A Tale of Silk and Fashion


The Silk Road is well known as a conduit for travellers, for ideas, for armies, for products and for exotic mysteries. But it is a textile that gives the Silk Road its name. It was these textiles and the fashions accompanying them, which led merchants to travel thousands of miles, often in considerable danger. Their potential rewards were great and the cross-fertilisation of materials and fashion ideas caused profound changes for all those affected all along the Silk Road. This was the case two thousand years ago (one of the earliest Roman graves in London is of a woman wearing Chinese silk) as it is today, with fashion designers exploring new ways of using traditional materials and finding new ways to exchange ideas with others around the world, including along the old Silk Road.

Caravans loaded with silk made their way from China to Europe, as well as East to Korea and Japan. The silk was worn only by sultans, emperors and the rich, until the secret of silk production was opened and it started produced in Byzantium and later in Venice. Although silk has now spread around the world, it still remains a luxurious fabric and is widely used by today’s fashion designers. For example, the handmade Asian silk fabric Ikat is used widely by western ‘fashionistas’, including by world renowned Oscar de la Renta.

Other textiles have also spread widely along the Silk Road. Woollen felt, the oldest known textile, has long been used by nomads in Central Asia to make yurts and gers. Nowadays, the techniques of felt makers bring together felt and silk to make a wide variety of garments. Cotton is also a major fabric of the region. Six out of ten top world cotton producers are on the Silk Road.

What are people wearing today in the Silk Road countries? The influence of western style has strongly infused fashion evolved in the Silk Road through the centuries, but they still retain their own distinctive styles, as well as being centres for new, cutting-edge ideas.

The Silk Road Fashion show in 2017 is organised by Pro Art & Co in collaboration with Legacy Routes Ltd and Elanu Enterprises Ltd.

By Dr Alma Farmer