Pants in the 16th Century
by Dawn Devine Brown
The two principle cultures in control of the Middle East in the 16th century were the Ottomans of Turkey and the Safavids of Persia. Their clothing had some similar design features and an overall general silhouette composed of pants (known as Chalvar or Shalvar) worn over under drawers dislik. Over the pants were layers of closed tunics and open robes. The layering indicated the great importance that was placed on the fabric itself, which was, during the 16th century, a luxury good. Both men and women wore pants.
During the 16th century, Ottoman rule was expansive, reaching
across the Middle East, into Europe and across North Africa. The
styles worn by the Ottomans were thus carried to all of the areas
where their political rule extended. Many illustrations
depict people, mostly men, in what we commonly call harem pants
today. These very full pants were gathered into either a
cuff or are held with a drawstring through a casing. Because
it is impossible to see the tops of pants in miniatures, some
basic assumptions can be made by surviving garments located in
the Topkapki Saray and other museums — namely that pants
are generally held up with a drawstring and casing.
Since fabric was a valuable commodity, lengths of yardage
were woven to fit. The shape of the crotch was not cut with
a curve as in modern pants construction; but rather, through
the use of a square gusset. The fabric depicted in
most manuscript illuminations indicate that solid colors predominated
in pants for both women and men, a simple background for the
lush textiles of the upper garments. Often the caftan was
worn so long that the pants are obscured, but pants were always
worn by both genders.
Suitable colors include the possible natural dyes on the three
most common fibers of this era, linen, wool and silk. Cotton,
while grown in Egypt, was very expensive to make due to the short
staple and difficulty of spinning. The most popular colors
in Turkey were bright rich saturated reds (made with Madder dye),
royal blue (generally made with indigo) and deep rich greens
(from a variety of different vegetable dyes.) Printed fabrics
had not yet arrived in Turkey, so patterns were woven into the
fabric. Common weaves included plain weave and twill
for linen and wool. Velvet, satin, and lampas were used for more
expensive fabrics in silk. Fabrics of mixed fiber such as linen
and wool combinations were common for lower classes and linen
was commonly used as undergarments.
Contemporary to the Ottomans during the 16th century were
the Safavids of Persia. These two cultures often warred,
but trade never totally ceased and the textiles of the Safavids
were prized in Istanbul. The Safavid empire took control
in 1501 and with control over Persia, they also controlled the
flow of goods along the silk road. There were mixed influences
seen in the manuscript illustrations from the century as this
culture looked both to the East and West for inspiration.
Pants are rumored to have actually originated in Persia as does
the word Shalvar.
Persian pants are cut full through the waist and down to the
knee region. From there the pants taper to the ankle. They
vary from loose, to form fitting to extremely tight. Often
the pants were made longer than the wearer's legs and bunched
around the ankle in tiny pleats. Some illustrations show
decorative bands at the hem, although it is unclear if this is
a separate cuff or merely decorative embroidery and trim applied
to the hem. During this century, Persians generally wore
their caftans shorter, so the pants are visible further up the
leg. The fullness at the top is necessary to accommodate
sitting. Gussets are used to create room in the crotch for
Safavid textiles reached a height during the 16th century. Covered
in floral patterns, the complex weaves that were made for outer
garments for the rich and powerful were famed as far as England. Lampas,
double cloth and figural plain weave silks were all treasured
by nobility while the lower classes relied on common fibers and
plain weaves. Persian dye processes were extremely refined
and subtlety of hues was one of the hallmarks of the Persian
textile output. Persian textiles often contain human imagery,
and popular stories were woven into the cloths, the most popular
being the tale of Layla and Manjnun.
Colors were very important and the English merchant Richard
Hakluyt wrote in 1579 about some of the colors that were being
exported out of Persia. These included various reds and
gallants (flame), popinjay (parrot green), straw, hare, pink,
orange, peach, lavender and ash. (Baker, Islamic Textiles p.
113-114) This is a more varied and subtle color palette
than the Ottomans and includes a great many tints and shades. Ikat
was also a popular dying technique and was often made with a
brocaded patterns woven over the top.
About the Author
Dawn Devine (Davina) is a working costume and jewelry designer. She has been performing belly dance since the mid-1980’s and has been designing and making costumes most of her life. She holds degrees in both Art History and Fashion Design. She writes and published numerous books and articles on the subject including Costuming from the Hip and Embellished Bras. She produces the Byzantium Collection of dance attire and jewelry. She currently lives and works in Silicon Valley, CA.
For more information on Dawn's publications, see her web site
As a costume historian, Dawn primarily researches the 19th
century, and her MA thesis is on the aesthetic movement in England
and its portrayal in Queen magazine between 1875 and 1885. Her
research has led her to become somewhat of an expert on the Orientalists.
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