14 January 2010

A&S 50: Material Culture seven and eight: Walnut Brown Fatimid Hulla (ensemble) and head gear

Last week I entered this garb into the Baronial A&S competition and was selected as the annual Baronial A&S champion. That's pretty cool.

I have decided that, for the purposes of the A&S 50 Challenge, these are two pieces with the headgear taking extra time and documentation since it's a new style for me.
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Fatimid Court Garb
“Walnut Husk Brown Ensemble”
All Rights Reserved. Copyright Julia May
April 2009


The clothing I present would be worn by a city-dwelling bourgeoisie class woman in Fustat (Old Cairo). It is a complete indoor outfit made entirely of linen and silk. The block construction pattern I use can be found in images from contemporary sources, and is a fitted garment style that was more commonly seen in the city. Since it is also more flattering to my luxury shape, I use it exclusively. The primary source of documentation for this outfit is Yedida Stillman’s translation of dozens of Fatimid bridal trousseaux from the Cairo Geniza, compiled in her doctoral dissertation [1].

Trade among Mediterranean groups was so routine that many items of clothing are worn commonly across the great sea. Indeed Yedida Stillman, pioneer in the work of Medieval Islamic dress, identifies a pan-Islamic style of dress in the whole region (excepting Persian clothing) [2]. Because of this great exchange, images of clothing can rightly come from what seems to be far-flung sources.




Beginning closest to the body, we have the layer which I have done the least research on. The sirwâl are a pair of drawers held up by a tikka, or decorative drawstring. Though they are rarely ever written about (trousseaux list them only among “a chest and all the delicate items in it” for propriety), they can be seen in images throughout the Mediterranean from the period under study as baggy and progressively narrowing around the ankles (see figure ج). My impression of this baggy and narrow style is that it allows the wearer to sit comfortably on the floor without exposing additional skin at the leg. I have used a pattern adapted from Charles Mellor (S.k.a. Master Rashid), adjusted for my luxury size.

The tikka is made from tablet woven cotton. Again, because it’s part of the intimacies of a woman’s wardrobe, very little is written about tikka. In Arab Dress, Stillman mentions that a woman might send her lover one of her tikka to wear as a favor on his belt, and there are images from Andalusia of a woman in a sheer qumîs so that you can see her colorful tikka would hang to the knee (see figure ب). Cotton was chosen for this item for its ease of use, but not out of line with available textiles both grown and imported in Cairo during the Fatimid Caliphate.

The next layer I have is the ghilâla, a fine to sheer linen garment worn directly against the body in place of a qumîs (chemise). The ghilâla was typically unadorned but could come in a variety of colors, (as opposed to the qumîs which was typically undyed), see figure ب. Mine is a nearly sheer tan linen (possibly “sandgrouse”—a color noted occasionally in period documents—and clearly darker than its fellow “chickpea” color [3]), patterned in the fitted style and hand finished with a flat felled seam. The sleeves on this underdress are cut full following many of the period illustrations (see figure ج).

Covering the ghilâla is the jûkâniyya, a garment of more value, and often with more embellishment, than the common thawb [4]. The jûkâniyya is noted in some of the Fatimid period trousseaux as decorated with a variety of adornment including decorated with bands and tiraz. I used a glossy walnut-husk-brown linen fabric, adorned on the seams with saffron-thread-orange shot linen. The garment was first stitched by machine to protect against raveling, and the orange stripes were attached by hand. The machine stitching was an extra step that would not have been necessary (the hand stitching technique would have done the same thing), but carrying it around it my SCA bag for six months made me leery of the raveling.

The tiraz adorning the upper arms is polyester brocade framed by a very high thread-count silk (silk would clearly have been preferable, but considerably more expensive). Tiraz are often seen in illuminations in bright gold colors, with or without text (see figure ج). The un-texted variety was very common among the bourgeoisie class, copying the royal rich in fashion [5]. One thing which is very clear is the preference for what modernly might be called “matchy-matchy” clothes. Matched ensembles are frequently recorded and could include any number of pieces such as dress, belt, and up to three elements of head wear.


Headgear accounted for up to half of the garments in the Geniza trousseau lists that Stillman examined [6]. As with all the garments, there was an assumption that the reader could identify by name each of the elements of headgear he was looking at when recording them on the marriage documents. This assumption occasionally leaves us lacking in a modern interpretation of those items. The pictorial evidence we have fails us on two counts. Frequently, women are depicted in their outdoor wear—hooded and/or fully covered by an enormous wrapper. Further, other women who appear in images are noted and clearly depicted in rural scenes—well away from the city dwelling-specific need for strict facial covering.

Again beginning closest to the body, I wear a ma’raqa, a close fitting linen cap intended to capture the sweat of the brow. Egyptian brides had several of these in their trousseaux in a variety of colors and decorations [7]. Mine is lightweight linen, supported so that my veil will hang from it without creating distortion. After seeking consultation with the experts at SCA-Milliners (Yahoo!Groups), the support I chose is an entirely modern convention: fiberglass window screen. Knowing how I can sweat, I could not choose buckram (melty) or velum (smelly). I could neither find a braided straw that would lay flat enough for my purposes. Failing other options, I went with the easy way, though I invite suggestions that would suit my particular needs. The “cloud blue color” of this ma’raqa suits the rest of the garment nicely.

Overlaid upon the ma’raqa is the bukhnuq described as “a piece of cloth which covers the head, goes down along the cheeks under the chin, and falls over the shoulders. The two ends might be brought again over the head and there attached.” Its primary purpose is to cover the neck [8]. I read this as a triangular veil. If it’s narrow enough to have two ends that can wrap back around the head, and wide enough to hang below the neckline in the back, the shape seems clear. This is one of the items I have matched to my sandgrouse colored ghilâla, and through the application of the same saffron-thread orange stripe, to my jûkâniyya.

Next, and in some ways most prominent, is the face veil. I believe that this could be an ‘aqbiyya. The ‘aqbiyya frequently appears in the trousseaux in conjunction with other headgear, including pieces specifically for covering the head; other times is it replaced by distinct face coverings—suggesting that this might also be for covering the face (see figure أ).[9] This piece has cutwork lace on it, frequently mentioned as a part of headgear in the Geniza. Examples of such cut work can be seen in extant pieces [10].

Without clear instruction, I have devised a method for attaching the ‘aqbiyya to the rest of the headdress. It hangs from the ma’raqa with three strings of beads, centered between and framing the eyes, attaching with small hooks and thread-eyes. It is wide enough to conceal the face, but narrowing enough to be easy to suspend from the cap. The length was chosen aesthetically, as opposed to any known examples.

The mandil (handkerchief) is an important textile accessory in the Medieval Mediterranean; even the Rumi (Byzantines) would carry them, calling it a sudarium. Wealthy people would have different manadil for several purposes, including catching a tear while listening to poetry and wiping grease from the fingers [11]. This one is periwinkle blue silk finished with double running stitch and is intended for the former purpose.

The final piece for this outfit is the ridâ’ (pl. ardiya), or wrap. It is a fabulous brocaded silk fabric, hemmed by hand. The ridâ’ is one of the most ubiquitous items in the Cairo Geniza, occurring so frequently that it often goes without description [12]. It was worn in a variety ways, and women’s ardiya were often fastened with a fibula at the shoulder. Contemporary illuminations depict a variety of colors and patterns (see figure أ).

To complete this outfit shoes would be worn matching the ensemble. Jewelry would include earrings (in multiple holes even), either hoops or fanciful dangles. A pair of bracelets would be worn (see figure أ, ب), one on each arm—unless you and your sister inherited half each of the matched set, in which case you would only wear it on the right [13]. Hands would be hennaed (see figure ب), period depictions usually indicate the fingertips were fully darkened and patterns wrapped up to the wrist. Eyes would be adorned with kohl and eye shadows. A belt may be worn as desired.

[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., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress: a Short History. Brill 2003.
 [3]Stillman 1977.
 [4] Ibid.
 [5] Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. II: The Community, 1967.
  [6]Stillman 1977.
  [7]Ibid.
 [8] Ibid.
 [9] Ibid.
  [10]Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. Ashmolean Museum, 2001.
 [11] Rosenthal, Franz. “A Note on the Mandil” Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam. Leiden, 1971.
 [12] Stillman 1977.
  [13]Goitein.

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