The Parthian shot and its curious impact on fashion

Christine Bell

The Parthian shot and its curious impact on fashion

(66th Annual Meeting of the PIAC Göttingen, 2024)

“You wound, like Parthians, while you fly, and kill with a retreating eye.” 1

The Parthian shot – an equestrian feat of Central Asian origin that demanded highly developed archery and riding skills – has gone down in history and lives on, even today, as a metaphor in the English language. It refers to a devastating remark delivered over the shoulder of its speaker, just seconds before he or she departs the scene of a lively discussion.

The origin of the Parthian shot is a direct reference to the hit-and-run tactics of the light-cavalry in Central Asia, that was afterwards adopted by other cultures and peoples. These tactics relied on diverting opposing troops deployed in traditional maneuvers by creating the greatest possible havoc by disconcerting, distracting and diverting them from their original battle plans.

What does this have to do with fashion? Or indeed with the Parthians? This paper is about one distinctive feature of light-cavalry clothing that made its way West and can still be found in our fashion today.

1 In Samuel Butler’s poem, in 1678 “An Heroical Epistle of Hudibras to His Lady”, the poet describes the acoustical version of the Parthian shot as having a devastating effect similar as to that of horse archers dispatching arrows at their pursuers over the rump of their galloping horses.