The Women’s Costume of Sogdiana. (Based on the materials of early medieval monumental painting)

Issue #4 • 4536

Early medieval Sogdiana, having united major historical and geographic centres such as Samarqand, Maimurg, Kesh, Nakhshab, Ishtihan and Bukhara, turned into a powerful state; its majestic palaces were decorated with wonderful murals.

The ruins of ancient cities, as well as murals and paintings that survived in architectural monuments and kept in the country’s museums give an idea not only about highly developed arts, but also about culture and style of wearing garments in those days.

Subjects of the wall paintings are feasts, celebrations and ceremonies attended by men and women of the upper classes. Sogdian aristocratic women are good-looking: black brows, large almond-shaped eyes, small mouth and nose, and long, straight black braided hair. By the characters’ clothing and jewellery worn on the head, neck, chest, waist, hands and feet one can identify their social status, as well as material the clothing is made of. The paintings depict army commanders, princesses and their entourage, equestrians, musicians, dancers, priests and female servants.

Surviving Sogdian murals, one of which is a letter from Fort Mugh written by Devashtich, the governor of the Penjikent province, now kept in the Hermitage, and a small piece of embroidered silk provide valuable information about the traditions and technology of producing textiles during that period (1, p. 363). Archaeological findings confirm the hypothesis that even high-quality cotton, wool and silk textiles of original texture were woven on primitive looms (2, pp. 166-171).

The analysis of parallels in Central Asian costume revealed close ethnic and cultural linkages among the peoples of the region, where cotton and silk were used in many places (2, p. 166-171). Written sources recorded that in Bukhara, Dobusia, and Samarqand high quality cotton was used to make cotton fabric known as karbos (3, p. 227).

Through the Great Silk Road, Sogdiana maintained economic and political ties with the nations of Europe and Asia. Silk from Sogdiana was highly appreciated in China. It was a convenient product to export due to its light weight and high value.

The FortMugh documents recorded that bull, goat, and donkey hides were used to make shoes, elements of military outfit, caftans and fleecy sheepskin coats.

Murals feature many images of women wearing richly ornamented attire. Sogdian craftsmen were skilled in making quality textiles, primarily silk, to be sewn into dresses for high society women. Princesses and ladies-in-waiting wore garments consisting of upper and lower dress (Fig. 1) (Varakhsha, VII c.); (Fig. 2) (Penjikent, VII-VIII cc.); (Fig. 3) (Afrasiab, VII-VIII cc.); (Fig. 4) (Afrasiab, VII – VIII cc.).

Women’s costume of the period in question can be divided into four sets: underwear with sleeves or without; a yoke dress; and gown- and cloak-like capes. Closed underwear dress was put on first; then a dress with a shaped neck cut; then a dress with or without sleeves; and a cloak or a caftan on top. Ethnographic data suggest that dresses had simple cut and were sewn by hand. The underwear dress with long sleeves had high rounded neckline and a knee-, sometimes floor length. (Fig. 2)

The cut of the early medieval women’s costume was tunic-like. Traditional straight, closed or cut underwear and topcoats worn by the peoples of Central Asia are very different from the Greek cut, although ethnographers continue to classify these garments as tunic dress (4). This tradition in dress cutting still lives among the Turkmen and Karakalpak people.

In the VII-VIII centuries noble women of venerable age wore garments made of one-colour fabric with lace on the neckline and sleeves. Young women wore dresses close-fitting at the waist, with a V-neck and narrow sleeves of colourful patterned fabrics (Fig. 2) (Penjikent). Over the dress, aristocratic women wore several other outfits. Buttons sewn to the underwear and topcoats did have any significant function (Fig. 2). The lower part of the dress was ornamented with beads and pearls. Gold thread, pearls and beads were used to embroider cuffs of the long sleeves. The same embroidery decorated the side seams of the upper part of the dress, sash, and pants (5).

Another component of the festive attire is a lightweight, brightly coloured silk camisole, waist-length or longer (Fig. 3) (Afrasiab), with upper part ornamented with precious stones. The camisole was worn over colourful flared silk dress or pants that were decorated with beads, coloured yarn, light folds, and patchwork. This costume was intended for outings and formal occasions. Besides, over their expensive garments women wore a cape of thick fabric with printed design (Fig. 1) (Varakhsha); (Fig. 2) (Penjikent). Designs on the fabrics – printed or made of knots – required great skill and were entrusted only to the most experienced weavers (Fig. 1) (Bukhar-khudat Palace in Bukhara); (Fig. 2) (Penjikent).

Capes, which were much shorter than dresses, might or might not have sleeves (Fig. 2) (Penjikent). Stand-up or turndown collar had lining (Fig. 2).

Gown-cape is a distinctive element of the Sogdian women’s costume. To ornament capes with a turndown collar they used a wide braid with precious stones or pearls sewn to it. Hems of dresses and capes were embroidered with seed pearls or beads arranged in a vegetable design, such as encircled cotton boll (Fig. 2). In the VII-VIII centuries, the most popular design in Sogdiana known as “Pearl” was widely used in architecture, weaving, pottery, and carpet-making. Sometimes capes had no ornamentation.

It is known that cape was worn not only over the shoulders, but also over the head. Hence the scholars’ hypothesis that cape was the forerunner of the paranja veil and still today has an important function in everyday wear of Uzbek and Karakalpak women. To this type of clothing also belongs a full-length cloak-cape, fastened on the chest with a round pin adorned with different gems (Fig. 5) (Panjakent early VII-VIII cc.). According to S. A. Yatsenko, in early medieval Sogdiana “these cloak-capes were worn only by men” (6, p. 198). However, terracotta figurines suggest that garments loosely worn over the shoulders were also popular among Sogdian women (Fig. 6, terracotta). In the attire of Panjakent women belt scarf was not an essential accessory. Women’s costume also featured knee-length gowns with long sleeves, fastened at the waist and worn over the dress.

Military women’s clothing – a belted caftan, folded at the sides to the waistline – had a stand-up collar (Figure 7). Short sleeves were decorated with precious stones. The caftan was girdled with a wide belt; the neck had a low cut trimmed with a different fabric. The caftan was worn over armour (7, p.118, photos 3, 8).

Texts and archaeological finds give us an idea about clothing worn by dancers and musicians. For their outfits different fabrics were used, depending on the repertoire. Those, in particular, were dresses with narrow sleeves, as well as thin camisoles of embroidered gauze, and wide pants of red and green fabric. The attire of professional dancers was expensive and bright. Hip sashes were usually shiny, steel-colored, with many long, loose laces.

In Sogdian textiles a lot of attention was given to colourful inserts. According to S. M. Mahkamova, Sogdian silks were similar to the XIX-XX cc. abr fabrics (8, pp. 86-87). Silk dresses for dancers were made of satin with golden threads. Costumes for rhythmic dance involving quick movements were styled differently. The upper part of the dress worn by Sogdian women-musicians was close-fitting, with a flaring hem. There was also another cut: floor-length outfit with a collar and a thin sash (Fig. 8, 9) (Penjikent, VII-VIII cc.). Musicians wore close-fitting short camisole (Fig. 8) (Penjikent, VII-VIII cc.). Cuffs and collar rim were ornamented with beads and braid. Hem had a border of oriental motifs embroidered with gold thread. Among the overcoats worn by musicians and dancers were also sleeveless jackets.

Priestesses wore plain, unornamented attire with folds and a sash. The lower part of the dress was wide; its length, to the floor or shorter, depended on the service to be performed.

Servants’ clothing has a simple cut and no ornamentation; it is made of cheap fabrics, and features a belt (Fig. 10, 11) (Penjikent, VII-VIII cc.).

N. P. Lobachyova noted the absence of headdress in the images of Sogdian female characters portrayed in early medieval art. The head of a Sogdian woman was not covered, and her hair was plaited into small braids (Fig. 2, 10) (4, p. 43). However, the present-day discoveries of the mural paintings confirm the presence of different kinds of headwear (Fig. 12) (Penjikent, the first half of the VIII c.).

The images hardly suggest anything about the cut of the pants, which were made of fabrics of different textures. The upper part was made of soft fabrics, while the lower part – of the thicker ones. On the Penjikent mural the sets of women’s clothing complement one another (Fig. 11) (Penjikent, VII-VIII cc.). Pants were chosen to match the dress. This tradition of making and wearing a dress has lived to this day. Wide pants were tucked into soft ichigi or harder boots. Researchers contend that the cut was borrowed from Iranian Sassanids and Turks.

Women, particularly riders, wore black boots, closely fitting the leg (Fig. 13) (Afrasiab, VII-VIII cc.). Highborn women had footwear decorated with beads to match the dress. Also in fashion were shoes fastened tightly around the foot with ribbons and open at the sides; those of the dancers, like their clothes, were catchy (brightly ornamented red boots).

Precious metals and natural stones had long been used in women’s jewellery. Dress was accessorized with jewellery designed for head, chest, and neck, as well as for belts and shoes. People of Sogdiana wore jewellery matching their social class and status. The higher the person’s standing was in the social hierarchy, the more numerous and expensive were his jewellery. High society women and dancers used makeup, lining their eyes and painting eyebrows, as evidenced by the surviving images.

One can conclude that in the early medieval Sogdiana people had a special attitude to clothing, the style of which was influenced by other nations, too. Dress culture of Sogdian women preserved some Kushan elements, such as turban-like headdresses, floor-length gowns with straight collar, dresses with a sash, long pants, and different kinds of footwear. At the end of the VI-VII centuries, new trends in cutting and tailoring began to develop among Sogdians and Turks, featuring single- and double-breasted gown-like capes with triangular collars – one of the overcoat types worn by Sogdian women. The process of apparel evolution in the VI-VII centuries was noticeably influenced by the Iranian Sassanids. Thus, from the Persians, the Sogdians borrowed the manner of putting a cape over a long dress, without fastening it, as well as wide ribbons, bottom dress flaps, and pants tucked into boots.

Despite the influence of traditions prevalent in the neighbouring nations, Sogdian costume retained some of its characteristic features. Every detail, pattern and ornamentation represents ethnic customs, lifestyle and philosophical views of the Sogdian people. Even a little detail or colour relate to the natural environment of the region or convey a symbolic meaning. In the VII-VIII centuries the originality of the Sogdian costume manifested itself in the cut, where the upper part of the dress fitted the body closely, while the lower part flared. Subsequently, Sogdian women’s attire, constantly improving and preserving its traditional qualities, influenced the evolution of traditional Uzbek costume as we know it today.


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