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Fashioning an Empire: About the Galleries

The exhibition is organised into four sections, starting with the establishment of the silk monopoly and state-funded manufacturing, which explores the production and technical components of textiles. It illustrates the rise of Isfahan as the imperial capital, and delves into the fashion and trends of Safavid society around the time of Shah ‘Abbas. The last section showcases contemporary commissions created by local designers inspired by the historic objects on display.

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Silk for Silver: Shah ‘Abbas’ Strategy to Rebuild Iran

Under Shah ‘Abbas, Iran became a politically stable and economically flourishing country, reaching unsurpassed heights in the visual arts, craftsmanship and architecture. Through the strong economic and structural reforms that Shah ‘Abbas enforced, he was able to revitalise a country exhausted by wars against external enemies and by internal turmoil.

At the very heart of Shah ‘Abbas’ economic policies and reforms was the silk trade. He placed both the production and sale of silk under royal control and soon raw silk, as well as woven textiles and carpets, became Iran’s most lucrative export. Shah ‘Abbas’ reforms filled the royal treasury and allowed him to enact his masterplan of bringing lasting socio-cultural changes to Safavid society.

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Shah ‘Abbas meeting with the Ambassador Khan ‘Alam from India. Iran, Isfahan, ca 1630-1640 CE. Gold, ink and opaque watercolour on paper. MIA.2014.377. Depicted with his signature pointed moustaches, Shah ‘Abbas is shown receiving the ambassador Khan ‘Alam, who visited the Safavid court in 1618 CE. The visit was on behalf of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and marked a significant historical event, as rivalry between the two neighbouring rulers was fierce. The meeting has been recorded not only in historical accounts, but also in paintings. The three figures all wear richly brocaded clothes.

Making Silk in Safavid Iran

Silk is a natural, strong, soft and lustrous fibre produced by insects known as silkworms, which are fed from the leaves of mulberry trees. First introduced from China in the 6th century CE, silkworms were successfully cultivated in the favourable climate of the northern region of Iran near the Caspian Sea, where silk is still produced today. Under Shah ‘Abbas, the entire production process, from silkworm harvesting to thread dying, was strictly regulated and organised by royal agents. Iranian raw silk, famous for its quality, represented the largest export in the country’s economy in this period.

Carpets, Symbols of Safavid Opulence

In addition to silk fabrics, carpets were another sought-after commodity from Iran. Most were made of wool, but the most luxurious ones incorporated silk in their structure. The art of carpet weaving reached its height during the Safavid period, with major production centres located across the empire, from Kerman and Kashan to Qazvin and Isfahan. Different grades of carpets were made: those of the highest quality were destined for the courts of Iran, India and Europe, while more commercial products were sold on the international market. Their intricate and colourful designs set new trends among European elites, who had previously preferred carpets from Turkey.

"Isfahan Is Half of the World"

Around 1590 CE, Shah ‘Abbas decided to move the Safavid capital from Qazvin, close to the northwestern borders to Isfahan, in Central Iran. Isfahan was historically important and strategically located further from the border with the Ottoman empire. It was also at the crossroad of key routes on the silk trade. Shah ‘Abbas transformed the city into the expression of his political ambitions. The heart of the new capital became the monumental public square known as Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World). Internationally famous for its impressive architecture and lush gardens, Isfahan attracted visitors from all parts of the world. An old Persian saying describes the city as Nesf-e Jahan (Half of the World). Today, the city stands as the most enduring legacy of Shah Abbas’ powerful vision.

Soon after the court arrived in 1597-98 CE, Shah Abbas established workshops in Isfahan to produce carpets and silk fabrics. To operate the workshops, and then send the fabrics to their various export markets, Shah ‘Abbas encouraged and, at times, forcibly resettled craftsmen and merchants from all over Iran in Isfahan. After 1615 CE, Shah ‘Abbas also declared a crown monopoly over the silk trade, which required anyone who wanted to buy Iranian raw silk and textiles to travel to Isfahan and deal with agents acting on his behalf.

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Portrait of an Armenian Woman. Iran, Isfahan, 1650-70 CE. Oil on canvas. PA.66.1998

Isfahan’s thriving atmosphere was created by its cosmopolitan, multilingual and very diverse population. During the time of Shah ‘Abbas, Isfahan was home to a variety of religious communities and ethnic groups, including Armenians, Georgians and South Asians. The Armenians played a particularly significant role in state administration and commerce. To capitalise on their international trade network, Shah ‘Abbas forcibly relocated them from Julfa (modern-day Azerbaijan) to the newly founded quarter of New Julfa, in Isfahan. Many other people passed through the city, including travellers, merchants, missionaries and diplomats from all over Europe and India.

The richly brocaded silk garments worn in the painting of the lady shown above suggest she was a noblewoman, and her headdress identifies her as Armenian, possibly from the urban elite of Isfahan. Other notable aspects of her attire are her sleeveless jacket with fur-collar, striped brocade trousers, green high-heeled slippers and jewels.

Isfahan Fashion Guide

If silk formed the backbone of the Safavid economy, fashion was an essential aspect of the Safavid social scene, expressing status and identity, especially in a complex world comprising of people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. The historic textiles on display in the exhibition, along with court paintings showing these textiles being worn, give us a view of the highest, luxury end of fashion in Shah ‘Abbas’ time. This picture is rounded out by European engravings and travel accounts that offer a survey of other strata of Safavid society, particularly in cosmopolitan Isfahan. From these diverse sources we learn that the Safavid aesthetic favoured the layering of luxurious fabrics with contrasting patterns. Robes and overcoats were loose and flowing in the 16th century CE but were more fitted, in emulation of European styles, a century later.

Fashion Forward

Long after the reign of Shah ‘Abbas, the impact of Safavid silks endured. In the early 1900s CE, Europe witnessed a notable fascination with Persian-inspired dresses and costumes, sparked by the performances of The Ballets Russes, a renowned ballet company celebrated for its Orientalist productions that brought an exotic Eastern aesthetic to the Parisian stage.

Their 1910 production of Scheherazade, which drew inspiration from the tales of the Thousand and One Nights, set the stage for a growing interest in all things Persian. Shortly afterward, artists, fashion houses and jewellers began to create pieces inspired by Persian designs. This included Persian-style tunics, coats and bodices, and even and bags made of real Safavid silks produced by Cartier.

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MIA’s first collaboration with M7 sparks a creative conversation between past and present, shining the spotlight on contemporary design. The five fashion designers presented here were invited to create bespoke pieces inspired by the materials, patterns, and styles of seventeenth-century Iran. The result is a variety of works including clutches, coats, and carpets. Some pieces make use of recycled materials as a nod to sustainability, while all combine fine craftsmanship with contemporary designs.

Audio Tour

Explore the exhibition further through this immersive audio guide (English only). Listen now

Plan Your Visit

Step into the opulent world of the Safavid Empire at the Fashioning an Empire exhibition and discover how art and aesthetics shaped history.