Clothes make the woman


In the SCA, you see a wide range of garb. It ranges from the exquisite late-period Elizabethan to the two-bath-towels-pinned-at-the-shoulder sort-of chiton. People who sew tend to have spiffy garb. People who don’t sew make do with eBay finds, thrift store finds, and generic Renaissance faire wear. Or they have friends who are good at sewing make them spiffy garb.

Once you settle into a persona, you’re supposed to create some garb based on your time/place. For many, this is usually easier said than done – especially if you’re in a period and place with very few pictorial depictions, like Sicily in the 12th century.

And then there’s the bellydancer aspect to it. I freely admit that when I decided “eff this” to Florentine wear and got heavily into tribal bellydancing, I was attending events in jingly kuchi belts, cholis, face plastered with bindis, etc. Not just al Hafla or Southern Regional War Camp, when there was dancing going on; it was all events.

However, one thing I NEVER did was claim what I was wearing was “authentic.” Answers were, “No, I just like it,” “I dance, so it’s in my closet and easily accessible,” or “Most of my sewing time is devoted to troupe costumes.”

Recently, I’ve started to address this. In doing research about what a dancer in 12th century Sicily might have looked at, I found images such as this one:

The image comes from Ugo Monneret de Villard’s “Le pitture musulmani nel soffito della Capella Palatina in Palermo.” It’s a large-size book of photographs taken of all of the figural images of the muqarna ceiling. It’s hard to get. I found mine on Abebooks a few years ago, and it cost me about $85 shipped from Italy. My copy was printed in 1950.

Notice a couple of things about this image? She is not wearing a jingly belt, a bra and belt set, or a choli. She is wearing a tunic, undertunic, and pants, and has some sort of skullcap surmounted by a knotted headband. She has some dots on her face (forehead and cheeks) that could represent some simple tattooing, like that of the desert peoples of the Maghreb (particularly Tunisia).

Inspired by this, I created myself this:

(picture courtesy of Baroness Cateline la Broderesse, MKA Jennifer Guyton, who has many talents)

I made this outfit specifically for Mudthaw in 2010. What am I wearing? I have on simple salwar pants (not seen in the photo), a linen undertunic, and an overtunic made from a silk sari with lots of pale gold brocade work. I have a cap that is a crocheted snood, and a linen headband with a side knot (also not seen in the photo).

I did not do any harquus marks on my face; I was still playing around with the makeup then.

Overall, this is better, but this is still not quite right. For one, the crocheted snood as a cap. Not only is crocheting not period, I can’t even find any evidence for knitting, at least of headgear, until the 14th century, with the byssus cap of St. Denis.

The decorated bands I have in the sleeves should be set into the shoulders and the undertunic is not quite right, being very wide of sleeve (I actually have the sleeves stuffed up into the overtunic sleeves). The salwar are actually a pair I snagged from a modern salwar kameez set, but they were simple and fit me.

So, it’s an A for effort, but to me this is still not passing grade yet. But at least I’ve opened up a few people’s eyes with it. “If I could wear something like that, I’d wear Middle Eastern garb!” I had one court baroness tell me.

Tune in next time as I wave around some blue silk to start on a new Sicilian tunic, and talk a bit about Sicily’s silk industry …

About adelisasalernitana

This blog is the exploration of the life of a 12th century woman in the court of King Roger II of Sicily. Looking at the tripartite culture of the kingdom – Norman, Greek, and Muslim – how people dressed, the food they ate, the buildings that they lived in, and the remnants of Muslim culture in modern Sicilian language, food, music, and customs.

4 responses »

  1. Sicily in that period is a fascinating study! Re knitting, there are knitted socks from before the 14th century, in an Islamic context (so not inappropriate for Sicily). But if you want something more documentable than the crochet, you could look to netting which was used for women’s headwear in the period.

  2. Thank you, Thora! I had actually thought about netting, but I haven’t found any examples of it from Fatimid Egypt (which had quite an influence on Palermo fashions). The head coverings in the paintings from the muquarna seem to be solid caps, or the woman’s own high-piled hair – if the latter, it’s conceivable netting could have been used to hold it in place. But the ma’raqa (skull cap) is supposed to absorb sweat from the wearer’s brow so costly veils and headbands (‘isaba) are not stained.

    Still, I don’t think netting is out of the question entirely.

    • Hi Mirian, yes, I have thought of sprang, but there was also a very strong tradition of knitting in Coptic and Islamic Egypt, and a tradition of knitting in fine and unusual fibers in Southern Italy and Sicily in the Middle Ages, otherwise we would not have the byssus cap that was found in St. Denis, France – yes, it’s 14th century, but very early. It’s the oldest knitted medieval object found, and undoubtedly Mediterranean in origin.

      I am aware of the Geniza documents and have pored over the translation and descriptions provided by Yedida K. Stillman and S.D. Goitein. No knotted or knitted headcaps have been mentioned in these documents as far as I have been able to tell from these two authors.

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