Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Getting shirty

Persians are known to have worn two modes of dress during the Achaemenid period.  One is an ankle-length robe or tunic with a poncho-like upper.  The other is a simple shirt-and-pants ensemble like that seen from Greater Iran through Scythia to Western Europe, where it persisted until the Middle Ages.

Herodotus claims that the robe is the native Persian costume, the shirt and pants (sometimes called Median or cavalry costume) being adopted from the Medes.  Some modern historians suggest that rather the Persians adopted the robe from their Elamite neighbors.  At Xerxes I's tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam an Elamite is seen wearing a nearly-identical robe, while all Iranian peoples other than the Persians wear a shirt or short coat and pants.

In any case, the robe appears to have been an item of formalwear.  It is seen at processions in royal iconography and seals depicting the idealized king slaying enemies, but very rarely in Greek battle art.  It's also (so far as I know; I'd very much like further evidence) the only attested form of dress for Achaemenid women.  Unfortunately, its construction is even more unclear than that of other garments.  For example, was the caped top an integral part of the body or a separate piece?  I haven't seen anyone attempt a reconstruction since Iran's 1971 commemoration of the empire's founding.

Get on with it
The Medo-Persian tunic was knee-length.  It had a round neckline, close-fitting, wrist-length sleeves and fit close in the upper body as well.  Below the waist, it was probably flared for ease of movement.  The hem was straight.

The neckline in period art rarely looks wide enough for the head to fit through, so it probably had some kind of closure.  It is possible, for example, that the neckline was actually a keyhole style, with a short slit running down the front like a polo shirt, the top of which could have been closed with a loop and button, string and button or two strings.

The shirt was boldly decorated with stripes, zigzags and diamonds.  A good source is the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, which was originally painted and a reproduction of which has been retouched to mimic the original:  It shows two Persian shirts with contrasting cuffs, hems, necklines and single central stripes, and another with two central stripes.

Late in the 1st century BC, Strabo in his Geographica wrote that Persians wore "double tunics."  I've seen it suggested this means they wore one tunic as outerwear and another as an undershirt.  I've yet to try this out, but if the undershirt were made of linen, it seems like it would make wearing a wool outer tunic more comfortable.  Of course, even if correct, this hypothesis may very well be anachronistic for the Achaemenid period.

Since we don't know about the construction, there are several options for making or obtaining your shirt.  Similar European tunics from the late Roman, Migration and Viking periods are available ready-made, but if you get a non-custom one, there's the chance that you might not like the fabric or fit, plus you'll need to find one without decoration.  Making your own (or having one made for you) takes care of these challenges, but keep in mind the alterations necessary for a close fit and freedom of movement.

Next time:  Alexander the Great and the fall of the empire.

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