Clothes that Make the Person

Style and Status in the Islamic Worlds

Woven Wool Cloth Fragments (19th Century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Cloth and clothing compose a multifaceted and nuanced language about form and function, about status and style, about norms and dissent. While environmental factors such as climate and topography contribute to the choice of individual attire — Will it be hot? Will it rain? Will it be cold? — the quality of fabric, its design and its rarity are all clear indicators of social status. 

Shawl (early 19th century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Many anthropologists and ethnographers have described textiles and clothing of the Islamic world through an ethnocentric lens and vocabulary, a perspective that is also complicated by the fact that the study of costume in the Islamic world has been skewed toward elites of the 18th-19th centuries. Most surviving costumes are from the middle and upper classes of their respective societies, and from relatively recent periods. 

Hooded Cape Hooded Cape (ca. 1937)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Hooded cloaks of coarse wool are traditional to the Berber peoples of North Africa. Living in relatively isolated rural regions, the Berbers cultivate livestock and crops such as cotton, which provide a variety of fabrics and dyes for making distinctive clothing and domestic furnishings. The Atlas Mountains, which separate the Sahara Desert from the Mediterranean Sea, regularly receive snowfall in winter so warm outer garments are a must. The loose hood is an important feature of the garment because it protects the head from intense sunlight, freezing snow, and blowing sand. Burnous are traditionally worn by men, but woven by women.

Wool and Satin Caftan (Aba) (20th century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Loose, sleeveless outer garments such as this one have been worn for millennia by men in the Middle East. Wool is readily sourced in the region; indeed, clothing made from camel hair is known from biblical times. Camels — both dromedaries (single hump) and Bactrians (two hump) — are legendary pack animals, able to withstand extremely cold conditions as well as hot, arid ones, and their hair retains these thermostatic properties. Camel hair, collected as the animal sheds it, can insulate in cold weather and cool in hot weather, making it an excellent choice for clothing in regions where camels are kept.  


Brocade (19th century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

In Iran during the Qajar era (1794-1925 CE), women dressed modestly outside the home, wearing light or dark-colored lengths of cloth (čādor) draped to cover the body and head. Dress within the home, by contrast, could be downright sumptuous. Bright and bold finely spun wools made in Iran or imported from Kashmir, brocade silks, jewellery, and bejewelled clothing survive from this period, attesting to sartorial poise and pleasure. These materials were denied to women from humbler families, who may have seen some of these costly materials in the bazaar but did not have the resources to purchase them.  

Embroidered portrait (ca. 1850) by UnknownShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The need for cultural sensitivity and self-awareness in studying Islamic cultures extends to understanding the hijab (cover, veil). While the hijab is not included in this exhibition, it has been a topic of debate and misconception. For some women, the hijab is a gratifying or political garment, an expression of religious faith or loyalty to cultural tradition. For others, it may feel repressive. While some governments in Muslim majority countries enforce head and face coverings, others have prohibited them in certain situations at certain times. Many offer women the choice as to how they want to represent themselves to the world. 

Shawl (early 19th century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Shawls are versatile garments. They can be worn as head coverings for protection from the elements, or for modesty in public spaces. They can be wrapped around the shoulders for warmth, or draped as a decoration. At first glance, this shawl may appear plain, but its apparent simplicity masks extravagant elegance in the subtle, tone-on-tone embroidered design and ultra-fine wool fibers. Kashmir shawls, also known as cashmere, pashmina, or shahtoosh, are world-renowned and have been in high demand for centuries due in part to their beautiful ornamentation, but also to their lightweight, warm wools sourced from Himalayan goats and antelopes. 

Worshippers at the Kaaba (early 18th Century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The fifth pillar of Islam is the hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia, which is required of all Muslims able to make the journey. Dress codes require pilgrims to enter a state of ritual purity. Males wear two white, seamless cloths wrapped and tied around the body. Females may wear garments of any color. Everyday clothing of the Islamic world may be marked by culture, local resources, social class, or affluence. Rites of dress during the hajj, however, pointedly render all Muslims equal in the eyes of God. Many pilgrims are later buried in their hajj clothes, repurposed as funeral shrouds.


Silk Brocade Coat with Metallic Threads Silk Brocade Coat with Metallic Threads (20th Century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Long-sleeved, open-fronted decorative coats were worn by men in South Asia during the Mughal era (1526-1857 CE) along with loose fitting pants, a sash, and turban. Jewellery and ceremonial daggers encrusted with pearls and precious gems enhanced these garments in sparkling abundance. Such displays indicated the rank and importance of a courtier. Subjects were shown particular favor when bestowed with a “robe of honor” or other ornamental dress by the Emperor himself. Clothing helped define hierarchies at the Mughal court and ensured fidelity within the ruling class. Courtly clothing was produced in royal ateliers, by artisans from a rich variety of cultural backgrounds throughout India.

Embroidered portrait (ca. 1850) by UnknownShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

These rarely seen pieces in this digital exhibition is a survey of style and status across Islamic worlds through the cloth and clothing acquired by Doris Duke during her travels. 

Credits: Story

The clothing on display in this gallery comes from the collection of the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design. Duke traveled extensively in the Islamic world and avidly collected clothing from a number of regions including North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Duke did not wear the garments, but considered them a key component of her art collection.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
Honolulu, Hawai'i

Shangri La is a museum for learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, digital and educational initiatives, public tours and programs, and community partnerships.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is a program of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through the Doris Duke Foundation For Islamic Art.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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