Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948

The last 50 years: the situation in the Palestinian region

The last 50 years: an example of the situation in the international Diaspora - Palestinian costume in Australia

See also Refugee camp embroidery projects - history, products, museums, where and how to buy

The last 50 years: the situation in the Palestinian region


pc204.jpg (25516 bytes)
A 1980s UNRWA poster showing a classic Ramallah traditional costume  from the collection of Widad Kawar, Amman (Photo: M Nasr)

Palestinian culture and society was severely disrupted by the establishment of the state of Israel in northern, western and parts of southern Palestine in 1948. As a result of these hostilities, over half the rural population became refugees. Many more became refugees after the 1967 war. Costume and textile traditions have been vastly changed by these events. Very little remains from the decades of upheaval from the 1950s and 1960s. Traditional costume began to resurface in much plainer styles shortly after this period. Without access to locally woven goods or imported fabrics, costumes became less ornate, more practical. The distinction between special occasion and everyday wear was lost, and veils and elaborate headdresses became things of the past.

The moving of mass populations into refugee camps broke down traditions of highly evolved regional styles. Costumes became identifiable instead by certain general styles - the ‘6 branch’ and the shawal, designed originally for Western markets, amongst them. Costume also experienced a revival in the late 1980s during the intifada, where it was used as a means of passive protest and as an expression of Nationalist pride. Embroidery, produced in the refugee camps as a means of providing a stable income, now became the most enduring element of Palestinian cultural heritage. For a people stripped of national identity, costume remains the one device through which a fragmented heritage might yet re-establish itself. In the early 21st century Palestinian costume, against all odds, continues to survive and to maintain and renew it’s people’s cultural legacy.

At the beginning of the 20th century Palestinian costume could be classified by specific region, tribe or community. Of the three major historical classifications of nomadic bedouin costume, fellahin village dress and urban dress, very little definition remains. Today costume styles are best classified as refugee camp styles, Palestinian Territories styles and bedouin costume. Only among the bedouin does costume still retain elements of its traditional pre-1948 role.  The styles of clothing worn today in the Palestinian Territories and in the refugee camps include Western dress and Islamic modesty dress as well as various forms of the so called "traditional" embroidered dresses. What is now identified as "traditional" is a much simpler garment in terms of construction and decoration.

There is little documentation available on Palestinian costume in the 1950s, a period of great upheaval. In the 1960s garments were made from cheap, easily available fabrics such as black sateen, heavy cotton and acrylic fabrics in colours of cream, maroon, yellow or blue. Embroidery still appeared in the set areas of qabbeh, cuffs, shinyar and in vertical rows, called branches, that ran from waist to hem. The qabbeh was often enlarged and embroidery on the dress was either in cross stitch or machine stitched in a manner to imitate couching, usually in cotton thread rather than silk. The type of fabric and thread and the sparseness of embroidery reflect the economic hardship of the time.

A Ramallah family, showing "6 branch" (left) and shawal (centre) style thobs (photo: Shelagh Weir 1987), the first Palestinian styles to develop along non regional lines.
Two Palestinian women at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, 1989, wearing popular  "6 branch" style thobs (photo: Jeni Allenby). Similar "6 branch" style thobs to the image on the left on sale in the tourist section of the Old City of Jerusalem, 1989 (photo: Jeni Allenby).

The late 1960s saw the development of the "6 branch dress" style, named after the six vertical bands of embroidery that ran from waist to hem. Its widespread popularity marks it as the first post-1948 style to evolve without being tied to an established regional style. The "6 branch" is characterized by its curvilinear foliage and flower designs and its various "branches of birds" motifs (not all of which were actually birds). The patterns are primarily European. Preferred threads for embroidery were perle cotton, with multicoloured shaded threads popular in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In the refugee camps the 1980s concept of producing clothing for the Western market led to the development of the shawal style. The shawal was first produced in the camps in a pre-embroidered uncut form, assembled by the purchaser. It was made of heavy linen with the embroidery done straight onto the main fabric and was sold with a fringed shawl worked in the same manner. Embroidery reflected more Western influence with slim bands in the front and back joined by a single band at the bottom on both front and back. Western influence was also apparent in the modified slim line of the garment and the addition of bust darts. Motifs were usually geometric, with colours often favouring shaded cottons or European style colour choices: saru and ‘pashars tent’ remained common. Although originally developed for the foreign market the shawal became popular amongst women in Jordan and the Territories who wore it to represent an upmarket ‘traditional’ look - a sort of Palestinian haute couture.

Embroidery began to develop as a cultural form separate to costume in the 1980s, as the various refugee camps and aid projects encouraged the creation of new products. In the words of one young woman from the Sulafa UNRWA embroidery project: "[although] we no longer embroider in the style of our towns, we embroider for our houses and for our work.  We embroidered cushions, clocks and maps of Palestine.  Embroidery is our heritage.  We love embroidery...and we are proud of it" (Price 2000 p.17).   Centres such as the UNRWA programs and various women’s organizations and co-operatives produce items designed specifically for sale on the Western market and therefore not bound by "traditional" rules of decoration or style. Each camp or aid organization has over time developed certain stylistic characterizations. Christian imagery such as stars, mangers and Christmas trees are common designs on products from aid agencies such as Sunbula (formally Craftaid) which has church funding. Projects in Lebanon such as Al-Badia are renowned for high quality embroidery and dresses in silk thread on linen fabric.
port19.JPG (54649 bytes)

Child's quilt 1991 Jordan River Designs, Amman, showing contemporary use of the Palestinian heremezy appliqué technique (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra)

In Jordan, projects such as Jordan River Designs began focusing on the production of quilts designed with dress motifs and layout, while Jordan Design and Trade Centre, part of the Noor Foundation, began producing traditionally woven carpets based on dress motifs. The poorer refugee camps, without access to external Western funding, produced simply constructed goods made from embroidered panels cut from old dresses: ‘branches’ of birds become eyeglass cases, and qabbehs become teapot covers.  Most of all the projects produced cushions, both small and large ( the "jumbo" cushion for the floor) covered with multicoloured cross stitch, as these were found to be popular  and reliable sellers on the Western market.  However, the problem faced by many of the embroidery projects within the Occupied Territories was distribution of their products, as mobility became more and more difficult for Palestinians in the Territories as the 1980s drew to a close and the intifada became a serious issue.
An intifada embroidered wall hanging by the ANAT Workshop, Damascus, featuring Palestinian women in traditional costume and fighters with checked kaffiya and slingshot.  In the tree the doves of peace hold streamers in the shape and colours of the banned Palestinian flag (from the ANAT Intifada calendar, 1991)

The intifada was to play a major role in the revival of Palestinian costume, as the embroidered costume became a statement of national and social consciousness. In the Occupied Territories the wearing of "traditional" costume began to assume a more overt political function in that by wearing it one declared a social and political affiliation. In the opinion of one 45 year old woman who now helps administer a woman's embroidery cooperative, although young women don't wear a thob on a daily basis, Palestinian women are wearing the thob, in it's new varieties, as a demonstration of national pride: "women of the new generation who are in universities wear thoubs full of embroidery because it is their heritage...even educated people are turning to their heritage" (Price 2000 p.16). 

This national pride was taken one step further with the creation of a new style of shawal dress specifically designed to the promote the intifada. Made for a limited period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, examples of these intifada style dresses (thought to have originated in Hebron) feature embroidery predominantly  in the colours of the banned Palestinian flag, with embroidered nationalist motifs such as the flag and map of Palestine,  the Dome of the Rock mosque,  guns and grenades or the patterns of the kaffier, all worked into the structure of the qabbeh and the vertical skirt panels.  Some even feature a back shinyar panel with nationalist themes.  
pc28x.JPG (36697 bytes)

Contemporary qabbeh chest panel of an intifada "flag" dress with nationalistic motifs. (Widad Kawar Collection Amman Photo: Jeni Allenby 1989, taken in the Palestinian Costume Exhibition, Museum of Mankind, London)

Many of these dresses (also known as 'flag' dresses) also feature embroidered calligraphy, in Arabic and English, featuring not only the word "Palestine" but "PLO", "Abu Amar", and slogans such as "We shall return".  Um Ahmed, a 75 year old woman from Beit Omar explained "people were being imprisoned for carrying the flag, so women would embroider it on their thoubs" (Price 2000 p.15).  Um Ahmed created an embroidery motif at this time called the Palestine design: "women made up the name during the intifada.  When the women started this design,  they said it would be called Palestine" (ibid, p.39) - as Price has noted, the fact that the pattern resembled a flowery border rather than anything nationalistic suggests that in the repressive atmosphere of the intifada even the political naming of embroidery motifs could be an act of nationalist defiance.  At a time when Palestinian costume had almost completely fragmented as a communication devise, it again at this time assumed an important role as an expression of national identity, of defiance without violence.

Although only produced and worn during the years of the intifada itself, it is interesting to note that at the outbreak of the al aqsa intifada these dresses were again brought out to wear as a sign of protest by the women of the Palestinian Territories.  Several of the refugee embroidery projects also have an intifada dress on their commission books, along with more traditional Palestinian designs, such as the beautiful example designed by the Family Care Society in Amman.  The ANAT Workshop in Damascus also produces intifada items.  It's 1991 calendar, featuring these designs, has been copied by many women interested in embroidered nationalistic motifs (the designs and slogans on an embroidered cushion acquired by the Archive in Amman in 1991 are derived from this calendar).
Pc25.jpg (51639 bytes)
Cushion embroidered during the intifada featuring the Palestinian flag 1991 (Palestinian Costume Archive, Canberra)

Proposed designs for El Al hostesses, published in The Jerusalem Post on 7 February 1980, derived from Palestinian traditional costume.

At the same time this nationalism played a part in the Palestinian embroidery industry, with cushions incorporating the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Abu Amar’ in English and Arabic. The inclusion of the word "Palestine" on embroidered items was originally a protest reaction against the use of refugee products being sold in Israel as Israeli handicraft.  Embroidered items were clearly marked with tags reading "Israeli handicraft" in English and Hebrew from the mid 1980s onwards.  This stopped being done on a large scale after the  "Palestine" calligraphy was incorporated into the embroidery design - although the Israelis have always had a bad habit of appropriating Palestinian heritage, whether it be food (as in the infamous "Falafel - Israel's national snack" postcards, showing a falafel with an Israeli flag stuck in it), or traditional costume (the Archive possesses a lovely newspaper photograph showing an American Mayor being greeted by "Miss Israel in traditional dress" - clearly a Bethlehem wedding outfit! We also have a beautiful hat designed by an Australian Jewish artist and acquired at the Jewish Museum's shop in Melbourne, made from a cut up 1940s Sinai bedouin embroidered dress but referred to by museum staff as being made of Israeli embroidery).  For further information on cultural appropriation see 'Ammar, Khalid, "Palestinian popular heritage subject to faking" Al Quds 23 March 1995 and Annelies Moors, "Embodying the nation: Maha Saca's post-intifada postcards" Ethnic and Racial Studies v.23 n.5 September 2000.

The intifada thob designed by the ANAT Workshop in Damascus, embroidered with the Dome of the Rock mosque and Palestinian fighters, complete with kaffiya and weapons, as featured on the front of ANAT's 1991 Intifada calendar.

The Archive believes these intifada costumes and embroideries to be important examples of social history and is therefore documenting and collecting any material brought to our attention.  At present we hold two cushions featuring nationalist designs, a tiny child's dress from the Ramallah region embroidered with machine guns and maps of Palestine, and an al asqa intifada dress made in Khan Younis featuring the Dome of the Rock mosque, maps and flags of Palestine, and Arabic and English calligraphy.   A travelling exhibition Symbolic defiance: the costumes and embroideries of the Palestinian intifadas is currently being curated by the Archive.  We would be very grateful for any further information on this material brought to our attention.

Stylistic innovations continued into the late 1980s and the 1990s, with the production of more Western style garments, such as jackets and coats, for both the Western and home markets. In terms of decoration, heremezy remained popular, now appliquéd with colourful cottons rather than silks. Heavy blocks of embroidery appeared in Western influenced positions, such as in dense form around cuffs or hems, rather than traditional areas.  One excellent revival seen in the late 1990s was the re-establishment of a weaving centre in the Gaza Strip, designed to recreate the famous majdalawi cloth used in pre 1948 Gaza and Ashdod costumes.  While the weaving of the intricate loomed fabrics that formed the base of most traditional Palestinian costume is unlikely to revive, at least the production of the distinctive majdalawi with it's indigo and fuchsia stripes, can be preserved and promoted.

port18.JPG (15239 bytes)
Leila Jeryes Dress 1991 showing heremezy cotton appliqué panels (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra).  This design is still popular and still sold by Mrs Jeryas in 2001.

Palestinian dress designers, such as Leila Jeryas in Amman, continue to explore the boundaries of the traditional.  A dress acquired by the Archive in 1991, with it's heremezy panels and saru motif cross stitch, is still a popular design in her workshop in 2001.   While two dresses acquired from her in 2000 are modern interpretations of traditional Jordanian costume, including one based on the thob 'ub, the double or long dress found around Jericho and Salt.  A quick look at the extraordinary contemporary designs of the ANAT Workshop in Damascus, or the beautiful "traditional and modern Palestinian folk dresses" designed by the Family Care Society in Amman, leave one breathless.  What the Family Care Society offers is an interesting statement on Palestinian costume in the late 20th century.  By buying one of the Society's "replicated" traditional dresses - those based on surviving pre 1948 costumes - one keeps Palestinian costume "lively and vibrant [maintaining] a bright image for present and future generations".  However, "modernized dresses...that carry the Palestinian characteristics, i.e. the form and shape of the motifs as well as the patterns" can also be commissioned.  The message is that we must not forget the past, but equally we must move forward in terms of design and culture.  

The qabbeh from one of the ANAT Workshop's exquisite contemporary wedding dresses inspired by various Palestinian pre 1948 regional styles, and mixing traditional Palestinian embroidery techniques and motifs with Arab designs such as the Hand of Fatima (Photo: Lilianne Donders, from ANAT postcard).  For details on how to contact ANAT see Refugee Camp embroidery projects.

However, in order to read the language of contemporary material we must change our historical perspectives. The role of embroidery on costume is still tied to social status when worn, but the shift to professional production now marks it as a sign of wealth in a different sense. While the regional identification of the embroiderer may still be revealed in finer details, such as the choice of seam stitching, distinct regional stylistic criteria has been replaced by a more general differentiation - a white dress with red cross stitch is identified as Ramallah style, while anything with couched embroidery is Bethlehem style. Non regional styles, such as the 1960’s "6 branch" and the 1980’s shawal are now recognized by Palestinian women as equally well established and "traditional" examples of Palestinian costume. Contemporary Palestinian costume - that is, costume produced over the last 50 years - still carries practical and symbolic functions of social status, and strongly signals the ability of the Palestinian women to adapt cultural costume to changing economic and political situations. 

The 1980s also saw a growing interest in Palestinian costume in international museums.  Where formally most exhibitions of Palestinian costume and embroidery had been limited to displays organized by the PLO and other pro Palestinian political groups, the late 1980s saw several major museums sinking significant sums of money into curating important ground breaking exhibitions.  The British Museum's ethnographic venue, the Museum of Mankind, approved a four million Pound budget for Assistant Keeper Shelagh Weir's 1989 Palestinian costume show, which ran for over two years.  In Europe the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum approved a large travelling exhibition Pracht und Geheimnis: kleidung und schmuck aus Palestina und Jordanien drawn from the private collection of Widad Kawar, a Palestinian now resident in Jordan.  Kawar's collection has since toured several European museums as well as two Japanese venues.  These exhibitions were all extremely popular and led to a rash of publications on Palestinian costume and heritage which brought Palestinian culture back into the public eye.  The establishment of internationally based organizations such as the Palestinian Heritage Foundation in the US and the Palestine Costume Archive, whose goals were to preserve and promote this culture, also helped to maintain public awareness.   Several major international museums have established strong collection policies towards pre 1948 Palestinian costume - even if only one, the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait, has the foresight to be actively collecting post 1948 material - which is extremely important when one remembers that Palestine itself does not have a "national museum" of it's own, and that most of it's cultural material has either been destroyed or left the region.  These international collections now hold much of what is left of historical Palestinian design and the practical records preserved by their original collectors on how Palestinian costume was once worn - the logistics of what made up a ceremonial or everyday outfit from whichever region - are now worth more than gold to a people who have lost much of their cultural iconography. (For further information see worldwide collections of Palestinian costume.)

The fact that there is only one major museum worldwide collecting post 1948 Palestinian costume is a sad thought.  While certainly Palestinian costume from 1948 until the 1980s may have had none of the material wealth and complexity of ornamentation of pre 1948 examples, this can not be said for the Palestinian designers of the late 20th and early 21st century, whose designs are in no sense inferior to pre 1948 designs.  After all, Palestinian costume was in no way static in 1948, but subject to great changes from within it's own culture during the 1930s and 40s (see Shelagh Weir Palestinian costume 1989 London). Palestinian costume has always reflected in it's ornamentation and design the social and economic situation of the times.  The hardships of the mid 20th century are revealed in the almost lack of traditional costume in the 1950s and the change in base materials and range of embroidery areas in the 1960s and 1970s, while the 1980s saw the revival of a nation's pride and the re-establishment of costume as cultural language and as a means of communication with the world outside the refugee camp. To say that Palestinian design is now re-establishing itself is not to say that the problems facing the Palestinian people are in any way resolved, but to simply announce that the new millennium may provide the means to promote the talents of a people who refuse to allow their traditions and culture to fade with the passing of the last century.

For further information see refugee camp embroidery projects.

Back To Index