05 July 2015

a Recreation of an Ayyubid Women's Face Veil Cairo: 1171-1250: Materal Culture 27: A&S50 Challenge

a Recreation of an Ayyubid Women's Face Veil Cairo:A Recreation: 1171-1250
Recreation by Julia May
Photos by Chris Schumann

The paper describes the recreation of Middle Eastern headgear from the Middle Ages which is suitable for a wealthy woman to wear while attending ceremony in an urban public venue.

Figure 1 Ms C 23, Maqāmāt al-Hariri, detail. St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Dated1225-1235. Note: woman in buraq, upper left.

More than half of a woman’s trousseau consisted of head gear in the Middle Ages [1]. Despite many extant images of women; and many extant written accounts of garments, researchers today cannot discuss with certainty the connection between the named garments and the depicted garments. Even pioneering work such as Yedida Stillman’s analysis of scores of trousseaux does not provide the details that a re-enactor looks for [2].  For the purposes of communication, I have used the speculative names for garments that other researchers have agreed upon.

The most prominent feature of this headgear set is a full face veil, the burqa. Today’s garment bearing the same name is very different from its medieval counterparts. It does, however, serve the same purpose: concealing an adult woman’s face to protect the honor of her family.

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 matched pieces [3].

Full face veilburqa, to conceal the face

Figure 2 Extant face veil, Eastwood.

My re-creation goal was concealing the identity of the model so she could attend a public ceremony (SCA court) but without heat-stroking during the summer. The burqa style was chosen over other faceveils because its narrow shape permits breezes to get by.
Recreated burqa
During the Middle Ages, it is believed that the burqa was as wide as the face. Based on extant finds and extant images, it is made in two pieces, upper and lower, connected in three places: at the bridge of the nose, and outside each of the eyes. Along the nose there is a ridge seam created to shape the garment to the face. In the two extant garments, the upper and lower pieces of fabric are touching each other; however, period images do not always portraying this same proximity [4].

The extant garments are unfinished, both in the same way as each other [5]. Despite this, I chose to finish the whole length of the veil and make it shorter 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]. These two garments (the burqa and the overwrap) went hand-in-hand during the Middle Ages. In the modern context of the SCA, women generally do not wear the body-concealing overwraps while out-of-doors. Women in the SCA spend more time out-of-doors than wealthy women are described as having done in the Middle Ages.

Third, Vogelsang-Eastwood describes this garment as sometimes being decorated with beads, coins, chains, shells and so forth [7]. Having worn other face veils of my own construction, I believe that this sort of adornment would help to keep the veil under control while walking or standing 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.

Kerchiefmandīl, foundation headwear

According to trousseaux records, most women had several head-kerchiefs, called manadīl (singular mandīl), in their head-gear collections [8]. It is described as one of the foundation garments available for head-gear, and often served as the foundation for men’s turbans as well. This kerchief type of mandīl protected the other head-gear from the oils of the hair and skin. Another option for a base-garment would be a skullcap. I selected the mandīl for the flexibility of passing it along to another person to wear in the SCA. In the Middle Ages, the word “mandīl” is also used for a number of napkin- and towel-like objects; some are garments, others are household linens [9].

To wear it, this is folded into a triangle and tied around the hair-line with a double knot at the base of the neck.

I make little braids (antenna braids, located about where a Martian's antenna are) to have a stronger foundation for pining veils into place. The mandil is about the size of a modern kerchief.

VeilBukhnuq, to conceal the hair

The description of this veil occurs in a woman’s trousseau as a garment “whose primary purpose is the cover the neck.” In my speculation, this garment was triangular. This could be achieved with little waste by cutting a rectangle crosswise and sewing the two short ends together. A triangular shape would allow the garment to “covers the head, [go] down along the cheeks under the chin, and falls over the shoulders” as is described in Stillman’s research. It would remain a comfortable, tug-free neck covering when “the two ends might be brought again over the head and there attached [10].”
Figure 3 Suggested design of the bukhnuq.

To wear the ensemble: Two small standard (not French) braids are made at the crown of the head. The hair is gathered into a pony tail or bun and secured. The mandīl is tied around the head. The burqa is tied around the head so that the eyes are exposed. Finally the bukhnuq is draped over all, with pins securing it to the little braids at the crown of the head.

The bukhnuq pinned to the antenna braids, and wrapped with the two ends over the head.

Fabric Choice for Headwear

Many trousseaux survive from this period and give us a snapshot of women’s wardrobes at the time of their marriages. Several of the garments listed have the fabric described as “jari al-qalam” (literally, "the flowing of the pen") which is defined by Stillman as a fine pinstripe [11]. Another trousseau indicates that an entire ensemble of garments is made from one striped fabric [12]. In the Islamic Middle Ages, "matchy-matchy" (my term) 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 [13].  Therefore I selected a fine fabric with narrow pinstripe.

The trousseaux also tell us that people in this period had a “tremendous range of highly refined dyes [14].” Blues (and whites) were the most common of these colors [15]. Extant textiles, excavated at Quseir al-Qadim (a port city used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), also show a preference for blue and blue-and-white textiles [16].

Linen was chosen because it was the most produced fiber of Islamic Egypt. Most of the textiles excavated at Naqlun (eleventh and twelfth centuries in Egypt) were linen [17]. Further, trade records indicate that “flax was produced in greater amounts than all other fibers combined[18]” during this period.

For the anchors and ties on the burqa, I did not copy the methods used in the extant garment above (several strings stitched over cross-wise, see Figure 2). Instead, I used lengths of corded silk. This choice not only maintains consistency across the piece, it also served as another step to raise the quality of the garment above the coarseness of the original. The silk fibers chosen have a “sticky” feel to them—with the goal of clinging better to the hair of a weekends-only (and therefore less experienced) veil-wearer.

The Ensemble

Overall, this ensemble of headwear meets the needs of the modern re-creationist while staying true to the original designs and goals of the Middle Ages. I believe the departures I make (in size and closures) do not significantly alter the feeling of the garments.

[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. Note: For a 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 which specific garments it was worn with.
[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, “Female Attire".
[9] Rosenthal, Franz. “A Note on the Mandil” Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam. Leiden, 1971.
[10] Stillman, “Female Attire".
[11] Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress: a Short History. Brill 2003, p 59.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Goitein vol 1, p 222-3, 245.
[14] 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.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Earl, Graeme. “The Textiles: Quseir al-Qadim Project.” University of Southampton, School of Humanities. 2000. http://wac.soton.ac.uk/Projects/projects.asp?Division=1&SubDivision=2&Page=17&ProjectID=20 (accessed 4 April 2011; now inactive).
 Helmecke, Gisela. “Textiles with Arabic Inscriptions excavated in Naqlun 1999-2003.” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean/Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, Warsaw, POLOGNE 16 (April 19, 2004): pp195-202. http://www.pcma.uw.edu.pl/fileadmin/pam/PAM_2004_XVI/218.pdf (Accessed 19 April 2001).
[18] 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.

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