Women's fashion in Sogdian painting
Title image: Sogdian Fravashis, Panjikant. Image with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov.


If you're following me on social media, you may have noticed a flurry of posts recently with Sogdian painting showing women. It's me trying to recruit more women into the group so that we can get some posh reconstructions of female garb up and going. I really like the look of women's clothing in Sogdian painting, although not sure I can pull it off myself, given the beard.

Today let's look at some of the paintings in a bit more detail, and have a closer look at women's fashion in the 7th - 8th Centuries. In future weeks I'll be looking at the role women played in Sogdian history in a bit more detail too.


Banqueting Sogdians, Balalyk Tepe, 6th - 7th Century. From Al'baum, "Balalyk Tepe"


Like men's fashion, Sogdian women's fashion changed little in shape between the 6th and 9th Centuries, changing mainly in the richness and decoration of the fabrics. The basic garment was a long, ankle length, long sleeved dress, often decorated with a band of patterned or coloured fabric down the midline.


The daugher, from the Story of the Old Man, his Daughter, and the Spirit of the Ocean. Image with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov


In fact, almost everyone wore this dress. The Story of the Old Man, his Daughter, and the Spirit of the Ocean, from Room 41/VI at Panjikant shows an ordinary class girl wearing such a dress, probably of white cotton, with a vertical band down her front that ends at her navel, and decorated cuffs. In another room at Panjikant, a queen is shown walking with her ladies in waiting, wearing essentially the same outfit, but in much, much richer fabric, and with an overcoat thrown over her shoulders.


Painting of a Sogdian Queen, Panjikant. Image with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov


The Sogdian queen in the above waiting wears the same type of outfit - a long dress, here made out of a pink and red duochrome silk, with a vertical decorative stripe and cuffs made from a white polychrome silk. The patterns on her dress are hard to make out, but one can make out a brocade with ducks inside pearl roundels on a golden background on her overcoat, which, like men's overcoats, has lapels, but is worn draped over the shoulders. Bracelets set with a white stone (Jade? Pearls? Something else?) can also be seen on her wrists.

It's unfortunate that the entire painting didn't survive!

But it does make a nice segway into the next article of clothing - the women's overcoat.

In terms of cut and shape, women's coats and men's coats were the same. Both were long, extending past the knee. Both had lapels - one lapel in the earlier eras, and two lapels from the late 7th Century onwards. Both had long, full sleeves and were patterned similarly. The only difference was how they were worn - men's coats were worn as coats, with the arms placed through the sleeves. Women's coats were worn as mantles, draped over the shoulders. 


Donor at the foot of a deity, Panjikant.


The only time we see any significant difference between men's and women's coats is at Balalyk Tepe, which is earlier than Panjikant. Here, the women's coats have circular brooches with ribbons on their fronts, which perhaps served as fastenings. This fashion seems to have died out with Balalyk Tepe however, and doesn't appear in any other Sogdian painting.


Balalyk Tepe, dining couple. From Al'baum, "Balalyk Tepe."


It's not even ubiquitous at Balalyk Tepe, plenty of women don't sport these circular fastenings on their coats.

Coats were sometimes worn with the arms through the sleeves too. As well as the maidservants from Balalyk Tepe, of particular mention is this harpist from Panjikant Room 41/VI, who wears a coat over a long dress made of flowy, draping fabric and tall boots, and has a small purse suspended from a ring on her leather belt. A terracotta coroplastic sculpture from 6th Century Panjikant also shows a woman in a coat, although it lacks the lapels of later centuries.


The harpist girl from Panjikant Room 41/VI, with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov


Besides coats, another type of overgarment that was worn on top of the long dress was a hip length, short sleeved top, often made of decorated fabric. These sometimes had rounded necklines, or they could be in a deep V cut as well, and often had an upper (above the waist) made in a different fabric from the lower part, below the waist. 


Fravashis from Panjikant. Image with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov


Buddhist donors, Ajina Tepe. Dresses, short tops, and overcoats! Image with thanks to Aslishah Qurbani


Coats and short tops were one variant of costume worn over the long dress - another, totally separate fashion was the cloud collar. Cloud collars aren't as common in Sogdian painting, and are never shown with a short top or overcoat. They seem to be restricted for princesses only.


Equestrian couple, Panjikant, Room 41/VI


Faramarz and the Princess of Kahila, before King Key Khosrow and Rostam. Panjikant Room 50/XXIII. Image from Michael Shenkar's "The Epic of Faramarz in the Panjikent Paintings."


Long dresses conceal legwear, but we get a few glimpses as the trousers and leggings Sogdian women wore underneath their dresses. Seated goddesses often have their dresses riding up the leg, and decorated trouser legs are often visible poking out. These sometimes have a triangular notch on the front just above the foot.

It's not clear from the religious paintings whether these are trousers or leggings, but we definitely see leggings in a painting from the Amazon Cycle, showing an injured Amazon lying on a stretcher, shirtless so her injuries can be treated.


Injured Amazon carried on a stretched by two male attendants. Image with thanks to Cyril Tarkhanov


To my eyes, she is wearin a leopard patterned pair of leggings over heavily decorated trousers. This may have been utility as well as fashion - the leggings may have been made of a more hard-wearing material, and would have protected the delicate brocaded trousers from greaves, stirrup leathers,  and armour - this is, after all, a battlefield scene.

While they're not visible in this scene, other paintings show footwear accurately too. The most common type of footwear were ankle length boots made of leather. Boots could be inexpensive, utility items, or highly decorated pieces of high fashion - the boots of the Queen of Bukhara in the 7th Century were encrusted with precious stones and were worth a pretty penny!


A 7th Century mural in the Termez museum. With thanks to Matteo Compareti.


But we have more to go on! In fact, there are a few finds of Sogdian female costume that have been unearthed from sites in Central Asia. Next week, I'll visit some of those sites, and see how excavated costume fits in with what we see in the wall paintings.



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