Hand stitched Medieval Middle Eastern inspired dress
All rights reserved. Copyright Julia May.
September 2009, revised August 2016
This dress recreation is intended for a man or woman of the bourgeoisie class in Cairo during the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171 C.E.). Judging from the descriptions of garments discussed the Cairo Geniza, I identify this garment as maqta’(1). The maqta’ is described as a common garment like the thawb, but available in a wider variety of prices and occasionally made in fabrics of more than one fiber.
The fabric I have used is composed of linen and silk, with one fiber shrinking more than the other post-production causing the seersucker effect. Seersuckers are known from at least the fourteenth century, the word deriving from a Persian root(2). Striped fabrics are known to have been used frequently in Middle Eastern clothing for both men and women(3). Further, records indicate that maqta’ were made in cotton-linen blends, silk alone and linen alone.
The pattern I chose to use is copied from several extant sources(4). Although none of the examples included here date as early as the Fatimid period, we know that weaving technology and vanity advanced far beyond the typical early Coptic T-shaped tunic in that time. Further, tailored clothing was recorded as a mark of an urban-dweller in the Fatimid period, and fitted garments are listed among items in Fatimid trousseaux (5). We also know that this pattern is strikingly similar to contemporary European clothing. One could speculate this is either from a confluence of ideas, or the active Mediterranean-European trade system.
The striking difference between this and the typical European garment is the lack of fitted sleeves—rarely in the illuminations or extant pieces do garments for men or women have sleeves fitted to the wrist. In fact, there is some pictorial evidence for sleeves to grow wider as wealth increased and the need for personal manual labor decreased (personal servants were more common at higher income levels).
The slit neckline is typical of Mediterranean garments for several hundred years before, and at least one hundred years after the Fatimid period. The floor-reaching length of the garment, though rarely depicted, is discussed in trousseaux of the Fatimid periods as being reserved for more expensive garments(6). It is also the preference of the tall owner, ill at ease with seemingly too-short garments.
The dress is finished by hand with flat felled seams to control for unraveling fabric. There is extant evidence of this finishing technique in the Mamluk period(7). I used a locking running stitch, which is speedy and plain.
Completing the look
Both men and women would wear this garment over another in polite, city-dwelling society. It would itself be partially or fully covered by a wrap or coat when worn out of the home. It could be belted or not, adorned with pins or not. A necklace might be worn with matching earrings by a woman, or she might choose her matched set of wide bangle bracelets (one for each wrist). I have not discovered if a maqta’ is in the category of garment that would have a pair of coordinating shoes.
A head covering would be worn by both men and women, regardless of which of Peoples of the Book they identified with(8). For men, a garment of this quality would demand a turban (seldom do urban-dwelling men wear only a cap). For women, a variety of head coverings would be appropriate(9).
(1) Stillman, Yedida. _Female Attire of Medieval Egypt_. Dissertation, unpublished. 1972.
(2) Given that mine was flat until washing, I’m willing to believe that similar textured fabrics have been around as long as mixed woven-fiber fabrics.
(3) Stillman, Yedida K. “Textiles and Patterns Come to Life Through the Cairo Geniza”. Salim, Muhammad ‘Abbas Muhammad, et. al. _Riggisberger Berichte 5: Islamische Textilkunst des Mittelalters: Aktuelle Probleme_. Aberg-Stiftung: Riggisberg, 1997.; Andalusia, Hadith Bayad wa-Riyad, 12th Century, Vatican, Arabo 362. Image).
(4) 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. Image.
(5) Stillman, 1972.
(6) Goitein, S.D. _A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza_, Vol. 1. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
(8) Though the majority of the Fatimid Caliphate was known to welcome peacefully their Jewish and Christian neighbors (once they paid the appropriate tax), Islamic culture prevailed over all in dress and outdoor customs.
(9) Records in the Cairo Geniza show that fully half of the garments in each trousseau were head coverings.