historical clothing

How Much Did a Garment Cost in the Bronze Age?

a colour photo of the stone remains of the temple of Dendur in a glass-roofed space at the Metropolitan museum of art.  The temple consists of a stone gateway, the stone foundation of the front wall, and a one-chamber sanctuary with a two-column porch
Egypt gave the US a temple from the reign of Augustus and it is glorious https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547802 There is now a video about the Temple of Dendur (have not seen it) https://smarthistory.org/temple-of-dendur/

I have posted about the cost of a shirt in fifteenth-century England, and the price of a tunic in the time of emperor Constantine. That is not the earliest date which we can explore! Writing on scraps of stone from Egypt and clay tablets from Ugarit tell us how much a garment cost in the Late Bronze Age around 1500 to 1100 BCE.

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The Back and Forth of Research, or, The Tatbeet Seam

a photo of a seam in orange thread on two pieces of coarse white linen cloth against a blue background
The so-called aketon seam (see bellow): finish the edges, then place right side to right side, join the two finished edges with a whipped or overcast stitch, and unfold to reveal a smooth seam without excess bulk

A challenge in dress and textile history is that people use names for stitches or seams and do not define them or sketch them. Since people use different names for the same thing, and the same name for different things, it can be hard to understand what they mean. An Egyptologist says that seams on garments from Bronze Age Egypt are “mainly of the flat (‘tatbeet’) type, and the very similar run and fell seam … was used for children’s sleeves.” (Rosalind Janssen née Hall, Egyptian Textiles, Shire Publications: Princes Risborough UK, 2001, pp. 57, 58) There are no pictures so what did she mean?

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Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes

a Greek vase painting of Darius on his throne as a man in Greek dress approaches to give advice
This painting is contemporary with Darius III, but the material culture does not convince me! Note the nice long kopis cleaver and the knobby walking stick. The Darius Krater in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples (from Apulia, c. 340-320 BCE), c/o Wikimedia Commons

Greek and Roman literature is certainly an important collection of evidence for clothing in the Achaemenid empire. Most of these passages describe the clothing of the king and satraps, or simply say that such-and-such is the Persian equivalent of a Greek garment. Herodotus and Strabo provide information about the garments of other people. Herodotus says that Babylonian men dress as follows:

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Iranian Tunics for Plataea

A horseman on an Achaemenid Period silver rhyton from Erebuni, Armenia. Note the bands around the upper arms and wrists of the tunic, along the shoulders, and from throat to hem. To learn more about this hoard see Mikhail Yu. Treister, “A Hoard of Silver Rhyta of the Achaemenid Circle from Erebuni,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia Vol. 21 (2015) pp. 23-119 (thanks Christopher Tuplin for the citation). Photo by Jona Lendering https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erebuni_achaemenid_rhyton_2_mus.jpg

If you want to go to the reenactment event at Plataia (currently scheduled for 26-31 July 2022), the most important things are shoes, clothing, and something to sleep on and eat from. And the most important site for those things is the sale mine at Chehrābād, Zanjan province, Iran. This mine was worked from 700-400 BCE, then from 300 to 600 CE, then from the 17th century to the 20th century. North-West Iran suffers from earthquakes, and bad earthquakes buried some of the miners and their possessions. As of 2016, six salt mummies had been found from the Achaemenid and Sasanid periods. Just like the salt mines at Halstatt, Austria, the salt at Chehrabad preserves things which rot in air and wet. Since the 2010s, the objects from this site have been examined by a joint European-Iranian team with resources to do things like scan the mummies with a CT machine. So far, 600 pieces of textiles have been catalogued. The following post is based on a lecture in German by Dr. Karina Grömer of the Naturhistorisches Museum, Wien, at the University of Innsbruck on 18 January 2016. I delayed posting it partially because I was too sick and busy to make the illustrations, and partially because I was ashamed that I made a mistake in my article on the trousers from Chehrabad. I will continue to edit this post as I have time to make, scan, and clean up illustrations.

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How Much did a Tunic Cost in the Roman Empire?

If this isn’t the famous robbery scene, from Arsenal MS. 5070 Boccaccio Decameron its as close as I can bother to get for a short blog post! The victim on the left is stripping off his clothes while the three robbers look on.

Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.

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Saka Stockings and Plataea

Some of the felt stockings/felt boots from graves of the Pazyryk Culture in the Altai Mountains, in Polos’mak, N.V., Barkova, L.L., Костюм и текстиль пазырыкцев Алтая (IV-III вв. до н.З.) / Kostium i tekstil’ pazyryktsev Altaya (IV-III vv. do n. e.) / Pazyryk Altai Costume and Textiles (4th-3rd centuries BCE). Infolio: Novosibirsk 2005 (in Russian) pages 94-95 ISBN 5-89590-051-8 (copies occasionally appear on Bookfinder but expect to pay several hundred for a copy, this copy comes the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek by interlibrary loan)

Dario Wielec of Dariusz caballeros and Stefanos Skarmintzos want me to talk about the felt stockings with soles which have been found in some graves in eastern Central Asia. They were often worn in combination with a pair of short trousers that covered the thighs and crotch. You can find a full set of colour photographs and drawings on pp. 92-97 of the Russian book I cited in my original post. They are fascinating and beautiful objects (just think about having brightly coloured feltwork more than 2000 years old!) but I am not sure that they help us understand Chehrabad Saltman 4’s trousers for four reasons:

  • they are not what Saltman 4 is wearing (they are felt, his are woven cloth; they are two separate legs, he wears joined trousers; they have seams up the back of the legs, his have seams at the side of the legs; the felt boots are close-fitting, his trousers are “baggy”)
  • in artwork like the Darius Mosaic, Red Figure vase paintings, and the sculptures of the Aphaia temple on Aigina, the leggings of trousered warriors seem to go all the way up to crotch level without sagging. The felt stockings tend to be shorter (although I don’t have a full set of measurements) and in the middle ages when stockings (‘hose’) extended that high, they needed to be hung from a belt to stop them from falling down.
  • trousers in early Achaemenid art often have a zigzag, diamond, or spotted pattern. That strikes me as something which would be easy to weave in tapestry weave like a kilim. Clothing in this period often had gold leaf, felt, or leather appliques, and its possible that the zig-zag was applied to felt. But we have a fragment of a textile with a rhombus pattern from the Achaemenid period at Chehrabad.
  • I am not sure which genders wore these felt stockings, I seem to remember that the famous pair with shiny beads on the soles were from a female burial but I only have access to what has been translated into German or English and what I can obtain from my library or interlibrary loan.

Since none of the Chehrābād salt mummies are wearing these felt boots, and none of the artwork from the Achaemenid Empire or the Aegean clearly shows them, they don’t belong in a post on Saltman 4’s clothing. But if you scroll down, Herr Doktor Manning will give you his whole lecture on the trouser outfit across Eurasia.

A Red Figure plate painted with an archer running right and looking left with a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other
When Greek artists show the bottoms of leggings, they usually end straight at the ankles, sometimes ‘breaking’ over the top of the foot and sometimes fitting tightly. A Red Figure plate signed Epiktetos, in a style attributed to around 520-510 BCE. British Museum, Registration Number 1837,0609.59 I would cite the British Museum’s Terms of use but I can’t see them without enabling a bunch of Javascripts so just search https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx
A white woolen textile with a black pattern of trapezoids inside trapezoids woven into it
Achaemenid textile with ?woven? or ?embroidered? pattern, from Karina Grömer, Archaeological Textiles Review 60 (2018) p. 113 fig. 3 and Aali and Stöllner (eds). (2015) fig. 55 Photo: DBM/RUB/MFZ, K. Grömer
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Iranian Trousers for Plataea

A foot and shin in zigzag-patterned trousers and low shoes laced all around the ankle
A glazed brick relief of feet and shins from the palace of Darius I at Susa. Musee du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, number Sb 14426 c/o Achemenet http://www.achemenet.com/fr/item/?/musee-achemenide/categories-d-objets/architecture/decor-architectural/3018977

People representing Median, Persian, or Saka soldiers at Plataea in 2021 will need trousers. Not everyone needs them: the King rules many lands full of all kinds of men, many of whom have not adopted the Median dress. But reenactors representing men (and possibly women?) from those nations will need them.

One kind of evidence to use is artwork. Aside from the reliefs from Persepolis, the goldsmith’s work from Scythian tombs and the Oxus Treasure, and the mosaic from Pompeii which everyone knows, you will want to have a close look at some of the glazed terracottas of servants from Susa in Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia or on achemenet and of course at the tomb paintings from Tatarlı, Turkey.

By far the most important archaeological find are the trousers of saltman No. 4 from Chehrābād, Iran, radiocarbon dated to around 405-380 BCE. The saltman is still wearing trousers tucked into his shoes and covered by the skirt of his coat, and all of the textiles are so delicate and salt-encrusted that they cannot be removed, spread flat, and examined. What we know can be summarized in the following few sentences:

  • The trousers are woollen, tabby weave, 8 z-spun weft threads per cm, 11 s-spun warp threads per cm.
  • There are lateral seams in the trouser legs to ankle, and a vertical slit in the lateral thigh at hip level with the skin of the deceased exposed underneath. (Whether the seams are at the medial leg (inner thigh) or lateral leg (outer thigh) is not clear to me)
  • A red woollen thread is sewn along the side seams hiding them except at the slit.
  • Overall, they strike the excavators as loose and baggy.

There is no published information about stitches, thread, or dye of saltman 4’s trousers (the cloth looks natural white to me). Edit: Dr. Grömer describes the trousers and tunic as “made of a sturdy, plain natural white woollen cloth” (aus robustem einfarbig naturhellem Wollstoff bestehend).

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Two Dresses a Year

Three women in dressnding on bicycles with straight handlebars
Vivie Warren was more of a hiker and target shooter than a cyclist but this photo will do! Female cyclists from the end of the 19th century c/o the Victoria and Albert Museum http://media.vam.ac.uk/feature/lightbox/v1/album_images/59473-large.jpg

For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:

There’s a pawn shop on the corner
Where I usually keep my overcoat.

Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.

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How Much Did a Shirt Really Cost in the Middle Ages?

A painting of peasants eating and napping under a tree while others harvest grain
Peter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565: now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 19.164). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your modern education. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?

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