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Pants in the 16th Century

by Dawn Devine Brown


The two principle cultures in control of the Middle East in the 16th century were the Ottomans of Turkey and the Safavids of Persia. Their clothing had some similar design features and an overall general silhouette composed of pants (known as Chalvar or Shalvar) worn over under drawers dislik. Over the pants were layers of closed tunics and open robes. The layering indicated the great importance that was placed on the fabric itself, which was, during the 16th century, a luxury good. Both men and women wore pants.




During the 16th century, Ottoman rule was expansive, reaching across the Middle East, into Europe and across North Africa. The styles worn by the Ottomans were thus carried to all of the areas where their political rule extended. Many illustrations depict people, mostly men, in what we commonly call harem pants today. These very full pants were gathered into either a cuff or are held with a drawstring through a casing. Because it is impossible to see the tops of pants in miniatures, some basic assumptions can be made by surviving garments located in the Topkapki Saray and other museums — namely that pants are generally held up with a drawstring and casing.

Since fabric was a valuable commodity, lengths of yardage were woven to fit. The shape of the crotch was not cut with a curve as in modern pants construction; but rather, through the use of a square gusset.  The fabric depicted in most manuscript illuminations indicate that solid colors predominated in pants for both women and men, a simple background for the lush textiles of the upper garments. Often the caftan was worn so long that the pants are obscured, but pants were always worn by both genders.

Suitable colors include the possible natural dyes on the three most common fibers of this era, linen, wool and silk. Cotton, while grown in Egypt, was very expensive to make due to the short staple and difficulty of spinning. The most popular colors in Turkey were bright rich saturated reds (made with Madder dye), royal blue (generally made with indigo) and deep rich greens (from a variety of different vegetable dyes.) Printed fabrics had not yet arrived in Turkey, so patterns were woven into the fabric.  Common weaves included plain weave and twill for linen and wool. Velvet, satin, and lampas were used for more expensive fabrics in silk. Fabrics of mixed fiber such as linen and wool combinations were common for lower classes and linen was commonly used as undergarments.




Contemporary to the Ottomans during the 16th century were the Safavids of Persia. These two cultures often warred, but trade never totally ceased and the textiles of the Safavids were prized in Istanbul. The Safavid empire took control in 1501 and with control over Persia, they also controlled the flow of goods along the silk road. There were mixed influences seen in the manuscript illustrations from the century as this culture looked both to the East and West for inspiration. Pants are rumored to have actually originated in Persia as does the word Shalvar. 

Persian pants are cut full through the waist and down to the knee region. From there the pants taper to the ankle. They vary from loose, to form fitting to extremely tight. Often the pants were made longer than the wearer's legs and bunched around the ankle in tiny pleats. Some illustrations show decorative bands at the hem, although it is unclear if this is a separate cuff or merely decorative embroidery and trim applied to the hem. During this century, Persians generally wore their caftans shorter, so the pants are visible further up the leg. The fullness at the top is necessary to accommodate sitting. Gussets are used to create room in the crotch for movement. 

Safavid textiles reached a height during the 16th century. Covered in floral patterns, the complex weaves that were made for outer garments for the rich and powerful were famed as far as England. Lampas, double cloth and figural plain weave silks were all treasured by nobility while the lower classes relied on common fibers and plain weaves. Persian dye processes were extremely refined and subtlety of hues was one of the hallmarks of the Persian textile output. Persian textiles often contain human imagery, and popular stories were woven into the cloths, the most popular being the tale of Layla and Manjnun.

Colors were very important and the English merchant Richard Hakluyt wrote in 1579 about some of the colors that were being exported out of Persia. These included various reds and gallants (flame), popinjay (parrot green), straw, hare, pink, orange, peach, lavender and ash. (Baker, Islamic Textiles p. 113-114) This is a more varied and subtle color palette than the Ottomans and includes a great many tints and shades. Ikat was also a popular dying technique and was often made with a brocaded patterns woven over the top.



About the Author

Dawn Devine (Davina) is a working costume and jewelry designer. She has been performing belly dance since the mid-1980’s and has been designing and making costumes most of her life. She holds degrees in both Art History and Fashion Design. She writes and published numerous books and articles on the subject including Costuming from the Hip and Embellished Bras. She produces the Byzantium Collection of dance attire and jewelry. She currently lives and works in Silicon Valley, CA.

For more information on Dawn's publications, see her web site at

As a costume historian, Dawn primarily researches the 19th century, and her MA thesis is on the aesthetic movement in England and its portrayal in Queen magazine between 1875 and 1885. Her research has led her to become somewhat of an expert on the Orientalists.



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