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Volume 31, Number 6November/December 1980

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Fashion in the Sand

Written and photographed by Heather Colyer Ross
Additional photographs by Burnett H. Moody

To fashion-conscious Westerners, Bedouin dress is hardly haute couture. Attuned to hemlines and heel heights, minis and maxis, sheaths, short shorts and shirtwaists, few Westerners consider the billowy cloaks and formless gowns of the Bedouin woman as more than basic clothing.

Some Westerners know, certainly, that beneath those voluminous cloaks urban Arab women often sport Paris originals, and that French couturiers like Saint Laurent and his predecessors have touched and trimmed their annual collections with shapes, fabrics and braids from the Arab East for years (See Aramco World, March-April 1977). Some may even know that shaikhs and sultans of long ago once clothed their ladies in the fashions of Damascus and Baghdad, and almost everyone in the West has some imaginative - if incorrect - impression of mythical harem beauties idling languidly in the carpeted luxury of shaikhly tents, in diaphanous silks and glittering jewels. Yet Western reaction to Bedouin dress - wrongly but stubbornly - persists: dark, drab and dowdy, delightful in the desert, no doubt, but a disaster in the drawing room.

This, of course, is nonsense. Bedouin dress, however practical its origins, is anything but drab and dowdy. While the outer cloak is decidedly dark and while the dyes in older examples of hand embroidery have usually faded, Bedouin dress, like Bedouin jewelry, is a richly colored art form reflecting, no less than architecture, esthetic sensibility.

My interest in Bedouin dress goes back to 1969, when I was starting to collect Bedouin jewelry (See Aramco World, March-April 1979). I was at the Women's Suq in Riyadh, where the shopkeepers are all women, and although my first interest was jewelry I happened to notice, and quickly bought, a handsome Najd dress, the first of many; today, 11 years later, I own many Bedouin dresses, among them a frothy, sequined "wedding" dress - a type worn by a guest, not the bride - and a fur-lined shepherd's cloak.

At that time in Saudi Arabia, I must admit, Bedouin dresses didn't generate any overwhelming interest among my expatriate friends. Indeed, as late as lastyear, when I suggested that some Bedouin dresses be modeled before an international women's group, the idea still raised some skeptical eyebrows. Since then, however, interest has grown. Two American girls in Houston, for example, have volunteered to help put together a comprehensive collection of traditional dress, and several Saudi Arab officials and some Saudi women have expressed an eager interest in tracing and documenting examples for possible inclusion in a museum at the University of Riyadh.

This revival of interest is developing just in time. Although the basic style of Bedouin dress is, in fashion terms, timeless, traditional Bedouin clothing - like Bedouin jewelry and other handicrafts - is rapidly being replaced by imported goods. And though, in remote pockets throughout the Arab world, many women continue to wear the traditional dress of their region, inevitably, in the face of modernization, most handicrafts will eventually disappear.

In recent years, for example, Bedouin women have come to acquire sewing machines, and this, coupled with the ready availability of cheap mass-produced clothes from Asia, has already caused handicrafts to wane. As a result, it is becoming harder and harder to find the beautiful hand-woven, hand-sewn and hand-embroidered Bedouin dresses that are the heart of traditional costume. As an example, it took me 10 years to find one hand-embroidered 'Asir Province dress; such dresses have been machine-embroidered in the 'Asir region for years.

It is even harder to trace their tribal or regional origins. With tribal structure weakening on the Peninsula and with increased mobility beginning to obscure regional differences in many areas - more noticeably in the East - the job of documenting the origins of the Bedouin costume is challenging and exacting.

I soon learned, for instance, while searching for old books and old prints, that little has been written about Arabian Peninsula clothing - probably because of the early explorers' deference to sensitivity on the subject of women. Nevertheless, one explorer in Arabia, Alois Musil, did document the basic items of the northern Arabian Ruwala Bedouin dress in 1910, and although the names of the garments do vary from place to place within Arabia, the pieces are generally the same.

According to Musil, the basic garments were a body-shirt, an over-dress, belt, kerchief, head-band and cloak. He noted that a Ruwala Bedouin woman's dress had broad sleeves ending in a long lappet or flap, said to have the purpose of covering the hands at prayer time; that the necklines were high; that the dress itself was one yard longer than the wearer; and that the lady sewed it herself out of approximately six yards of fabric.

Ruwala women, Musil went on, did not embroider these dresses, but did wear a broad, red and black hand-woven belt to hitch up the dress and free the ankles, and a large dark head scarf folded in a triangle. Their cloaks were the same as men's, except that the latter were striped while the former were plain.

Wealthy Ruwala women, he said, sometimes owned jackets as well as silk kaftans which were worn over the dress, plus a special head scarf and a red shawl with a dyed black strip. It is likely too that the Ruwala women wore voluminous bloomers such as the Hijazi and Iraqi women wore at the time of Musil's travels, although he, understandably, makes no mention of them.

In a more recent book, Bedouin Village: A Study of the Saudi Arabian People in Transition, Motoko Katakura, a Japanese woman, has also provided information about tribal costumes in Wadi Fatima, an area which lies between Jiddah and Mecca. Again, the basics are similar, but she also mentions an absorbent white gauze blouse-like undergarment which often includes skilled lacework and is generally held together in front by a chain of detachable gold buttons The trousers, which are sometimes white, are held in place by a cord.

Over these garments, Katakura says, Wadi Fatima women wear a loose, wide tunic with full sleeves which hang to the ground, made in many different colors and sometimes embroidered with flowers or palm-tree motifs. Unmarried girls wear simple long dresses, sometimes embroidered.

In Wadi Fatima, the women weave the cloth for their dresses by hand and many own manual sewing machines. Although the general style of dress in Wadi Fatima has a long tradition, elderly women confirm that the outward appearance has changed over the decades. The various dresses from the region still display characteristics which indicate the sub-tribe to which the woman belongs, but these dresses are constantly undergoing change through intertribal influence.

Unlike the coastal areas of the Peninsula, which have known outside influences since antiquity, the inhospitable "interior" has given rise to individual forms of expression. Fjom the Najd, for example, has come the unique 'abaya dress - the voluminous, poncho-style cross between a dress and a cloak. One of the more spectacular garments, the 'abaya is made of fine black wool or cotton appliqued with large rectangular patches of vivid pink, green and orange silk and embroidered with red, green, yellow, pink and orange thread in patterns that are usually geometric but occasionally include a floral motif.

Also from the Najd come colorful cotton thawbs - ankle-length gowns - with narrow sleeves richly embroidered with geometric designs and edged at the wrists with silver bells. Because so much work goes into them, sleeves are used again and again while the body of the dress is replaced when worn out. The sleeve embroidery follows traditional patterns; two bare spaces are left on each side above the elbow for appliqued rectangles of cloth to match the body of the dress. There seems to be no practical reason for these, nor for the addition of the invariable shoulder patches of rose and orange silk.

It was while mending and cleaning some dresses that I uncovered such secrets. When repairing them, I discovered how many times the sleeves had been re-used by uncovering layers of sleeve applique. Using a razor blade to carefully remove silver bells for cleaning showed me how many times they had been transferred to new sleeves. Unfortunately the embroidery thread dyes are not colorfast - a discovery made when there was not enough time for dry-cleaning before a fashion show.

Close examination of these central Arabian dresses also discloses how climate has influenced style. If you compare them with those of 'Asir Province, you find that both are cut along the same basic, ancient lines, but that the garments from the hot interior of Arabia are far more loosely cut and have large, spacious sleeves, while the mountain people have their dresses cut closer to the body with form-fitting sleeves to suit the moderate-to-cool climate of the southwest (See Aramco World, September-October 1980). But there were other factors as well. One was the Muslim stress on modesty in attire for both maiden and matron, which led to the 'abaya, the black cloak, and the tabam, the black veil, as well as the sleeve flap which covers a woman's hands when she prays. But the chief influences were the practical demands of nomadic life and the technology of weaving at the time

Nomadic life, in effect, imposed certain functional restrictions on Bedouin clothing. Because they lived in the desert, Bedouins - men and women - needed clothing that protected them against scorching sunlight, cold winds and blowing sands. Thus came the basic, sensible themes: ankle-length thawbs, heavy cloaks and, to protect the face and head against both sun and sand, the ghutra, that eminently practical headdress that serves as hat, veil and shawl. Loose, flowing and voluminous, these garments permitted easy movement and, for women, allowed for child-bearing.

In construction, there is little difference between clothes for men and women - apart from color. Each garment is made from sections of cloth cleverly paneled - which conserves cloth and suggests that, although cutting fabric on the bias may have been known, the original designer knew that the same effect could be achieved more economically by radiating wedges of fabric - known as gores - from one point.

Because of this discovery, the common thawb for men is a work of art: the gores flare cleverly on each side and encompass pockets at the same time.

The loom, of course, imposed limits on the width of the cloth - for tents as well as clothing - and this in turn necessitated paneling in clothes. On the other hand, because of Bedouin preference for traditional styling, basic patterns remained unchanged when wider, machine-made fabric became available. The results, in any case, were clothes cut with a classic simplicity, intricately embroidered and -despite those who think of Bedouin dress as dark and drab-brilliantly colored.

This misunderstanding arises, I think, because few expatriates ever see more than the 'abaya, which is indeed somber. Nonetheless, color - brilliant color - is the norm, not the exception. In 1913, for example, Gertrude Bell, who paid little attention to Bedouin appearance, was moved to write that the Bedouin woman who met her in Hail wore brilliant red and purple cotton robes and ropes of bright pearls round her neck.

This is not unusual. While it is true that light colors are considered more acceptable for the young, with dark shades generally reserved for their elders, the predominant colors worn by the Bedouin are crimson, purple, turquoise, rose, orange and green. In fact, her love of color and glitter makes it normal for a Bedouin woman to carry out mundane chores clad in magnificent materials whose metallic threads maintain their splendor despite heavy use. And although, in high fashion terms, it conceals rather than reveals, the original conception is hard to surpass in elegance: fine black wools with colorful appliques, silks, satins, chiffons, floral and plain cottons, all richly embroidered with bold pink, orange and green geometric patterns - and often sporting massed silver bells at the wrists or turquoise and silver buttons at the throat.

Embroidery, of course, adds to the color of Bedouin dress, even when machine done, but in fact embroidery on Bedouin dress is an art in itself. Invariably necklines, bodices and cuffs are accented with embroidery, sometimes with metallic thread and sequins. The stitching, generally, is fine and sometimes quite exquisite - occasionally equaling the finest Victorian samplers.

Interestingly, some of the finest embroidery often appears on underarm gussets, the functional, diamond-shaped sections of cloth sewn under the armpits to make arm movements easier in tight sleeves. Always unobtrusive in a Western garment, underarm gussets are never so in Bedouin dresses, although, in fact, they can't be seen when the dresses are worn. Elaborate gussets appear on loose fitting Bedouin gowns when there can be no motive other than decoration. They are generally cut from cloth contrasting in both color and fabric, often edged with braid, occasionally embroidered and even, on occasion, lavishly encrusted with sequins. They are, overall, the most predominant decorative feature of a Bedouin dress.

As noted earlier, there are astonishing regional varieties in the basic Bedouin dress. In 'Asir Province Bedouin women today wear a cloak which is decorated with hand-sewn red leather strips, while fashion-conscious women in Jiddah favor flowing robes of sheer base cloth, lavishly embroidered with gold thread by the tailors of Bahrain, who skilfully embroider these gowns with curvilinear designs similar to arabesque, the Islamic form of decoration. On many of these over-dresses, the hems are purposely uneven, the back intended to trail, and in some cases, the dress is meant to be hitched up and thrown over the forearms to permit easy movement. Others can be brought up over the head to form a hood.

In the south of the Peninsula, the dresses are again distinctive, having, more often than not, a striped base cloth with, generally, the front panel of the dress heavily embroidered from neckline to hem, in contrast to dresses from the north of the Peninsula where the patterns are restricted to the bodice and sleeve. One typical style is invariably maroon-colored, although made from various base cloths including wool, brocade and cotton.

Then there are the wedding dresses for guests noted earlier. Often made from an entire bolt of figured tulle - approximately 35 yards - these dresses are black, and are worn by the guests at the wedding rather than the bride. The yoke is made of woven gold and silver metallic thread which returns over the shoulders to fall down the back in the fashion of religious vestments. Because many textile manufacturers in Europe and India have agreed to supply individual motifs on fabric when the order is a minimurrf of one bolt of cloth, unique motifs frequently appear on Bedouin dress fabrics. One Najd wedding dress displays a repeated velvet palm tree while another features the Turkish crescent and star. On the latter gown, the enormous cerise silk gussets also show glittering gold lame Saudi emblems of crossed swords and palm trees.

Another gown I bought recently is totally hand-sewn and hand-embroidered except for a machine-made lining below the bust. But the lining on the upper half of the bodice, of identical cloth of the same age, was hand-sewn and served as a base for the embroidery. As the skirt had not been added as an afterthought, it would seem that the tailor had a sewing machine but believed in the superiority of handwork, having reserved it for view.

Probably the most remarkable Arabian garment, however, is one said to have originated in the Gulf States. It is at once reminiscent of an Egyptian sphinx, a bride and a nun's habit: two rectangles of cloth are simply folded lengthwise and stitched at one end, except for a slit to permit the face to show through. It can be cut to any length, the longest forming a train. Some are completely covered with multicolored sequins which give a helmet effect - and make the dress resemble futuristic gear out of Star Trek.

The revival of interest in Bedouin dress has had mixed-and ironic-results. On the one hand, inquiries sent prices soaring from about $15 one week to $80 the next. But on the other hand, traders in the suq also began to display "very genuine" and "very old" Bedouin dresses. Some merchants even had the origins nailed down, an example of supply and demand becoming demand and supply. Furthermore, the reviving interest also turned up one rare, hand-embroidered Taifi gown and on one fortunate day, three variations of the traditional 'Asir Province dress, often called the Taifi wedding dress, with not a machine stitch on them and with confirmed origins.

Eventually, of course, there should be a museum for such clothes - not only because they reflect an unappreciated esthetic sense among the Bedouins, but because Western centers of high fashion need them. Recently, for example, I acquired a chiffon 'abaya dress from Paris based directly on the authentic examples-proof, I think, that when traditional Arabian costume is thoroughly catalogued, haute couture will draw upon it for inspiration as fashion spins along the pathway of clothing history.

Heather Colyer Ross has been collecting and studying Bedouin jewelry and dresses for 10 years. She is now finishing a book on Bedouin dress.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the November/December 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1980 images.