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It was hot in the Islamic Empire. So people mostly dressed to protect themselves from the sun. The best way to keep from getting sunburns was to keep your skin covered with cloth as much as possible. At the same time, people also believed that God wanted them to cover up. They thought this especially about women, so that men would not see their bodies. People said that women would be safer if their bodies were hidden under layers of cloth.

So women in the Islamic Empire wore long, loose tunics. The tunics were like T-shirts that reached down to your knees. They were usually linen or cotton, and sometimes silk. Women also wore loose pants under their tunics. And over their tunics, they wore veils, made of one large piece of cotton, linen, or silk cloth. They wrapped their veils around themselves however was most convenient.

But if women were out in a crowd, or wanted to seem especially modest, they pulled the veil across their face so no one could see them. The veil was actually very useful not only for modesty and for keeping the sun off your head, but also for a lot of other purposes. You always had a handkerchief available, or you could use your veil as a baby sling, or a picnic tablecloth, or a bandage, or a little tent, or a light blanket.

Afghani miniature from Herat (1400s AD)

Afghani miniature from Herat (1400s AD)

Islamic men generally dressed a lot the same as women. They also wore tunics, sometimes long but generally only to their knees. And they also sometimes wore loose pants under their tunics. Over the top they had a large piece of cloth, like the veil, but men would call it a cloak. You could use a cloak to keep off the sun or the rain. Or it could keep you warm if it was cold in the desert at night. Or it could be a blanket or a tablecloth, or a backpack. Your cloak would hide your face if you didn’t want people to know who you were. It could even be a baby sling sometimes.

Often men also wore another, smaller piece of cloth wrapped around their heads as a turban, to keep off the sun. There were a lot of different ways to wind a turban. Each one showed something about who you were and what group of people you belonged to.

It was in the Islamic period that silk first became a common fabric in West Asia. During the Roman and Sassanian Empires, only the Chinese knew how to make silk cloth. If you wanted to wear silk clothes you had to get a trader to bring them all the way from China. So they were very expensive.

About 650 AD, however, people in West Asia started a local silk industry. Soon silk became much cheaper, and so more people wore it. The new steel needles from China also made silk embroidery possible. And the traders of the Islamic empire did good business selling the silk clothes to the people of FranceEnglandItaly and Germany, where mulberry trees would not grow because it was too cold. In exchange, Islamic people bought wool cloth from northern Europe, shipped through Florence and Venice.

Cotton, also, first came to West Asia from India during the Islamic Empire. And, like silk, for a long time cotton was not produced in Europe. Instead, Islamic traders sold cotton cloth west to Europeans and Africans and east to China. In order to produce more cloth faster, spinners somewhere in Asia invented the spinning wheel in the 1200s AD. With the spinning wheel, you could spin faster and make cloth more cheaply than before.

Learn by doing: a Medieval Islamic day
More about the history of cotton

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic clothing:

Medieval European clothing
Indian clothing
Islamic food
More about the Islamic Empire home