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Fashion on the Silk Roads: 500 – 1300 AD with Professor Susan Whitfield

Silk Road scholar Professor Susan Whitfield recreates the life and fashions of the men and women who lived along the Silk Roads

Professor Susan Whitfield brings to life the fashions of the inhabitants of the Silk Roads between AD 500 – 1300.

In the first millennium AD, merchants, nuns, diplomats, soldiers and slaves travelled the vast network of Afro-Eurasia tracks that became known as the Silk Roads. The elite wore clothes made of the finest textiles, such as gold embroidered silks lined with sable and mink. Through diplomatic missions and marriages, men and women of the Afro-Eurasian courts exhanged fashions, from overwide to impractical narrow sleeves, tailored jackets with wide lapels, to braided hair and gold belts. Colours and motifs also travelled, notably the Sogdian roundel—a circle of pearls enclosing various birds and animals.

Few clothes remain from this period—although there have been some remarkable finds—but images of the cosmopolitan men and women who lived and travelled along the Silk Roads are preserved in paintings and sculptures, and contemporary texts often give descriptions of the dress. From these sources, we get a glimpse of the importance and spread of fashions in the pre-modern world.

**If you are unable to make the live talk, Susan Whitfield has kindly agreed that we can record her talk and send you a link afterwards. Sign up via Eventbrite to be on the list for the recording.**

Please note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Susan’s talk has moved from 5 June to 24 Sept. We apologise for any inconvenience caused by the change of date.


Professor Susan Whitfield is a writer, traveller and scholar of the Silk Road. She is currently working with Professor Simon Kaner on the ‘Nara to Norwich‘ project at SISJAC (Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures), UEA, Norwich. She previously worked as curator of the Central Asian manuscripts at the British Library, and directed an international project (idp.bl.uk) to make manuscripts and other archaeological artefacts from Silk Road sites in eastern Central Asia available to all by cataloguing, digitising and research. Susan works closely with Zhao Feng and his colleagues at the National Silk Museum, Hangzhou. She has written numerous books and articles, curated several exhibitions and travelled widely along much of the Silk Road.

Praise for Silk Roads: People, Cultures and Landscapes (2019):

‘An extraordinary compendium of history and art … a marvel of a book … a brilliant survey that could not be put together in real time, a catalogue of an exhibition that could never be … This is a book to fundamentally jolt our endemic Eurocentricism and Western complacency … one-volume museum’ – V&A Magazine

Praise for Life Along the Silk Road (2015):

‘The cast reads like something out of The Canterbury Tales … brings to life the history and also the great variety of people, languages, religions, interests and behaviour along this most remarkable of migratory routes’ – Sunday Times

‘A wonderful find … this book is a treasure’ – South China Morning Post

Images: Women of the Tang court. Two wear high waisted long gowns, and the other the fashionable ‘Steppe clothing’ of a tunic with side slits over baggy trousers – although with shoes with upturned toes rather than leather riding boots. The Qianling Mausoleum, Tang dynasty (618–907) tomb site located in Qian County.

Sogdian banquet, Penjikent, Sogdiana (Tajikistan), early eighth century. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Kaftan open at neck to form lapels. The pearl roundel design can also be seen in the central figure).

The Byzantine Empress Irene (1088–1134), originally from Hungary, wearing a gown with wide sleeves and with braided hair, both newly introduced fashion.

Linen kaftan, seventh–ninth century, originally with fur lining. The decoration on the silk includes pearl roundels. Alanic culture, found in Caucasus. Silk, linen, fur. 191.8 x 144.8 x 111.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1996, Accession Number: 1996.78.1.


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In 2024, the C&TA celebrates our Coral Anniversary: 35 years of supporting the Norfolk Museums Service’s costume and textiles collections

The Costume & Textile Association (C&TA) host regular online events via zoom, in addition to in person events in Norwich, Norfolk, UK.

Online Programme for Spring / Summer 2024

Tuesday 23 January Tartan with Jonathan Faiers, professor of Fashion Thinking at Winchester School of Art, author and co-curator of Tartan exhibition at V&A Dundee

Wednesday 21 February Dressing Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with Jane Pritchard, curator of Dance, Theatre and Performance at the V&A. 2024 celebrates the 150th birthday of Nicolas Roerich, the 100th anniversary of Leon Bakst and the 111th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ballet

Tuesday 12 March Jane Austen’s Wardrobe with Dr Hilary Davidson, dress, textile and fashion historian, curator and author



Free Exhibition in The Gallery, The Forum, Norwich Daily 10 am – 4 pm. 13 – 21 April 2024

ONLINE EVENT Saturday 13 April 2 pm Agony & Ecstasy: History of Corsets with Joy Evitt, C&TA (Free, donations welcome)

ONLINE EVENT Sunday 14 April 2pm Spinning a Yarn: Women Spinners in Norfolk’s Medieval Worsted Industry with Jenn Monahan, Geoffrey Squire Memorial Bursary Award 2019 (pre-recorded talk followed by Live Q&A with Jenn)(Pay what you can)

**IN PERSON EVENT @ THE FORUM, NORWICH 12 noon Monday 15 April 35 Years of C&TA Support with Ruth Battersby, senior curator, Norfolk Museums Service (NMS) (Pay what you can)

ONLINE EVENT Tuesday 16 April 7 pm Double Weave: Modernist Designers Bourne & Allen with Dr Jane Hattrick, co-curator of exhibition at Ditchling Museum


Tuesday 23 April 7 pm Print Pattern & Narrative with Kate Farley, associate professor in design at Norwich University of the Arts

Tuesday 21 May 7 pm The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe with Dr Kate Strasdin, author and senior lecturer in Cultural Studies at the Fashion and Textiles Institute, Falmouth University

Wednesday 5 June 7 pm Courtly Coral: Red Coral and Coral Motifs at the Chinese Imperial Court with Dr Pippa Lacey, C&TA

Tuesday 23 July 7 pmThe Pastons: Clothes Maketh the Man (and Woman) with best selling author Anne O’Brien

August Summer Break

Tuesday 24 September 7 pm Fashion on the Silk Roads with Professor Susan Whitfield, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC)(**This talk has moved from 5 June)

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September 24 2024


Date: 24 September
Time: 19:00 - 20:30
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