Ancient costume and fashion history of Asia Minor. The Persians, Medes, Scythians, Parthians, Sarmatians, Dacians, and Illyrians.
I DO not, under this head, mean to notice the Chinese, the Hindoos, or other more remote eastern nations, who were hardly known by name to the Greeks, who were never represented on their monuments, and whose costume can be of little use to the historical painter. I only wish to offer a few observations, with regard to those less distant inhabitants of Asia, who, under the name of Medes, Persians, and Parthians, Amazons, Phrygians, Lycians, and Syrians, though a race totally distinct from the Greeks, had with these European neighbours some intercourse, and whose representations not unfrequently recur in their paintings and sculpture.
Over this vest was most frequently worn a wide sleeveless tunic of a different texture and pattern, clasped on the shoulders, confined by a girdle round the waist, and when long, gathered up a second time by means of another ligature lower down; and of this tunic the skirts reached to about the middle of the thigh.
Of the male attire of the different nations inhabiting the region now called Asia Minor, the prevailing features seem to have been a vest with long tight sleeves reaching down to the wrists, and long pantaloons descending to the ankles, nay, often hanging over the instep, and losing themselves withinside the shoes or sandals. These pantaloons clothe those masculine ladies the Amazons, whenever they are represented on some warlike expedition; though at other times, when at home and engaged in peaceful pursuits, they appear in petticoats like other females. Sometimes these pantaloons were made of the skins of animals, at others of rich and fine tissues, embroidered or painted in sprigs, spots, stripes, checks, zig-zags, lozenges, or other ornaments. Sometimes they fit tight; at others they hang loose, and fall in large wrinkles over the shoes. The vest, always of the same stuff and design with the pantaloons, seems like our modern waistcoats to have opened in front, and to have been closed by means of clasps or buttons placed at considerable distances from each other.
To this thus far light and airy dress, aged and dignified persons still added a mantle or peplum, different from that of the Greeks in being edged round with a regular and distinct fringe, not interwoven with the body of the stuff, but purposely tacked on; and this studied enrichment, never observable in Grecian dresses, is in fact represented by Eschylus as a peculiarity characteristic of the peplum of the barbarians, or Asiatic nations.
The Parthian, and other more inland sovereigns of Asia, are sometimes, though seldom, represented on their coins beheaded, with their long hair and bushy beards most finically dressed and curled. Often they wear a cylindrical cap, rather wider at the top than at the bottom, called mitra by the Greeks. Sometimes this cap was encircled by a diadem, and at others loaded with different emblematic ornaments. Its shape is to this day preserved in that worn by the Armenian priests.
The Medes and Persians seem more generally to have worn the cidaris, or conical cap, sometimes terminating in a sharp point, at others truncated, and mostly loaded with ornament.
The prevailing male head-dress of the Asiatics, bordering on the Euxine and the Archipelago, appears to have been that which is generally known by the name of the Phrygian bonnet, and of which the characteristic features are its point or top bent down forward, and its long flaps descending on the shoulders. Sometimes this covering scorns to have been a more loose cap of the most soft and pliant stuff: unable to support itself upright, and hanging down in large wrinkles; at others it appears to have formed a helmet of the most hard and inflexible substance of leather, or even of metal-standing quite stiff and smooth, and enriched with embossed ornaments.
In many of these helmets the flaps descending on the shoulders are four in number, and probably were cut out of the legs of the animals whose hide or skin formed the body of the casque. In most of the lighter caps we only discern one single pair of flaps, which are often tucked up, and confined by a string round the crown.
In the figures of Amazons we often see the beak of the helmet terminate in the bill of a griffin, and the spine or back of the casque rise in the jagged crest of that fabulous animal. When thus shaped this covering may be considered as a sort of trophy, worn in consequence of the defeat, and formed out of the very spoil of some of those griffins with whom the Amazons are represented as constantly at war. Minerva herself sometimes appears in a Phrygian helmet of this species, probably when represented as worshipped at Troy; and Roman likewise wears it on many Latin coins-in order, no doubt, to indicate the kindred which the Romans claimed with the Trojans.
This Phrygian bonnet seems to have been retained by many of the officers of the Byzantine emperors; and to have been, in its turn, again borrowed from these by several of the dignitaries of the Turkish empire; nay, to have travelled, during the intercourse of the Venetians with the Greeks, as far westward as Venice itself, where the Doge continued to wear it to the last day of his existence.
The Asiatics often wore half-boots laced before, with four long depending flaps, shaped like those of their bonnets, and, like those, probably formed out of the legs of the animals whose skins were converted into these buskins. Frequently eastern personages appear in shoes or slippers; seldom, if ever, in mere sandals, that leave the toes bare, like those worn by the Greeks.
In war the Asiatics never seem, like the Greeks, to have worn either breast-plates or greaves, but frequently a coat or jacket, with sleeves, entirely of mail. A flap of mail frequently descended from under the helmet, to protect the neck and shoulders.
The chief defensive weapon of the Asiatics was the pelta, or small shield in the form of a crescent; sometimes with, and sometimes without its curved side divided by a point into twin concavities. The peculiar offensive weapons of the inhabitants of Asia were the bipennis, or double battle-axe, the club, and the bow and arrow, generally carried in two different partitions of the same case or quiver.
The Dacians, though inhabitants of the European shores of the Euxine, but near neighbours to, and probably of the same origin with the Asiatic nations here mentioned, seem to have deviated little from them in their costume.
They wore their shoes or soles fastened with long strings, wound several times round the ankle, and their pantaloons very wide. On the Trajan column not only many of the Dacian soldiers themselves, but even many of their horses appear entirely enveloped in a coat of mail or covering of small scales, in close contact with the body and limbs. Their helmets were conical and ended in a sharp spike.
Many of the Asiatic nations were celebrated for their constant use and skilful management of horses; and are often represented as fighting on horseback against Greeks on foot.
The Medes and Persians.
An entirely different type of dress (Assyrians) is met with when we turn to the Medes and Persians. In contrast to the costumes swathing the body worn by the peoples already mentioned, we now find hose or breeches and a blouse-like shirt with sleeves.
The original Persian costume was made of tanned hides, covering not only the upper part of the body, but also the legs. At a later time (about 700 B.C.) the Persians used strong but soft materials to provide suitable protection in view of the climate of the country.
The tailoring of men’s clothes in ancient Persia was somewhat complicated by the fact that it had to be adapted to the size of the hides available. Therefore not only had the body of the coat to be made in two or three pieces (Fig. 44), but the sleeves also had to be cut separately and then attached to the coat. This coat reached from the neck to the knees. It was open down the front, and fastened by a girdle. The sleeves were somewhat tight, and covered the whole arm down to the wrist. The hose or breeches of the Persians (Fig. 45) were fairly wide. They reached sometimes to the knees and sometimes to the ankles, and were fastened round the waist. They were thus both simple and convenient, and their great width at the top made up for the lack of stylish cut.
The footwear of the Medes and Persians consisted either of pieces of leather or other material folded tightly round the feet and tied over the instep or of actual boots, which were just as primitively simple as the other type of foot-covering just mentioned. The Persian headdress was a fairly deep cap, coming down in front to the eyebrows and at the back to the nape of the neck. It was made of stiff material, such as felt or leather, and had side-flaps which were often long enough to be tied under the chin.
The dress of Persian women differed little from that worn by the men. The primitive form of it was hides wrapped round the body. At a later time the cut was the same, but the garments were now made of fine leather or felt. The only real differences between the dress of the two sexes were that the women’s coats were wider and longer than those of the men and were closed down the front except for a slit at the breast. When the Median type of dress became increasingly common among the Persians the ancient Persian female garments gradually disappeared, or were greatly modified. They were considerably lengthened and became more voluminous, and the sleeves were wider. Median styles of dress were in strong contrast to the Persian styles. In the latter the garments were close-fitting, short, and made of strong material; in the former they were wide, long, and voluminous, and were therefore made of finer materials.
The usual men’s dress, called kandys, was much wider at the foot than higher up, and was so long that it had to be gathered in front and at the sides and held by a girdle (Fig. 47). The sleeves came to the wrists; they were cut very wide near the wrist, but were tighter toward the armhole.
The Median coat consisted of two pieces, front and back, cut practically alike, except that the cut for the neck was in the front piece. These pieces were much narrower at the top than at the foot (Fig. 49), and were sewn together at the shoulders and down the two sides. The sleeves were quaintly shaped, and were put in at the holes left for the purpose in the side-seams. As was almost universally the case in ancient times, the sleeve-seams were in line under the arm with the side-seam of the garment (The crosses in Fig. 49 indicate how the sleeve itself was sewn.).
This type of costume was worn by Medes of all classes, and was also the ceremonial garb of the monarch and his officials. It was Cyrus who introduced this Median dress into Persia. The ancient Persian national dress was retained only by subordinate Court officials. The priests in Media and Persia, the “magicians,” when performing their official duties were clothed in white. The cut of their garments varied with their rank. The only item of dress which was worn by all priests was the sacred girdle. Priests were forbidden to wear any kind of ornament during their celebrations, but they had to carry a cane rod in their hands. (See Fig. 51.)
In the ceremonies performed in honour of the sacred fire the retinue of the priests was dressed in purple. A purple robe—or at least a purple cape—seems to have been the distinctive dress of the chief priest. When officially employed he wore the Median national costume and a headdress very similar to that worn by the king. The material and cut of the clothing of the rest of the priests bore greater resemblance to the Persian costume, or consisted of an under-garment and a wrap or plaid.
Like the cape of the high priest, the priest’s upper robe was made in two pieces, a front and a back. In contradistinction to the former, however, it was not sewn from top to foot, but was open at the sides. Moreover, the front and back pieces of this robe differed from those of the other both in shape and size, and the garment itself had a hood-like collar, separately sewn on (Fig. 52, c). The front and back pieces were first sewn together at the shoulders; then the rest of the width of the back piece was turned over forward. The rest of its upper edges was sewn to the sides of the front piece. The collar was also sewn to the front piece so that the seams of this sewing met the seams connecting the front piece with the back.
When the garment was being put on, the loose flaps of the front piece were fastened together underneath the back piece. Median footwear, like the Persian, consisted of laced shoes made of leather or other strong material. Those worn by wealthy people were richly embroidered, trimmed with gold, and frequently light in colour.
The Median type of hose or breeches, when worn at all, was probably in all respects like that of the Persians. On the other hand, the Median headdress was quite unlike that worn in Persia. It was a hood that not only covered the head, but entirely surrounded the face, concealing even the chin. From it hung down two broad strips, one falling over the breast and one over the back.
A different form of headdress was used by the upper classes. These wore round caps varying in height and increasing slightly in diameter upward, the crown being either flat or raised. The crowns and edges of these caps, which were sometimes bestowed by the monarch as signs of distinction or of royal favour, were frequently covered with rich embroidery. The wearing of a blue and white cord round the cap was a privilege strictly confined to relatives of the royal family.
The dress of the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Dacians is specially interesting, because the cut and style of it show many points of resemblance to the Teutonic fashions of prehistoric and early times. The Scythians (of about 700 B.C.) wore long trousers, smock-like shirts, and cloaks very like those worn by the Teutonic peoples. All the Scythian tribes dressed in very nearly the same way. The men wore fairly wide trousers and a coat open in front and held in place by a girdle. Sometimes the coat hung down over the trousers, and sometimes it was tucked into them. The feet were shod with short top-boots fastened round the ankles (Fig. 53), The headdress was either a cap-shaped piece of material kept on by a string that passed round the head or a pointed cap like that worn by the Phrygians.
The material used by the Scythians varied with the degree of civilization attained by the different tribes. The majority of them, being nomads wandering about on the Steppes, had nothing but the material that their flocks supplied. They were exposed throughout a large part of the year to inclement weather, and therefore their clothes were made of tanned leather, the separate pieces being sewn together with narrow strips of leather. Some tribes wore clothing fashioned in the same way, but made of fur, while still others dressed themselves in material made from sheep’s wool and felted.
The cut of the garments was as primitive as the material of which they were made. The coat consisted of two pieces (Fig. 54) joined by a seam running down the back. In each piece a slit was cut for the arms, and the sleeves were sewn in separately.
The trousers were made of two oblong pieces of material (see Fig. 55). Each of these was folded lengthwise and sewn up the greater part of the length. These two bag-like pieces were then sewn together where the seam in each had stopped, this junction seam running up in front and at the back and between the legs. The extra width at the top was distributed round the waist during the process of dressing and kept in place by the girdle. The headdress was a piece of leather or other material, which was given the necessary shape in the process of fulling.
As with most other Asiatic peoples, women’s wear among the Scythians was almost identical with that of the men. The only difierences were that women’s clothes were longer and wider, made of finer material, and more daintily worked.
Widespread and numerous as the Scythians were, only one tribe among them attained any historical importance. These were the Parthians.
The Parthians were a savage race of horsemen. Speaking generally, their clothing was the same as that worn by the other Scythian tribes, especially by the monarchical Scythians who were settled round the shore of the Black Sea. Like these last mentioned, the Parthians usually wore several coats one over another.
When putting on these coats they pulled the upper one, which was cut wide and was long enough to reach to the knees, up under their girdle, so that the bottom edge of the coat underneath (which was much shorter and closer fitting) could be seen (Fig. 56). They also wore long, fairly wide trousers. Their headdress was sometimes pointed and sometimes round, or shaped like the Phrygian cap. The shoes were of leather, frequently dyed a reddish purple.
The trousers were made in the same manner as those of the other Scythian tribes, but in some cases the Persian style was followed (Figs. 45, 48, 50). The Parthian coat, on the other hand, which was made of coloured, soft materials, often of fine quality, resembled the Median garment. It consisted of two pieces, front and back, shaped alike. (See Fig. 57.) These were sewn together on the shoulders and at the sides as far as the sleeve-hole.
The sleeves were conspicuously long. The hole for the head was very wide ; round it was a broad hem for the tiestring, so that the garment could be drawn tight up to the neck or allowed to lie lower on the shoulders. In this way the top of the under-garment, which was similar, but, as said above, shorter and closer-fitting, could be seen to a greater or less extent, as the wearer pleased. The upper coat either had a slit at the breast or was divided in front from the foot up to the fork; it might even be left completely open in front.
This was the ordinary Parthian dress. That of the upper classes was made of splendid material, mostly coloured and richly adorned. Over it was also occasionally worn an oblong cape, fastened at the breast with an agraffe, or clasp.
The only differences between women’s dress and that of the men were in the greater length of the former and the finer material of which it was made. The clothing of women of the upper classes was much more gaily coloured and more richly adorned (Fig. 58). A frequent addition to the costume was a cloak-like wrap, and some women wore a veil fastened to the head and falling down the back. For the rest, this long-sleeved garment was close-fitting at the top. (See Fig. 59.) No girdle was worn with it.
The slit at the breast began at the neck, but was covered with bows of broad ribbon. In order to render the upper part of the garment close-fitting it was shaped at the waist, the lower part being cut considerably wider than the upper.
The Sarmatians, Dacians, and Illyrians.
The dress of the Sarmatians closely resembled that of the Parthians, but there was this difference. When the Sarmatian wore two coats he put on the shorter one above the longer one, and only the longer one (which often reached to the feet) was fitted with long sleeves. The sleeves of the shorter one never came below the elbows, and often came no lower than the middle of the upper arm. Occasionally no upper coat was worn at all, and the Sarmatian costume then consisted of the trousers, the long coat tucked high up, and a cloak, which might be long or short, rectangular or semicircular.
This cloak was fastened at the right shoulder with a pin, or brooch, or even a thorn. The long coat was kilted sometimes high, at other times low. Sometimes it was slit at the sides, or it might be closed all round. The headdress was a cap almost identical with that worn by the Phrygians. In battle a helmet was worn. The trousers and footwear were similar to those in use among the Parthians and monarchical Scythians.
The dress of Sarmatian women, who, well armed and mounted, followed their husbands into battle—among the Yaxamatians women formed the sole cavalry of their tribe, the men fighting on foot as archers—was almost the same as that of the men —viz., a long under-garment, with a shorter one over it. Both of these were sleeveless, and were girt high or low as the wearer pleased. The short upper garment sometimes had a long slit at the breast trimmed with ribbons, with which it could be tied. The female headdress was a tall cap like that worn by the Phrygians.
Dacian and Illyrian costume closely resembled that worn by the Sarmatians, and consisted of shoes, trousers, long coats, and oblong or semicircular cloaks. The main difference was in headdress. Whereas the Sarmatians wore Phrygian caps, the Dacians and Illyrians wore a fairly tall, stiff conical cap made of some kind of felt (see Fig. 61).
Another point of difference was that the Dacians, unlike the Sarmatians, did not wear several coats one over another, and, speaking generally, Dacian dress was not so long or so loose as the other.
In cut Dacian costume, made of fine or coarse woollen material, resembled that of the Parthians, but the coat, especially the upper part of it, was considerably tighter than in the Parthian type. It had a slit at the breast, and at one side or even at both was open to half-way up the thigh. Dacian trousers were shaped like those worn by the Scythians, but were not nearly so wide, and were tied round the ankles after the Sarmatian style.
The Dacian cloak was almost semicircular (Fig. 62); the curved beg had long fringes. It was held together by a clasp on the right shoulder. The chief difference between female dress in Dacia and Sarmatia was that the Dacian style had sleeves, while the Sarmatian coats had none. Dacian women followed the practice of wearing several coats; the sleeves of the over-garments were shorter than those of the under ones, and were gathered and tied just above the elbow or half-way up the upper arm. The garments were very long and very full, the over one being usually shorter than the one beneath. Both had one or two tucks, and were in this way shortened. Quite frequently the girdle was replaced by a cloak, oblong or with a rounded lower edge, worn so that the upper edge passed round the body, the comers being knotted together in front. The Dacian women had a very peculiar fashion of disposing of the great width of the upper part of their clothing. They gathered a large part of the material at the back and arranged it in a knot, pinning it to keep it in place. Round the head they tied a kerchief, which fell to the nape of the neck like a hair-net.
The clothing of the Dacian women must have been made of fine material. In cut the garments consisted of two broad oblong pieces, a front and a back. These were sewn together at the shoulders and down the sides—except, of course, the openings for the arms. The opening for the head was finished with a wide hem, through which a string was passed for fastening. The sleeves had, as usual, only one seam, and were tighter at the wrist than at the shoulder.
- A history of costume by Carl Köhler. Edited and augmented by Emma von Sichart. New York, G. H. Watt 1930.
- L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures by Bernard de Montfaucon. Paris: Chez Florentin Delaulne, 1719.
- Costume of the ancients by Thomas Hope and Henry Moses. London: Printed for William Miller by W. Bulmer, 1809.