Fashioning Central Eurasia

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fresco from the cave of 16 swordbearers, Kizil in the Kucha oasis; Museum für asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin [image credit: Le Coq, Die buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien, 1922]

My first book project, Fashioning Central Eurasia (400-900 CE), investigates how a particular garment type, the kaftan, enabled transcultural communication systems from the Caucasus Mountains to the Gobi Desert in the age of the Great Silk Roads.

This study investigates how diverse communities across Central Eurasia crafted a particular garment type, the kaftan, into a cosmopolitan fashion in the second half of the first millennium CE. Previous scholarship has treated the kaftan as a nomadic riding ensemble adopted by settled populations for practical reasons. However, I show that in the fifth century CE, communities across Central Eurasia began to consistently construct a novel garment type according to four hallmark design features: sleeves, a fitted bodice, attached skirting, and overlapping front panels that can form lapels. This flexible but distinctive combination of features encouraged communities to modify, customize, and adorn other aspects of the garment (for example, the fabric pairing and hem length) while maintaining its recognizability. Furthermore, these personalizations did not inhibit the hallmark convertible lapel, which allowed wearers to style and re-style their garment in numerous ways instantaneously. Although the communities that adopted the kaftan were exceptionally diverse – ranging from rigidly hierarchical empires to more socially-mobile city-states, and relatively democratic nomadic polities– all of them placed the kaftan at the center of their sartorial systems. As a result, regional systems began to overlap, some mildly brushing edges and others layering over one another. As an internationally recognized fashion, the kaftan became a critical tool for cross-cultural communication.

This book project builds on my doctoral dissertation, “The Age of the Polychrome Kaftan: Sartorial Systems of Central Eurasia 400-900 CE,” completed for my Ph.D. in the Department of the History of Art at Cornell University.