wore their robes with their arms through the sleeves.Goldman wrote the coat amoung women seemed to be reserved for noblewomen. Generally women are depicted as wearing these like cloaks, as in the plate here, but in my opinion this may be due to selection of material preserved or an artists drawing attention to the female figures.

The robe itself appears to have decorative trim and an overall decorative pattern. This pattern could have been woven in, achieved in the dyeing of the robe, or may well have been jeweled. For my coronation we chose to use gemstone beads.

Scarf

The vase, left, is held at Freer-Sackler Galleries museum. The description states that the headresses of the women indicate they are divine beings. The women depicted on this vase show one of many ways women wore their scarfs. The images in Goldman and other silverworks show a huge variety of scarf draping. In the Parthian period the accessory was popular in urban areas across Western Asia, such as Syria, Mesopotamia, Bactria and Gandhara (Goldman).

seasonal festivals; beaded ribbon/metal beaded headdress, braids, necklace, tight fitting, possibly laced dress, draped scarf

 

Cloak- unfortunately I do not currently have any images of work that depicts woman wearing cloaks at this time. Goldman stated& the cloak was appropriate for affluent woman and those who participate in ceremonial rites of state and religion, also seen on many divine entities. Cloaks were prevalent amount noblewomen and were likely made of light fabric, rectangular or semi-circular, tied with ribbon or done with a brooch (Goldman).

 

 

Cloth

Sasanian Persia was the home of very skilled weavers, who had access to cotton, linen, wool, and silk. As the crossroads of the Silk Road trading routes, the supplies from both East and West travelled through Persia. However, goods were not the only thing to pass along these routes, knowledge and technological advancements also passed through Persia. As such the weaving technology and knowledge that was common in China is also found in cloth woven in Sasanian Persia.

Three complex weaves are found in textiles from Sasanian Persia, these are taquete, samitum, and damask. You can see the Sasanian textiles I have studied in person and in books, here. You an also see more examples of these types of textiles held by the Victoria and Albert Museum here. For more information on how these textiles are woven, please contact me at an event or via e-mail and keep an eye out for information to be published under the weaving tab on this website.

Decoration

The decoration used is nearly always a way of showing a person's rank, regardless of culture or time period. Therefore special attention should be paid to how a garment is decorated, if you want it to be indicative of a noblewoman's dress. The first example is a gold clothing ornament held by the Freer-Sackler Galleries dating to the Parthian period. Ten small loops are found on the back of the ornament which could be used to sew it onto a garment.

 

Many descriptions of court ceremonies include a description of the clothing being jewel encrusted. For my Coronation garb, Mistress Rogned and I tried this out using gemstone beads from Fire Mountain gems. I will tell you how that goes. :) The roundel, right, may have been a piece of clothing decoration, it is held at the Freer-Sackler Gallery item number S1987.107. You can see 4 holes in the roundel, right >which could easily have been used to sew it and other like it onto garments. This may be an example of what is meant by encrusted.

 

There are also many tapestry woven decoration examples held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. I have also studied some excellent examples of samitum, where the decoration is woven into the cloth. Anyone who enjoys complex weaves, should feel free to contact me for more information on weaving samitum. You will find more information about this cuff and other extant textiles I have studied by clickingFabrics

Goldman wrote that cotton, wool, and silk were commonly available cloths for Sasanian Persia. He also stated these textiles would have had dyed or woven patterns sewn-on appliques (he may have been referring to the above gold decoration). He also notes that the descriptions of the Sasanian court often refer to the rich colors. Goldman wrote the Sasanian clothing would have been richly colored ala their Byzantine neighbors. Some textiles I have studied have been attributed to Persian or possibly Byzantine weavers. 

For more information on Tapestry Weaving, see my handout here.

Accessories

The depictions in Goldman show women's hair in curls or a variety of simple and elaborate braids. Their hair is often tied with a headband or ribbon tied at the brow, see below. Goldman wrote that he observed draped" hair with ropes of beads, pendant jewels, and turbans. I feel turbans, such as left would have been for lower classes and utilitarian purposes.

The bust (left) is also an example of an encrusted turban, where as the headband in the plate below is a likely a depiction of an encrusted headband/tied ribbon. Golman also noted other accessories as one-piece bracelets for the upper arm, wrist, and ankle, open segmented and inlaid bracelets and wrist bands, single and multiple-stranded bead necklaces with drop pendants, torques plain and twisted, single and double round brooches, and plain bead and pear tear drop earrings.

The Silver plate, right, contains a hunting scene. The plate is held at the British Museum, London. It is dated to 5th-7th C and thought to be of King Varahran V (Bahram Gur). Although the clothing depicted on the plate is unclear. It shows the frequency with which Sasanian nobles are depctied with headbands/ribbon ties around their brows. These headbands are also another favotire of mine. You see them also in the Ewer shown above

 

 

 

Roundels

 

The following images will be incorporated later, but are left here for your own study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

freer-sacklergallery\IMG_7682 same as above S1987.117

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citations

Fowlkes-Childs, Blair, expanded original text by Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Sasanian Empire (224–651 A.D.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sass/hd_sass.htm (originally published October 2003, last updated April 2016).

Goldman, B. Woman's Robing in the Sasanian Era. Iranica Antiqua. vol. 32. 1997. Gent.

Jones, E Studies at the Freer-Sackler Galleries. Washington, D.C.

Jones, E Studies at the British Museum. London.

Jones, E Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London.

Jones, E Studies at the Clothworkers Centre. London. (textiles held by the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.