Simple Yet Elegant
The Cut of an Extant Persian Caftan
By Master Rashid / Charles Mellor
There is a photograph of an extant garment shown in “Lost Treasures Persia”. It is believed to have been a diplomatic gift from Safavid Persia to Moscow. 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 garment is shown from the back, laid out flat (1). The garment is similar to formal over-caftans seen in miniature paintings of 16th century Persia. I originally developed a pattern based upon this picture. Several years later, a new image of this garment was published in the book “Hunt for Paradise” (2). This picture shows the garment from the front. New details of the construction of the collar and cut of the front panels are now apparent that were not visible in the previous photograph. In testing mock-ups of this garment, I was impressed by the ingenuity and apparent simplicity of the collar and the way this construction detail changes the hang of the garment.
Click for larger & clearer picture
The original garment is composed of a “dragon slayer” brocade, which shows a scene of a Persian man slaying a Chinese style dragon in a landscape setting. The background color of the brocade is a light sky blue. The motifs are ivory, yellow, brown, light olive and russet with silver and gold metal threads. The brocade is fairly 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. The patterns were 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 diagram I have only shown the seams that I believe are “functional” rather than economical.
(1) Vladimir Loukonine & Anatoli Ivanov, Lost Treasures of Persia: Persian Art in the Hermitage Museum (Mage Publishers, Inc, 1996) p. 189.
(2) Jon Thompson & Sheila R. Canby, Hunt for Paradise: Court arts of Safavid Iran 1501 – 1576 (Asia Society, 2003) pp. 320,321.
The cut of this caftan is rather simple, but some of the details are quite elegant in their simplicity. The pattern of the garment is composed primarily of rectangles and triangles.
Click for larger picture
The front is composed of two rectangles and the back is another rectangle twice as wide as one side of the front. Both the front and the back pieces have small rectangular pieces cut away from the upper outer corners, essentially providing a square-ish armhole. The back also has a small piece at the center top, which functions as part of the standing collar. It cannot be determined from the photographs if this piece is integral or added on. Based on the number of small snippets that can clearly be seen making up the gores, it is possible that the back collar was a separate piece.
The sleeve is a long rectangle, tapered at the wrist. It has two very long triangular gussets that blend in with the taper at the wrist and do not extend all the way to the shoulder seam. There is a triangular gore on each side of the body that extends from the armhole to the hem. The top of this triangle is slightly truncated and forms part of the armhole. There is a vertical slit in the top of this gore. The sleeve gussets are attached into the gore rather than into the main armhole. This is different from any other sleeve attachment I have seen, and I don’t know if it serves any function other than to conserve a bit of fabric.
Perhaps the most elegant aspect of the pattern of this garment is the collar. If I had to pick a succinct description, I would call it a “standing shawl collar”. The back of the garment has a small piece of fabric, forming the back of the collar, either attached to or incorporated with it. The two front pieces have no extra shaping for the collar, other than the fact that there is no neckhole cut out. I would expect there to be some shaping, maybe a little triangle or a slight upwards curve to the front pieces where they are about to attach to the collar stand of the back piece. But careful analysis of the brocade motifs in the pictures indicate that the front edges are cut on the straight grain and that the top edge of the front pieces are also on the straight grain, even though when assembled they turn about 85 degrees to follow the edge of the back collar stand.
It is not possible to determine the straight grain of the brocade from only the color photo in “The Hunt for Paradise”, but by careful examination of the back of the garment in “Lost Treasures of Persia” I was able to determine how the motifs of the brocade relate to the grain of the fabric. I still wasn’t entirely sure that I was interpreting this correctly, so I made a muslin mock-up. When I tried on the mock-up, not only did the collar look exactly like the photograph in “Hunt for Paradise”, but it pulled the two front pieces of the garment in such a fashion that they overlapped in front at exactly the same place as seen in the photo. If I had not done an analysis of the fabric grain based on the motifs, I would have surmised that the front opening hung in that fashion because it had two triangular gores on each side of the front opening, but constructing the collar in that fashion pulls the front opening slightly off grain so that it only appears to be cut from a triangular shape.
Fitting the Collar
Because this collar is a bit different from what we are used to and because its fit will vary with the way the individual’s neck it set onto the shoulders, I recommend making a mock-up of the top part of the garment in muslin or another inexpensive fabric. It is not necessary to do the whole garment, just the front and back from the chest up.
The measurements shown on the “collar back detail” illustration are approximate and for most people would represent the maximum height and width of the back collar stand. If the mock-up is made using exactly these measurements, when you sew the front pieces to the back (starting at the shoulder edge) you will have about an inch extra width of fabric on the center front edges which you can just cut off. If your fabric is expensive, you may wish to modify the pattern so that fabric is not wasted. If you change the pattern for the back collar stand, shortening it will mean you have excess width on the front panels and lengthening the collar stand may mean you need to add a bit of width to the front panels. Widening the collar stand may mean you will have excess fabric on the front opening, and narrowing the collar stand may mean you need to make the front panels wider.
Try on your mock-up and if needed, modify the angle of back collar stand by pinning the seam. In all likelihood, most people will need it to be shorter than the pattern, but don’t forget to take into account the seam allowance for the lining. In some cases (particularly for men) it may be necessary to widen the base of the back collar stand to accommodate heavier trapezius muscles.
You will see a slight tendency for a crease to form on the side of the neck. This is probably normal, the photo in “Hunt for Paradise” shows a bit of a crease on one side. (click on larger photo above and see illustration of the caftan from the Kremlin Armory collection, displayed in the Hermitage, in the book). If you have very erect posture and your neck is set farther back than average, it might help to modify the shape of the back collar stand so it is wider on the collar edge rather than at the shoulder edge. I don’t know if they would have done this in period. If your fabric is tightly woven and tends not to deform towards the bias, widening the top of the collar stand could also help the fit.
1. This could be made with a the slit in the upper arm that allowed the sleeve to be used as a hanging sleeve.
2. The sleeve could be shortened to be about 8 inches longer than the fingertips and worn pushed up upon the wrist.
3. This could be made with short sleeves, slightly above the elbow. There is sometimes a scooped cut-out on the inner elbow edge of sleeve.
4. When made with short sleeves, sometimes a full-length sleeve would also be made. This would be worn over the short sleeve for warmth and attached with a button at the shoulder.
5. Sometimes a full-length sleeve would be attached with buttons right at the edge of the short sleeve.
6. Either variation 4 or 5 can be worn attached by the buttons, but with the arm out of it, as a hanging sleeve.
7. Sometimes for riding this garment would be slit up the back to the seat, or the side slits could be added to the center of the gores at the hem edge.
8. 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.
Copyright Charles Mellor 2006
Color photos added by Urtatim