Carrying a range of political and literary messages, fashions from Safavid Iran (1501–1722) were a versatile medium for self-expression. Safavid dress is characterized by innovative color combinations, distinctive figural motifs on fabrics, and rich texture due to the extensive use of gold- and silver-wrapped threads. The resulting overall ensemble of garments created an opulent and elegant look for both men and women, as depicted in paintings and tilework and in illustrated travelogues by European visitors to Iran.
Fashioning Tastes: Early Safavid Style (1501–1576)
The political ideology of the Safavids was manifested in the headgear of its rulers. The dynasty’s founder, Shah Isma‘il, and his supporters traced their lineage to Shaikh Safi of Ardabil, a Sufi theologian whose successors gained religious and political authority throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Safavids expressed their belief in Twelver Shiism by donning white turbans with twelve folds wrapped over a red felt cap with a baton, credited as the invention of Isma‘il’s father Haidar, and called alternately the taj Haidari or taj-i Safavi. As the Safavids took control from their Sunni predecessor, they celebrated the centralization of Shi‘a authority by implementing the taj-i Safavi for all royalty and related administrative personnel. It was regarded as the ultimate signifier of political allegiance.
During the early Safavid period under the reigns of Shah Isma‘il I (r. 1501–24) and his son, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76), court fashions were evident in the detailed paintings in the Shahnama of Tahmasp and other illustrated royal manuscripts. In the paintings, the outermost garment for both men and women consists of a long robe that alternately crosses over in the front and fastens to one side, or parts down the front. Loose, ankle-length trousers peek out from beneath a chemise or pirahan falling straight to the knees for men, and mid-calf for women. Often these are worn beneath a short-sleeved robe, emphasizing the contrasting colors of the trousers and chemise in lapis blue, emerald green, and tomato red. The edges of the outer robe are depicted tucked into a belt made of strips of leather, connected by floral-shaped metal fastenings. The visual effect is a feast of color, enhanced by delicate woven motifs of the outer silk and gold brocaded fabrics. The images are brought to life in the memoirs of Michele Membré, a Venetian envoy who visited the court of Tahmasp in 1539–42, and English merchant Anthony Jenkinson in 1561–62.
Much of the splendor of Safavid garments is inherent in the textiles used to fashion the external garments. The rich tradition of weaving in Iran excels during the Safavid period, culminating in the production of illustrative figural and floral designs executed by master weavers and designers. Figural textile designs range from attractive youths in garden settings (08.109.3) to royal hunt scenes, and a small group of textiles depicting Safavid princes taking Georgian prisoners (52.20.12). The technical skill of designers in this period is evident in the thin dark outlines that delineate the figures and accompanying motifs, and the seamless repeats throughout the cloth. Floral designs are often presented within a lattice framework, accompanied by birds and foliate designs.
Although many of the richly woven silk garments of the period are only accessible now as fragments, the tailored shapes suggest that they were once part of the decorative garments worn throughout Iran and sent as diplomatic gifts to Europe and India.
The Golden Era of Shah ‘Abbas (1587–1625)
The true flowering of Persian art across all disciplines occurred under the patronage of Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1625). Shah ‘Abbas’ reputation as a ruler vacillated between that of a worldly king and a religious shaikh, and the arts during his reign reflect this duality. Paintings depict opulently dressed youths languishing in a state of mystic ecstasy, while epigraphic silk textiles recount verses of Sufi poetry. These two identities of shaikh and king come together under the ruler’s imperative to solidify Iran’s position in international trade, while also maintaining his commitment to Safavid ideology.
Centralizing the distribution of raw silk under state control as an important source of revenue, ‘Abbas encouraged the production and sale of high-end silk lampas and velvet textiles for apparel and home furnishings by workshops in Yazd, Kashan, and his new capital at Isfahan. Shah ‘Abbas implemented an aggressive export program for these luxury textiles, encouraged by elaborate gifts of silk garments and sent to heads of state for distribution throughout their courts. Persian velvets in particular were lauded as the finest and most expensive on the international market, and often found their way beyond palace walls into church treasuries as linings for reliquaries, or fashioned into liturgical garments such as copes (49.32.71) and chasubles.
Persian garments fashioned from these luxurious silk textiles are considered the epitome of the Safavid style. The basic elements of the outer robe, chemise, and trousers from the early period are still seen a century later; however, the belted robes are now accentuated by wide, gold-embellished sashes. Album pages by Riza-yi ‘Abbasi, court painter for Shah ‘Abbas, depict lovers and youths dressed in loose, layered clothing with vibrant patterns. The significant shift is seen in the male headgear: the elongated taj-i Safavi has been abandoned for a wide, bulbous turban adorned with an aigrette for men. Headwear for women around 1600 consisted of a square cloth or chahar-qad, placed on the crown of the head and fastened with a thin ribbon of silk, and sometimes accompanied by a chin strap made of a string of pearls or gems. After 1625, however, women are depicted in paintings and on textiles wearing a loose veil fastened with a small tiara or decorative silk ribbon tied behind the head. Outer garments are made of sumptuous floral silk textiles atop decorative layers, while the innermost garments are unadorned white cotton meant for frequent washings. The charming ensemble is finished with ankle boots or slip-on shoes of black or white leather, often sporting a Cuban heel. Accessories included elaborate jewelry and delicately embroidered purses (29.23.24).
The woven figural motifs featured on outer garments for men often depicted characters from Persian literature, such as poet Nizami’s Layla and Majnun or Khusrau and Shirin (1978.60), endowing the wearer with an affinity for the qualities of these protagonists. The stories are represented as scenes repeated within a foliate or rectilinear framework, often accompanied by poetry. While women are depicted rarely in these figural silks, floral designs depicting the rose and nightingale (gul-o-bul-bul) (26.231.2) and similar motifs are abundant.
The popularity of color, weave structure, and iconography are noted in English East India Company documents, and commented upon by European visitors including Englishmen Robert and Anthony Sherley and Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle, who visited the court of ‘Abbas in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Favorite colors for Persian dress in the period of Shah ‘Abbas include flame red, parrot green, and salmon pink, among others. A portrait of Robert Sherley by Anthony van Dyck (1622) depicts him in full Safavid attire as the Persian ambassador, wearing the robe of honor and accessories with which Shah ‘Abbas presented him.
The Later Safavid Period (1650–1722)
Fashions throughout this period differ from the cut and fit of earlier garments, reflecting changing tastes and ideas in Safavid society. Chronicles by visitors such as Sir John Chardin, a French jeweler who traveled through Iran from 1673 to 1677, reveal the importance of appearance and dress in Safavid society and include detailed engravings that illustrate four different costume styles for men and women.
Styles after 1650 reflect a dramatic shift toward tailored garments, possibly in emulation of European examples. Women’s attire, as depicted by Chardin and in surviving garments, consists of a tailored jacket with tight sleeves and open to mid-chest, where it was cinched to the waistline with several fastenings along a central front seam. Ranging in length from hip to calf, the overcoat was cut with rounded hips or a flared skirt to accentuate the natural curves of the wearer (49.32.76). Consistent with earlier fashions, a chemise and ankle-length trousers are worn underneath the ensemble, culminating in a pointed-toe slip-on shoe. Hair was worn long and collected into multiple braids, adorned at the ends with silver or gold ornaments. All this finery was draped loosely in an enveloping veil or chador covering the body and lower face when venturing beyond the inner sanctum or andarun of the home.
Menswear evolved along similar lines, in that the outer robe became more fitted and often included a fur collar and a lining. The overall look for men in some cases was more elaborate than that of women, as male ostentation was considered more acceptable by cultural standards.
The importance of clothing within Perso-Islamic culture is enhanced by cultural practices. Several occasions, such as the annual Nauruz celebration of the spring equinox, required each participant to have a completely new wardrobe for the two-week celebratory period. Likewise, it was customary to wear new clothing at weddings and other celebrations throughout the year. Soiled clothing was cause for immediate removal and replacement, and frequent washing surely led to fading of luxury garments, which were later cut and sold for the value of the silk and metal threads.
As the dynasty came to a close in the early eighteenth century, fashions and textiles reflect the declining regime. Style in the courts became increasingly Westernized as shorter, tailored garments with stiff fabrics replaced loose layers of silk, and the fine details of earlier textiles gave way to more static compositions. The height of Safavid style, however, remains immortalized in garments and fragments in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection.
Munroe, Nazanin Hedayat. “Fashion in Safavid Iran.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/safa_f/hd_safa_f.htm (October 2013)
Baker, Patricia L. “Safavid Splendor.” In Islamic Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1995.
Bier, Carol. The Persian Velvets at Rosenborg. Copenhagen: De Danske Kongers Kronologiske Samling, 1995.
Bier, Carol, ed. Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran, 16th–19th Centuries. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1987.
Blunt, Wilfred. Pietro’s Pilgrimage. London: James Barrie, 1953.
Canby, Sheila R. The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501–1722. New York: Abrams, 2000.
Chardin, Sir John. Travels in Persia. London: Argonaut Press, 1927.
Scarce, Jennifer. “Through a Glass Darkly? Glimpses of Safavid Fashion in the Sixteenth Century.” In Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, edited by Sheila Canby and Jon Thompson, pp. 319–25. New York: Asia Society, 2003.
Scarce, Jennifer. Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987.