Costumes from other areas of the Middle East

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Young bedouin girl from Katri'in village area, Southern Sinai Desert 1997

Although the largest part of the Archive’s costume collection is concerned with Palestinian costumes and textiles, the Archive also holds a significant collection of material from throughout the Middle East region. These were originally collected to be studied from the point of their relationship to Palestinian traditions. However, because of their beauty and popularity with Archive visitors, the Archive includes a small section on them here and features them in the exhibition Secret Splendours: women’s costume from the Arab world. The Archive is very grateful to the Tareq Rajab Museum for the long term loan of several of the costumes mentioned in this section.


The costumes and embroideries of the Middle East and North Africa are of amazing richness and diversity. The region’s access to major international trade routes encouraged the use of rare and beautiful fabrics to create a multitude of national and regional styles. Clothing needed to be practical and functional as well as satisfying cultural and artistic requirements.

Male costume throughout the region was remarkably uniform, basically consisting of tunic, pants and an overgarment often with some kind of belt or waist sash.

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Berber women, Tunis, early 20th century

The head was always covered, either by head cloth, turban or tarbush. Female costume, although following the same basic wardrobe, allowed for greater variety in decoration: embroidery in a variety of colours and stitches, appliqu�, beading and patchwork were used in a myriad of regional styles. Sometimes these wonderful creations were concealed, only to be revealed among family and friends, but others, like the flamboyant wedding costumes of Siwa Oasis or the amazing clothes of the Sinai bedouin women – where the base fabric is almost entirely covered with pink and orange geometric embroidery, are definitely made to be seen!

The costumes and textiles held in the Archive are only a small selection of what was - and still is - worn in parts of the Arab world. There are village and oasis costumes (from Egypt, Syria and Jordan) and nomadic bedouin costumes (from the deserts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia). There are everyday dresses (from Jordan, Egypt, Oman and Syria) and special occasion and wedding dresses (from Egypt, the Gulf and Jordan). There are children’s dresses from the Gulf, covered with glitter and sequins, and from Kuwait, designed in the colours and shape of the Kuwaiti national flag. There are silks and velvets and handwoven linens, ikats and atlas cloths from Damascus, and even two of the extraordinary "double" dresses from Jordan that many people don’t believe could ever truly have been worn – but they were, and indeed, still are!

Choices in fabric reveal social status (wealth buys imported fabrics and silk threads for embroidery) while choices in decoration may reveal marital status (for example, the choice of embroidery colour among the bedouin tribes of the Sinai Desert), age, religion, or even the number of children in the family. Each costume is distinctive, original and beautiful.

Through the language of costume – that is, through our study of handwoven fabrics, silken threads and gold and silver couching, silver beading, tassels and plaited silk, red and pink cross stitch, appliqu�, coined headdresses and facemasks, silver bells and blue beads, mother of pearl buttons and sea shells, indigo and sumac dyes, embroidered motifs such as birds, moons, cypress and palm trees, khol pots and pasha’s tents, griffins and human figures (embroidered with handbags and high heels!) – through this wonderful intricate visual language, we must come to understand that each costume tells us a story about its creator and its wearer, and about the importance of cultural heritage.


"each thread has a soul" (local Tunisian saying)

Costumes in Tunisia feature significantly more embroidery than other North African regions. Embroidery was practiced in many urban centres, particularly along the coast, where styles were influenced by Mediterranean cultures. Designs were more naturalistic than Morocco and featured good luck designs such as birds, eyes, fish, hands, moons, flowers and the tree of life in an non curvilinear style.

One Tunisian region famous for embroidery was Raf Raf, a small town south east of Bizerte. The most important garment here was the embroidered tunic worn by the women. Girls would be expected to produced several dozen tunics for their trousseau, including everyday wear and bridal costumes.

The everyday tunics suriya mabdu were remarkably elaborate. They consisted of a rectangular knee length cotton garment (usually with red and white vertical stripes) fitted with a pair of tulle or net sleeves embroidered in coloured wool triz et-telli. The needlework was done by passing the wool through the links in the tulle or net - one over, one under - with the final pattern being dense, not scattered and covering the whole sleeve. A square embroidery frame was sometimes used. The shoulder area and plastron (front panel) were both intricately embroidered and appliqu�d with wool and cotton embroidery and metallic cords and sequins. Stitches included running, fishbone, thorn, and arrow-head stitch. Cross stitch, so common in other Arab styles, was rarely used. Some everyday tunics have embroidery on the bottom of the dress, usually a simple floral design predominantly in black thread (which is alleged to be Spanish influence). Wedding tunics were even more elaborately decorated with gold couched thread and tubular beads.

The Archive has on loan an everyday dress from Raf Raf, dated from the mid 20th century, and made of cotton with tulle sleeves, decorated with wool and cotton thread embroidery, sequins and silver appliqu�s, as well as a contemporary dress from Djerba, an island in the south near the Libyan border.

Copies of Irmtraud Reswick’s 1981 articles, "Traditional Textiles of Tunisia" published in African Arts, and "Traditional Handlooms and Weavings of Tunisia" published in Shuttle, Spindle and Dyepot are available in the Archive’s library, as is her 1985 monograph Traditional Textiles of Tunisia and related North African weavings.


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Kaftan from the Fez region late 19th century (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

Costume styles varied considerably from town to town in Morocco. Like all of North Africa, Morocco has had a turbulent and varied history - which is reflected in the country’s textiles and embroideries, where Spanish, Turkish, Balkan, Berber and French influences all show themselves.

Gold embroidery terzd-es-sqalli was found all over North Africa, but that produced in Fez was particularly famous and spectacular. Those embroidered on French brocades (often woven in Lyon) were even more remarkable.

Kaftans were an urban style of costume popular among both men and women in Morocco and were worn late into the 20th century as bridal wear (although the style was known as the "ancient" style of dress). The original garment design is thought to be Persian or Turkish. They were produced in sumptuous brocades and silks, often richly decorated with intricate gold and silver embroidery or braid, and worn with a distinctive belt hzam squelli. Those from Fez and Tetouon were the most lavish, with wide sleeves and heavy embroidery with decorative non-functional buttons.

The Archive holds two such kaftans on long term loan. Both are from the late 19th century, and are made of silk brocade with gold and silver thread embroideries and braid.  


The Archive holds many beautiful costumes and textiles from Egypt, including wedding dresses, embroidered trousers and shawls from Siwa Oasis, everyday garments from Bahriya with their fragile silk tassels and coins, and the wonderful multicoloured embroidered costumes, face veils and shawls of the bedouin women from the Sinai Desert (information and illustrations on Sinai bedouin costume traditions can also be found under the index for Palestinian costume pre 1948).

Siwa Oasis, Egypt

Located near the Egyptian border with Libya, Siwa Oasis has a long history of beautiful costumes, textiles and jewellery. The women wear a variety of shawls woven in Kerdassa village near Cairo, but many are modified with Siwa’s very distinctive embroidery. The famous "sunburst" design from Siwa appears on many costumes and accessories, the most elaborate of which are the series of dresses and shawls embroidered in preparation of marriage. These beautiful dresses - of striped black or white silk heavily embroidered on the front - are still worn today, accompanied by distinctive Siwa silver jewellery.

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Siwa girls in their wedding finery (postcard)

Descriptions of a Siwa wedding come down to us from Ahmed Fakhry, who wrote a series of monographs on the Egyptian oases in the 1930s. He describes a Siwan bride with her hair "in many tresses" and her robe as "black in colour, with rich silk embroidery of variegated colours around the neck and the front part of the dress". Fakhry goes on to describe their traditional silver ornaments, which "include silver bracelets, necklaces - including the al-salhat with round silver pieces and coral beads - rings and earrings (both from the ears and ones that hang down from the top of the head down each side of the ears [called] the ti’laqayn, with silver chains ending in bells, attached to crescent ornaments".

Included in the Archive’s collection is a black Siwa wedding dress ashera nahuak essued with the complex "sunburst" embroidery patterns picked out in silk threads with mother of pearl buttons. Siwa’s well documented link with the ancient Egyptian sin god Amun-Ra may be the origin of this radiating "sunburst" design always found embroidered in multicoloured silks on Siwan wedding dresses. The T-shaped black wedding dress was worn on the seventh day of the wedding (alternating with a white version asherak nahuak and a striped silk version akbir el harir). The mother of pearl buttons that cover the front panel of the dress may have a talismanic function, repelling bad luck.

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Siwa wedding shawl early 1980's (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra)

There are two types of trousers srauleen in the collection– one white and one black. Girls from Siwa were expected to prepare up to seven pairs of trousers prior to their wedding. These were worn during the wedding celebrations, and afterwards were worn as everyday undergarments. The designs on the trouser cuffs hatem, and the colours used, are echoed in the elaborate Siwa wedding dresses.

There are also two shawls in the collection, one from the early 1980s, a wedding shawl truket nakbir el harir with the distinctive Siwa radiating sun design worked in multicoloured silk thread. The choice of colours - predominantly red, orange and yellow - are similarly associated with the sun. The second shawl derfudit or milayer, a larger rectangular piece, was a style worn by women of the Oasis when outside their family home. For generations the blue and white checked base material has been imported from the village of Kerdassa, near Cairo (until the 1920s, the caravan route linking Cairo with Siwa began at Kerdassa). All the multicoloured embroidery was done in Siwa.

The Archive also holds a collection of Siwa baskets and silver jewellery. The Archive’s library contains a copy of Ahmed Fahkry’s book on Siwa Oasis, as well as Bachinger and Schienerl’s Silberschmuck aus Aegypten, a 1984 publication that looks in depth at Siwa silver jewellery traditions.

Outside of Siwa Oasis itself good examples of Siwan costumes can be found in the British Museum collection in London (some are very well illustrated in their 1995 exhibition catalogue North African Textiles).

There has been a major revival in the creation of Siwa costumes and embroideries since the late 1980s, and it is now possible to buy beautifully made contemporary dresses, trousers and shawls through retail outlets in Cairo. The Archive is happy to provide further details on request.

Bahriya Oasis, Egypt

Bahriya Oasis, in Egypt’s Western Desert, also has a distinctive traditional costume style. The silk fringes beneath the decorated chest panel and the use of dark coloured threads for decoration are characteristic of the Bahriya style. Like Sinai Desert costumes, special attention is paid to the decoration on the back hems of these dresses, as this area would show beneath the head covering. Worn today only by older women, these dresses were originally produced by young girls in preparation of marriage.

The Archive has one early to mid 20th century dress from Bahriya. It is embroidered with coloured cotton and coins (both real and imitation). The embroidery patterns are predominantly based on triangular motifs, with the silk threads used in the variety of embroidery stitches being mainly maroon and orange with touches of white. We also have in the collection a piece that may be from Bahriya that is believed to be a side skirt panel from a dress dated mid 20th century. The embroidery is in similar colours to the dress, in muted oranges and maroons with touches of purple, lilac and grey. The hem is embroidered in two shades of maroon. The embroidery threads are silk and the base fabric is black cotton. However, despite these similarities, the embroidery designs and layout are different to the dress, which may mean it is from a different, although close, regional area.

The Archive also holds a contemporary dress from Bahriya, made of brushed black cotton embroidered with silk thread. Although the style of the dress, and the placement of embroidery, fringes and coins is very traditional, the quality of the embroidery itself is very poor, perhaps an indication that the dress was made purely for the tourist market.

Very little has been published on Bahriya costume. The best references are found in Spring and Hudson’s North African Textiles, which illustrates several Bahriya dresses held in the British Museum in London.

Sinai Desert, Egypt

There are quite distinct costume traditions in the north and south Sinai Desert. In the north, particularly around the El Arish area, there is a strong tradition of cotton dresses heavily embroidered in cotton cross stitch. These are similar in style to neighbouring Palestinian styles, particularly those found in the Beersheba area.

Patterns are usually geometric, arranged in large solidly embroidered areas around the chest, sleeves and lower skirt areas of the garment. Colours are bright - almost fluorescent in modern examples - and multicoloured. It is thought that certain colours are favoured by individual tribes. Blue embroidery, for example, is used mainly by one tribe in the North, although others use blue to designate differing forms of social status (either unmarried or widowed women).

Dresses thobs are worn with black headveils and shawls, often with multicoloured cross stitch embroidery down their centre panel, and with face masks burqas usually made of silk with a variety of decorative elements - embroidery, tassels, chains, amber, beads, amulets, and shells are common.

In the southern region, the current preferred form of decoration is beading rather than embroidery. Dresses are often unadorned, with a variety of small veils and elaborately beaded chest panels being worn on top of the garment. Headdresses are also intricately beaded. In the mid 20th century the trend was for dresses and shawls appliqu�d with red and yellow fabric, with appliqu�d zigzag motifs in similar colours (seen especially in the Katri'in region). These are rarely seen today. Modern veils are often synthetic, with luminescent beading in opal plastic beads from China being popular. In the villages around Nuweiba a style over the last few years has seen the rise of sheer gauze headveils with elaborate beading at the edges, worn drawn across the lower face to emphasis the beadwork.

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Northern Sinai Desert bedouin burqa 1920's (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra) consisting of a silk veil and embroidered forehead panel with various attachments, including beads, amber, shells, silver chains and amulets and woven tassels. Beaded chest veil from Katri'in village region, southern Sinai Desert 1997.  The string at the top is tied around the neck, with the main beadwork flat against the chest area (see image at top of this section to see how it is worn)











The Palestine Costume Archive holds five thobs from the Sinai region, as well as examples of burqas from Northern and Southern Sinai. Multicoloured geometric embroideries are found on the dresses, especially the area on the lower back. The burqa held in the Archive is dated to the 1920s by its coins, its accompanying headveil is also over 80 years old, dated by its DMC silk embroidery thread from Europe. The dresses themselves date from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Archive collection also includes an Northern Sinai embroidered headveil, several woven belts decorated with shells and wool embroidery, and pieces of Bedouin silver jewellery.

From the Southern Sinai, and in particular the area nearly St Catherine’s Monastery, the Archive has collected examples of the beaded and appliqu�d burqas worn by young married women, several dolls made for the children of local families, and various triangular beaded amulets.

Further information on Sinai costume can be found in the Archive’s publication Portraits without names: Palestinian costume, in Shelagh Weir’s Palestinian Costume and in Jehan Rajab’s Palestinian Costume. See also Traditionelle Handwerksformen der Bedouinen in Israel und Sinai (exhibition catalogue, also published in French) published by Israel Museum, 1999.

There are good collections of Sinai costume at the British Museum in London, and the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait, as well as many smaller museums in the Middle East (particularly in Beersheba, El Arish, Bethlehem, Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem and Amman. There is also a new display of bedouin culture at St Catherine’s Monastery in the southern Sinai Desert.)

Northern Sinai dresses and accessories dating from mid 20th century onwards are still available for sale in Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus. The Archive is happy to provide details on availability, costs and reputable dealers on request.


The Archive holds several women’s everyday costumes from villages in southern Syria, as well as a variety of textiles produced in Damascus and Aleppo.

Syria has always had a strong textile industry, centred in particular around the towns of Aleppo and Damascus. Local regional clothing styles reflected this wide choice of materials, as did the variety of textile techniques practiced: textiles were woven, dyed, printed, and decorated with embroidery, appliqu�, crocheting and patchwork.

Embroidery was practised among village women, and was an important home craft industry. Dark red was the preferred embroidery colour in the village of Saraqeb, bright pink the preference of es-Suchne; both colours were believed to hold magic properties, increasing fertility and protecting from spirits and the evil eye. Patterns used represented trees of life, palm fronds, cypresses, vases, fruit, birds and other animals, mountains, and geometric forms such as triangles, rosettes and squares. The most frequently used stitches in Syrian embroidery are fine cross stitch, petit-point, running stitch, buttonhole stitch, hemstitching, chain stitch, couching, fishbone and herringbone stitch and eyelet stitch. Silk and cotton were the preferred thread.  Embroidery in Syrian costume was usually in a V shape on the top half of the garment (see image below), sometimes on both front and back (unlike Palestinian and Jordanian costume).

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Thob from Maaret-en-Numan region (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra) showing are rare human figure embroidered at the base of the V shape, complete with handbag and high heels!

The Archive collection includes a thob from the Maaret-en-Numan area, and a plangi (tie dyed) style dress from the Hama region. The first dress is embroidered in a large V shape across the top of the garment, and features fine cross stitch embroidery in a multitude of colours. Designs are geometrical and floral - in this case there is even a rare human figure, an elegant lady complete with handbag and high heels, shown as the bottom of the V shape! The dress from near Hama is about 50 years old and is made of handwoven silk yarn in loose plain weave, tie-dyed with natural dye There is evidence that tie-dye patterns were already in use in Syria in the 5th and 6th centuries. This technique was only practiced by women, and several different techniques were used. Ornamentation consists of geometrical forms - thought to be derived from bedouin jewellery patterns - and sometime stylized tree of life or blossom motifs.

The Archive also holds a woman’s coat from the Mhardah region, probably about 50 years old, made of indigo dyed linen with cotton multi stitch embroidery. The asymmetrical embroidery is typical of the Mhardah region. The right side coat panel is emphasised, and the seams are richly embroidered.

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Syrian beaten sliver and tulle veil (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)

A rare Syrian tulle veil from the Baalbek region with beaten silver yarn was acquired by the Archive in 1994. These tulle veils, worn by women, were decorated with silver tinsel yarn with geometrically arranged zoomorphic patterns. The tinsel yarn is beaten into diamond or honeycomb shaped tulle cells with a little hammer to form the pattern.

The Archive also holds a collection of Syrian silk scarfs – so fine that they can be drawn through a wedding ring –as well as several heavy brocade headscarves, samples of atlas striped silk and finally, examples of the handwoven gold brocades from Damascus.

The best reference for Syrian costumes and textiles is the exhibition catalogue The Arts and Crafts of Syria by Johannes Kalter, published in 1992.

The Archive is not familiar with any museums that collect Syrian material and would be interested in any information about collections or displays. The Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait has an excellent collection of Syrian regional costume, parts of which are illustrated in Jehan Rajab’s 1987 article in Arts of Asia, "Arab folk costumes from Palestine, Syria and Jordan".


Traditional women’s costumes in Jordan are quite unique. As with Palestine and Syria, there is a great deal of regional variation within a small geographic area, which reflects different styles of living (for example, the agricultural societies of northern Jordan, and the bedouin nomadic and settled communities of the south).

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Jordanian bedouin costume, as displayed in the Museum of Popular Traditions, Amman, 1991.
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Woman from the family of Audeh abu Tayyi wearing the traditional double dress 















In the 19th century the majority of textiles used for clothing in Jordan were purchased in Syria or Palestine. By the early 20th century handwoven indigo dyed cloths were preferred, with these later being replaced, in about 1920, by black cotton.  Most Jordanian costumes are recognizable by the long rectangular opening slit or decorative panel on the front of the dresses.

Costumes in the north of the country usually were made up of one length, with long tight sleeves and a low neckline, and were called a shirsh. Decoration came in the form of embroidery around the neckline, hem and the sides of the costume. The Archive has on loan a 1930’s festive shirsh from the Aijun region, made of black cotton with intricate wave stitch embroidery.

The dresses of central and southern Jordan were sometimes of double length, with long pointed sleeves. These double dresses thob 'ob (or "folded dresses") are particularly fascinating seen out of context - whether hung out a window in a Jordanian village to dry, or as seen in displays such as this - where their length makes them almost impossible to imagine as a garment. One story the Archive was told was that the dress should be as long as the living room of it’s wearer (thus revealing social status - the longer the dress, the bigger the house).  There are several different styles - some, of the type illustrated below, featured an enormously bulky body with huge sleeves that were often worn draped over the head or used as shopping baskets.  Others, with long likes of embroidery running from chest height to the folded hem and with mush smaller (normal sized) winged sleeves were known as berame.  The Archive has one of each style on long term loan.  Thob 'ub were popular among some of the Jordanian bedouin tribes as well as being found in the Salt and Kerak region.  They are usually worn with a rectangular black or red silk and metallic brocade scarf 'asbe harir worn rolled up and wound around the head with the tassels falling down the centre of the back (an example of the 'asbe harir, worn in a different style, can be seen in the image above left).  The Archive also holds a contemporary dress based on the traditional design of the thob 'ub,  with pale and dark blue cotton appliqu�s and embroidery inspired by the original decoration - but only of single length - designed by Leila Jeryes in Amman in 2000.

Jordanian costume features in depth in Pracht und Geheimnis: Kleidung and Schmuck aus Palastina und Jordananien 1987and The Art of Jordan ,edited by Piotr Bienkowshi 1991, both exhibition catalogues featuring Widad Kawar's private collection.  Jehan Rajab’s 1987 article in Arts of Asia, "Arab folk costumes from Palestine, Syria and Jordan" is also of interest.  Jordianian costumes are beautifully displayed in the Museum of Popular Traditions in Amman (see installation image above), in the Dar el Tifl Museum in Jerusalem and in the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait.

The Gulf Region

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Photography by Tareq Rajab showing the size of the Jordanian double dress (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)


Beneath the Kuwaiti woman’s black abbaya are concealed costumes of brilliant colour and texture. Fabrics from Syria, Iraq, Europe and in particular, India, are used. Both townswomen and bedouin women originally wore trousers sirwal that narrowed towards the ankle and were richly embroidered in gold or silver thread. Worn by all women was the thob. Dame Violet Dickson brings to life a Kuwait bride in her description: "…she had on a peach coloured underdress of silk and over it a blue georgette thob beautifully embroidered in gold thread. On her head was a golden covering, studded with turquoise and with a fringe of gold Dutch guilders which lay on her forehead. A necklace of golden chains hung down on the front of her dress. Down her back hung long black pieces of cloth on which were sewn solid gold ornaments in the shape of tiny inverted basins. Her wrists were adorned with many golden bracelets, her ankles with two large, heavy anklets".

The Archive holds several special occasion thobs made of transparent fabric machine embroidered with multicoloured and metallic threads. Recent acquisitions include a black thob with silver stars and moons, and two dresses for young girls – one of vibrant acrylics with a glittering net overdress, the other made in the design of the Kuwaiti flag and covered with sequins, with a matching cap.

Very little has been published on Kuwaiti costume and textiles. The best references are found in the various Tareq Rajab Museum exhibition catalogues and in the recent publications on bedouin woven textiles by Sadu House, both based in Kuwait, and in Jennifer Scarce’s 1985 The Evolving Culture of Kuwait, which contains chapters on costume and a catalogue of the Kuwaiti costumes and textiles held in the collection of the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.

The United Arab Emirates and Oman

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UAE postcard showing detail of dress and embroidered cuffs, with model's hands decorated with henna

Costumes from Oman and the United Arab Emirates are perhaps the most colourful of all Arab women’s styles. Luminescent primary colours were offset with asymmetrical embroidery. The traditional dress in the UAE was the kandurah, which had a side slit at the neck, hemmed in silver embroidery. Originally costumes were made of indigo dyed fabric. The contemporary dress usually seen today is of multicoloured polyester fabrics of bold geometrical or floral designs, but still with asymmetrical embroidery at the chest panel. These can either be purchased readymade or made to order. The dress displayed today is worn with white cotton pants sirwal with massed embroidery, often in lurex thread, at the hems. Designs on these embroidered cuffs vary in form from hearts and flowers to geometric patterns. The Archive’s dresses include a vibrant green polyester from Oman with assymetrical lurex embroidery, which was made for order for the Archive in 1994, together with matching white cotton pants with multicoloured embroidered hearts. The traditional face veils in Oman are called batula and are thought to have been originally worn around 200 years ago. They are now common in other parts of the Gulf. The batulas are made of black indigo dyed material, which is then rubbed with a flat stone to create an iridescent bronze coloured effect.

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Omani postcard showing the commonly worn traditional burnished indigo facemask

Jehan Rajab recently published Silver Jewellery of Oman, a fascinating and well illustrated book, well worth acquiring (copies are available for sale through the Archive or direct from the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait). For further study of Omani costume see Dawn's Chatty's "The Burqa Face Cover: an aspect of Dress in Southeastern Arabia" in Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper's Languages of Dress in the Middle East (Curzon Press 1997) and Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo in the Arab World  (Curzon Press).

There are wonderful collections of Gulf costumes in museums in the Emirates – particularly a new small museum display in Sharjah – and in the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia

The costumes of Saudi Arabia feature a variety of techniques such as embroidery, appliqu�, bead and metalwork embroidery, with the use of textured fabrics giving variety of effects. In some regions, a transparent and heavily embroidered thob is worn on special occasions over an equally richly decorated dress, creating the effect of two levels of artistic embellishment. There are numerous headdresses worn, ranging from tall crowned hats woven from palm fronds to a variety of concealing styles. Face masks burqas were worn long (almost to the waist) in some regions, while others only reached the chest. These were decorated with appliqu�d fabrics, silver beadwork and amulets, as well as with intricate embroidery. The silver beading is thought to have been an African influence.

The Archive holds a durra'an style dress from the Asir region, dated late 20th century, of imitation black velvet with cotton and silver metallic thread embroidery in geometric patterns, acquired in August 2000. The Archive also holds on loan a bedouin faceveil burqa from the Hijaz region, embroidered and sewn with silver ornaments.

Heather Colyer Ross has published The Art of Arabian Costume on Saudi costume traditions. There is also a small but interesting exhibition catalogue Palms and Pomegranates: Traditional Dress of Saudi Arabia which is worth reading. Both are available in the Archive’s library.


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Detail of Tihama dress featuring sliver work and cotton fibre couching (Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

Although still adhering to the thob/shiwal head covering style found throughout the Middle East, traditional costume in Yemen varied considerably between the north and the south of the country. The thob was worn full and flowing in some regions, slim fitting and waisted in others. Another form of decoration particular to southern Arabia was the use of twisted and tweaked natural colour braid tacked onto the base cloth. Heavy silver work is also found on the chest area, shoulders and side panels.

The cotton thob originally would have been dyed black with indigo, indigo dyeing once being a major industry in Tihama. Until quite recently indigo was cultivated on a large scale, with indigo dyed material being used not only in Yemen, but in Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, as well as in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The Archive holds a late 20th century indigo dyed dress from Southern Tihama featuring embroidery, brass "sequins" and mother-of-pearl decoration. The Archive also has on long term loan a thob from the Tihama region, probably 1950’s, made of cotton fabric with a variety of decorative techniques, including tacked on cotton fibre, with metallic beads and thread appliqu�.

The Israel Museum’s The Jews of Yemen and The Yemenites: 2000 years of Jewish Culture both feature excellent sections on clothing and jewellery, as does Heather Collyer Ross' Art of Arabian Costume.

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