Wearing Silk
Popularity and Prohibitions


One way to consider the influence of the trade in silk is to explore the extent to which women were its eager consumers. At one end of the Silk Road exchange was the production of silk, at the other, the demand for it.

Women everywhere eagerly sought the light, soft, sometimes richly decorated, silk material. Since it was a luxury item, it was usually worn only by those who could afford it. Sometimes the wearing of silk was regulated, limited to those of the upper classes as a way to mark social differences. Other times, the wearing of silk was denigrated, seen as a sign of social decadence and decay.

Wearing Silk in Asia:  Even in China where silk was readily available, the right to wear it was at times regulated by strict codes. Often it was reserved for use only by the emperor and the highest dignitaries. In the Tang and Song Dynasties, bureaucrats were restricted to using a particular color according to their different functions in society. Later, this was extended to other classes of Chinese society, with peasants forbidden to wear silk until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

In India, women’s use of the sari, which can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization (2800-1800 BCE ), was a perfect market for light material made of silk. Some scholars claim that the growing of silk worms in India was indigenous, that early in its history materials made from silk existed. Others point to the recognizable spread of sericulture from China into India about 300 CE. What is certain is that the trade of Chinese silks to India from late antiquity to the Mongol conquest was major. Again, only the rich could afford the finely-woven, diaphanous silk saris that, according to folklore, could be “passed through a finger ring”.

Throughout Central Asia and beyond, high quality of silk cloth was a popular item. The Persians developed beautiful forms of brocaded woven silk, a technique they developed dating back to the time before the Sassanid dynasty. Used in formal dresses, it eventually became an export item. Material which highlighted traditional Persian images was found in Europe as well as throughout the Middle East, where wealthy women in cities such as Baghdad and Damascus sought out bolts of intricately patterned brocades, brilliantly colored satins, and gold trimmed materials for their veils, and headdresses.

Painting of noble women and her servant in 15th century Iran

Wearing Silk in Europe: The introduction of silk clothes had a long history in Europe, beginning with Rome when the import of Chinese silk resulted in vast amounts of gold leaving the empire to purchase it. The result was a vain attempt by the Roman Senate to prohibit the wearing of silk. Some Romans identified the wearing of silk as a sign of decadence and immorality. Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE– 65 CE) famously decried the transparency of fine silk as dangerous since it made the married women who wore it seemingly alluring and available to all comers.

“ I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes. ... Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.”  (in Declamations Vol. I.)

The twelfth century economic revival in Europe made luxury goods, including rich cloth woven in the East, more readily available. Better communication also stimulated the spread of fashion. Courtly women derived much of their identity and recognition from wearing lavish eastern silks said to be from Baghdad, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Damascus. Eleanor of Aquaitaine was one who, during her adventurers in Constantinople and the Middle East in the second crusade, is said to have reveled in the excessive splendor and court festivities of eastern life. At home, in her court, it was reported that the ladies wore garments “fashioned from the finest tissues of wool or silk.” However, the source said, ”Silk, purple and paint have their own beauty, but they do not make the body beautiful.”  (Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir)

Headgear was where women's clothing in medieval Europe had its true distinctiveness. These were not optional, only young girls were permitted to go around with their heads uncovered. The wimples which we associate with women in this period were pieces of silk or white linen attached to one’s hair in front by pins, and allowed to flow over the head at the back. Another common garment was the pelisse, a loose silk coat brooched at the waist, or buttoned into a silk loop. The model for this popular coat, which echoes those worn by Persian ladies, was brought back from the East by knights arriving back from the First Crusade.

Painting of wife of a banker, 16th century Germany

The new shimmer and shape of women’s clothes began to attract attention. Endless sumptuary laws were issued at various times, partly to regulate what citizens wore, thus denying certain clothes and fashions to rising social groups such as the bourgeoisie. For example, in France under Charles IX (1550-1574), only princesses and duchesses were allowed to wear silk.

Like Seneca, the church also found signs of moral decline in wearing silk, even when it was worn by men. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, in about 1130, criticized his fellow churchmen and the court for their love of a worldly luxury such as silk. He felt that after Adam and Eve were forced to cloth their nakedness with skins, which he viewed as a sign of their new bestiality, that next they wore wool, and “next the dung of worms, that is, silk.”

In England, this view was enlarged upon. One preacher claimed that wearing “silken garments, which are fashioned from the entrails of worms” are part of clothes which “are now worn rather for vain glory and worldly pomp than for the necessity of nature...and assuredly most of all to excite lust.” 1

Whether lamented or not, the wearing of silk continued to create a demand for designs and fine materials imported from the East. Eventually, inevitably, Europe began to produced silken materials themselves, first in Italy, Sicily and Spain, and then in more northern centers.

1“Regulating Women’s Fashion,” Diane Owen Hughes, in A History of Women: Silences of the Middle Ages, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, ed.

Questions and Research

Who wears silk?

• What type of clothes do we wear today that are made all of silk, or have some silk in them? Do you own any? What are they? Where were they made?

• Ask your mother, your aunts, your grandmother, how they dressed and what their clothes were made out of when they were your age. What major differences between your clothes and theirs can you identify?

What Influences What We Wear?

• Explain what a “sumptuary law” is? Find out what other ways such laws have been used for social discrimination and to reinforce social hierarchies.

• Clothing worn by all people is influenced by the climate, available materials, and cultural traditions which include social status, group identity, and religion. What clothes are frowned on in your culture? Where are there restrictions on how women should dress? What are some of the reasons for these restrictions?

• Look for advertisements which advertise luxury dresses, jewelry, cosmetics, etc. for women. Describe the ads and comment upon them. Are there some that seem excessive? That promote clothes that seem too revealing? In your opinion, what is the influence of ads like these on our buying and wearing habits?

View the Websites and study the images in them to:

• List countries and the time period of the illustrations or photos. What sources did these illustrations come from? How accurate might these be? In which might women be wearing items of silk? Can we make generalizations about who was wearing them? What social class was represented?

• Find similarities and differences in the wearing of silk in different times and places.

1) Silk Road Dance Company Costumes

Photos of dancers wearing mainly silk costumes from North Caucasus, Kurdish, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Turkman. Plus video clips demonstrate historical dance types, including Uzbek dancers who were once so admired by the Chinese emperors who had them brought to court.

View the website

2) The Indian Sari - Fashioning the Female Form

Article with pictures illustrating different types of saris, their designs, and how they should be worn. The use of silk in sari material.

3) Antique Indian Costume

Mughal Dynasty silk sari brocade with servant and king design. Elephants appear repeatedly in the border.

4) Medieval Islamic Clothing:

Short page on wearing silk in Islamic countries.

5) Antique Costume Index

Photos from China, Turkey, Persia, India, Pakistan, Kasmir, (Saris, shawls, etc), circa 12th-19th centuries.

6) Medieval Muslim Women’s Clothing

Description of Muslim requirements. Images from different periods.

View the website

7) Customs in Time Henry the First (Norman England, reign, 1100-1135)

Painting of what Henry’s wife Matilda would have looked like in her silk clothes, plus drawings of how silk hair extensions and robe were put on. Also, links to information from time of Richard I, and women making clothes out of silk sent from Crusaders.

Dutch 15th century woven tapestry

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
  Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian   Making Silk   Primary Source Lessons
  Princess Wencheng   Wearing Silk  
  Sorghaghtani Beki   Reviving Silk Traditions  
  Empress Irene    

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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