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How to Make a Persian Outer Caftan

Research by Charles Mellor, may be reproduced if properly credited.

This diagram is based upon an extant garment shown in 'Lost Treasures Persia'. The garment is shown from the back, laid out flat. Front details are conjectural, based upon garments painted in miniature painting of that period and locale. This particular caftan is dated at last quarter of sixteenth century, though this type of garment was in style from about 1300 to 1620.

The original garment is composed of "dragonslayer" brocade, which shows a scene of a Persian man/warrior slaying a Chinese style dragon in a landscape setting. The picture is in black & white and the color is described as light blue. The brocade seems to be quite detailed with a repeat of approximately 18 inches vertical. As is typical for brocades from this period in Persia, the motif is repeated with colors alternated or varied and also with the scene reversed from left to right on alternate repeats. As is also typical for brocades of this period, it is most unlike anything made nowadays. This particular type is really more like you photocopied a painting and then pasted multiple copies together edge-to-edge, and then covered up the edges with overlapping leaves from the trees in the scene. No attempt is made to match the patterns on the back of the garment. Based on extant Turkish garments I have seen, I would guess that the patterns might have matched at center front, but probably not anywhere else. There are even places were tiny slivers of fabric were pieced together, most likely as an economy because this fabric would have been very expensive. In this pattern I have only shown the seams that I believe are "functional" rather than economical.

Both men and women wore this style of garment as an outer covering. At this length it almost sweeps the floor on me, but comes up to mid calf if belted. I have seen paintings of both men and women wearing this type of garment in every length from hip length to floor length. Women more typically would wear it long, but the split seems to be about 80 - 20, with both sexes wearing longer garments for formal or indoor activities and shorter garments for outdoors or on horseback.

This type of garment is usually worn over other layers of a similar cut of garment, perhaps of a lighter weight. Another garment worn under this is the "Mongol" or crossover coat. Some people believe that women never wore the Mongol coat, but the pictures clearly show that they did. Pants similar to the Turkish "salwar" were always worn by both sexes under all the other layers. I have seen very few paintings were a short garment is worn over a longer one (not counting a short coat over long pants), but I have seen many pictures with longer coats worn over another coat that is short enough to tuck into the pants. It is very hard to guess what the most inner layer of garments would have looked like. There are paintings that show men wearing knee-length white pants that seem to be cut about the same as salwar. It is hard to tell from the picture, but they are made out of fabric that is either crinkled like gauze or has a fine vertical stripe. In some paintings the women are wearing what seems to be a gauzy undershirt with sleeves about 10" longer than their fingertips that sometimes fall down over their hands. I saw one painting with a man wearing an undershirt of crinkled gauze/stripes that seemed to fasten at the side of the neck like a Cossack shirt.

I can't tell from the photo of garment what the weight of the fabric would be, but based on paintings of the period, a very drapey, softer fabric was most common. I have seen no evidence in paintings that the super-starched Turkish look was ever used in Persia. Based on paintings, other appropriate fabrics would be: brocades with small, over-all geometric patterns, brocades with small over-all patterns of Chinese motifs (most typically cloud-scroll patterns), brocades with arabesque patterns, brocades with foliate or acanthus in either over-all or serpentine runners, solids with gold embroidery or stamping randomly applied or applied to hem and wrist, Turkish style brocades, Venetian style brocades, cut velvet in Turkish patterns. Even though everybody thinks stripes are typical of Middle Eastern design, stripes are never shown for use in garments in Persian art, except for peasant/labourer class clothing. Based on paintings, this particular type of garment is frequently lined with fur or silk shag in improbable colours. The garment in the photo seems to be lined with a lightweight broadcloth of yellowish green with a repeat pattern. It is possible that garments of this type may have been lined with Ikat silks in period (as they were in the 19th - 20th cent) but this is entirely conjectural. I know they had that fabric, but I have seen no pictorial evidence to support it's use in lining.

These garments most typically buttoned from neck to waist, though they were not always worn buttoned and sometimes show no evidence of any fastening in the paintings. As far as I can tell from all the evidence I have seen, buttonholes were not used. Instead, loops or tabs were used. Buttons were often grouped in clusters of two, and from the evidence I have seen were most typically either toggle or ball buttons. Sometimes horizontal stripes of braid where used to accent the closings. Based on the paintings, it is either appropriate or even essential for the garment to gap at the closing and show the next layer of fabric underneath. It is hard to tell for sure, but some of the paintings seem to show the women wearing several layers of these buttoned at the neck and belted at the waist and open to show a vertical sliver of skin on their torso. Some people believe this was for nursing or in the harem. I have examined several paintings showing this with a magnifying glass in person, and I cannot say whether they are showing skin or undertunic.

Variations

  • This could be made without the slit in the arm that allowed the sleeve to be used as a hanging sleeve. In that case, the sleeve would be shortened to be about 10 - 12 inches longer than the fingertips and worn pushed upon the wrist.
  • This could be made with short sleeves, slightly above elbow.
  • When made with short sleeves, sometimes a full-length sleeve would also be made. This would be worn over the short sleeve and attached with a button at the shoulder for warmth.
  • Sometimes a full-length sleeve would be attached with buttons right at the edge of the short sleeve.
  • Either variation 4 or 5 can be worn attached by the buttons, but with the arm out of it, as a hanging sleeve.
  • Sometimes for riding this garment would be slit up the back to the seat, or the side slits would be extended higher than shown.
  • Prior to about 1400, the taper of the sleeve would not be as great; making a sleeve that was more open at the wrist. Since this would not stay up when pushed up at the wrist, the sleeves were shortened somewhat, to approximately knuckle length.