Cultural Selection: Clothing as a Reflection of Socio-economic Status and Regional Differences

Kazakhstan, Feast of Nauryz. © KOCHMARYOV /

We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.

Regional differences, socio-economic and political factors, cultural variations, and climate all had a direct effect on clothing choices for those who lived throughout the expansive Silk Roads areas.  Scholars, aristocrats, government officials, craftsmen, and farmers adopted a manner of dress appropriate for their immediate environment in medieval Central Asia.  Although sparse, historical information regarding dress in the Eastern Islamic lands was usually provided by writers, geographers, and travelers. Differences in the style, finish, and quantity of materials were apparent in clothing of the rich and poor.  During this time, Khurasan was a renowned center for silk, wool, and cotton textiles, while Nishapur was noted for its cotton cloth, scarves, and turbans that were often exported to Iraq and Egypt.  In some societies, felt was used to make cloaks, saddlecloths, and rain hats. Moreover, the fur of sables, grey squirrels, ermines, and other animals were essential materials for garments, for the Mongols, the Turks of the steppes, as well as dignitaries in Persia.  Similar to present day, Mongols in the 13th century wore a soft material belt wrapped tightly around the waist.  This served as an unstiffened corset, helping to maintain posture while horse riding during long journeys. 

The oldest piece of silk from this region originated in the Samanid period, and was woven for a ruler in Khurasan.  The transnational fluidity of ideas, concepts, and savoir-faire is evident with the presentation of articles from Khurasan to the Harun al-Rashid (786-809) court in Bagdad.  These tribute items included silk clothing, white robes, and head coverings, amongst others. Individuals belonging to a higher social class often wore clothing made of silk, wool, and expensive furs, while those of the lower classes would possibly use heavy outer coats made from dog or goatskins, lined with linen or cotton.  Mongol women wore long trousers under their sack-like garments, and tall, basket-like hats covered with a piece of cloth.  Married women wore a type of kaftan (“nemreg”) that was wide and slit in front down to the ground.  During the ninth century, wealthy merchants often wore the “taylasan” (a head-shawl whose end did not fall below the chin).  However, the lower classes did not wear this garment.  Cooks wore garments resembling boiler suits, traders and artisans wore loose-fitting garments, and farmers wore thick cotton dresses with colorful turbans.  “Muhtasibs” (municipal inspectors) monitored the state and cleanliness of dress.  Most towns had their textile specialties, such as “mulham”, the half-silk cloth of Merv.  Bukhara, with its famed weaving factories, produced various kinds of silk cloth, known as “Bukhari”.  This fabric was heavy, strong, and often bought in large quantities by international communities. 

Cloth-making required specific skills, such as the ability to process the hides, manufacture thread, and a knowledge of stitching techniques.  Products obtained from livestock remained the primary raw material of the craft industries.  Sheep’s wool was used to manufacture felt, while belts, harnesses, headgear, clothing, and footwear were made from the skins of domesticated livestock. In nomadic societies, herders generally only made items that met immediate requirements related to climate, lifestyle, and transience, such as “bogtogs”, or headdresses.  Although successors of Genghis Khan wore gold-woven robes, sometimes embellished with precious jewels, pearls, and gold, previous dress had consisted mainly of animal skins.  Sack-like garments that were loose on the left side, and tied at the shoulder on the right side, were common.  The “deli”, a robe with seamless shoulders, is an example.  Although the concept remains the same, “delis”, as well as many other garments from the Silk Roads that date from the 10th to 13th centuries, have continued to evolve and gain complexity, while maintaining their unique characteristics. 


See also:

Ancient Korean Art and Glassware

The Enduring Legacy of Ajanta Paintings

Applied Arts and Metalwork

Clothing as a Reflection of Socio-economic Status and Regional Differences

Madrasas as Universal Centers of Education and Culture

The Development of Artistic Textiles 

Medieval Alchemy and Chemistry in Central Asia

Persian and Arab Musical Influences in Thai Courtly Life

The Art of Manuscript Bookmaking along the Silk Roads

Paths of New Beliefs

Regional Variations in Coinage and the Monetary System

Classical Arabic Literature

The Transformative Power of Tea

The Evolution of Sericulture along the Silk Roads

Q & A with Mr. Ali Moussa-Iye during the Pasarela de las Artes Event in Valencia, Spain

Batik for the World Exhibition at UNESCO

Sindhi Aesthetic Impulses and Cultural Expressions

Stylistic Origins of Kashmiri Artistic Traditions

The Diversity of Cultural Influences in Kushan Art

Imitation and Inspiration: The Transformation of Porcelain along the Silk Roads

The Art of Kyrgyz Traditional Felt Carpets

UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads Photo Contest

UNESCO Silk Roads Project

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