The Middle East is a kaleidoscopic and colourful universe for Arabic clothing for both, men and women. It has been, for millennia, and remains a complex reality where local traditions and Western culture mix. If white robes and black veils are the only things that pop in your mind when you think about Middle Eastern clothes, then you should read on.
While the latter has deeply influenced Arab countries, it is still possible to spot some traditional garments. In this article, I’ll deal with some of the most common misconceptions about Arabs and clothing.
Then, I’ll detail the traditional garments worn in different countries, starting from Morocco to Oman. I’ll also help you understand how the concept of ‘modest dress’ changes a lot, from one country to another, within the region.
Arabic Clothing Factors: Age, Social Class, Location
Age and location make a big difference when it comes to clothing in the Middle East. On the one hand, younger people tend to wear Western clothes and use their traditional outfits only for special occasions such as weddings, religious celebrations, or pilgrims.
At the same time, the older generations are far more often seen wearing traditional Arabic garments. On the other hand, people living in cities are more attentive to the latest fashion trends and popular brands.
In smaller towns and rural contexts, men and women still prefer traditional attires because of their comfort and the protection they offer from the sun, the wind, and the sand.
A third key factor is the wearer’s social class. While designer clothes from the West are trendy among the middle and upper class, classic garments and conservative attires are still easily found in traditional neighbourhoods. While this could be true for specific countries in the Levant and North Africa, the criteria change for Gulf countries where all women and men wear similar clothes.
In fact, in Gulf countries, the quality and design of the ‘abaya’ reveal one’s social class and status.
Arabic clothing stereotypes
Before detailing which clothes belong to which country, I must clarify some general misconceptions related to Middle Eastern clothing, as well as introducing the basic terms of Arabic clothing fashion.
1) All Arab women wear hijab.
No. This statement is wrong for two main reasons:
a. some Muslim women decide to wear a hijab, and some let their hair uncovered
b. some Arab women are Christian or Jewish and thus might not follow the same clothing rules
2) The hijab is a headscarf.
Yes. The term hijab is a word used to describe the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. Moreover, the word hijab refers to the short veil wrapped around a woman’s head.
Hijab is also a general term describing modest attires that include a head covering.
3) There is only one kind of veil.
No. The term veil includes an impressive variety of headgears that come in many shapes, lengths, and fabrics. There are different kinds of veils, and women wear them as a religious or cultural sign of belonging to a particular society and consider them an important fashion statement.
Hijabs have different styles and colours, and women wearing a hijab (muhajjabat in Arabic) are always up to date with the latest trends, just as Western women know whether an item is out-dated or not.
A precise instance of how hijab fashion changes and evolves is the so-called “Gamboo’a”, which can be literally translated as “Camel hump”. It was fashionable around 2008 when women sported voluminous hijabs using a clip with a giant plastic flower (the gamboo’a) under the headscarf. It soon became trendy, especially in the trendsetter country of the region, the UAE. However, by 2011 it was already considered out of fashion.
Here are the four main types of hijabs:
1. Shayla: a one-piece veil, derived from a long scarf wrapped around the head and pinned under the chin, as it gently rests on the shoulders.
It is usually worn on top of a matching colour cap, which helps keep the hijab in place. The rim of the cap may or may not be shown according to the woman’s preference. It is the most common kind of hijab, particularly in the Gulf countries (except for Saudi Arabia).
2. Al-Amira: a two-piece veil.
It is straightforward to wear, and it is comprised of a head cap and a tubular scarf worn on top of it. The main difference between Shayla and Al-Amira is the shape of the scarf (rectangular for the Shayla, tubular for the al-amira) and the head cap (hidden or only slightly visible in the former, while a significant portion is left exposed in the latter).
It can be seen in the Middle East, even though it is prevalent in the southeast Asian Muslim community.
3. Niqab: a face veil that is usually worn with a headscarf and tied behind the head.
It leaves a gap for the eyes only, even though some women add an eye veil that allows them to see without revealing their eyes. It is not unusual to see a niqab in North Africa or the Levant, but it is most commonly used in Saudi Arabia.
4. Khimar: a long veil that covers the head and the chest till the waist. The face is left uncovered.
It is not as popular as the previous head covering types; still, some women wear it in their daily lives.
4) Most Arab women wear a burqa.
Not entirely, and you’ll see why. Burqa is an Arabic clothing item characteristic of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban regime imposed burqa, and it is not paramount in the Arab world, even though some countries such as Yemen have their version of the burqa (or burghaa), which differs from the Afghan one.
It is not to be confused with the niqab, more commonly used in the Middle East.
• The niqab is usually black and merely a face veil.
• Burqa is mostly light blue and covers the whole body.
• Usually, the niqab leaves the eyes uncovered, while the burqa has a net over them.
5) All Arab men wear a long, white robe and a coloured headscarf.
No. Only men in the Gulf wear a headscarf and white robe daily. The headscarf (ghuthrain the Gulf, keffiah in the Levant) is tied on the head with a black piece of cord (aghal). It is used with a skullcap called thagiyah, which keeps the hair in place.
The white robe, called thoub/thobe, dishdasha, or andura, is the main item of clothing for Gulf men and is generally worn with a pair of loose-fitting trousers called sirwal, either long or short.
While the keffiah is also used in Palestine and Jordan, the dishdasha remains the Gulf men’s fashion landmark.
Changes in Arabic clothing perception
One of the most interesting surveys about Arabic clothing ever conducted in the region was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The study shows how people’s perception of decency and modest clothing changes from one country to another within the Middle East.
Most of the time, we see these opinions are reflected in the way Arabs dress. For example, it is indeed true that many women in Lebanon do not cover their hair. On the contrary, the majority of women in Saudi Arabia wear a niqab.
Arabic clothing by country
When it comes to Arabic clothing, four main areas define fashion trends:
• North Africa
• The Levant
• The Gulf
North African countries
Walking through the streets of Rabat or Tunis, we see many men and women donning western clothes. How can we tell if they are Moroccan or Tunisian, only by the way they are dressed? It is relatively straightforward once we identify those robes or headgears that are unique to that country.
Many Moroccans still wear the djellaba, a flowing and comfortable hooded tunic with long sleeves. Part of the national heritage, djellaba, is made in bright colours for women and earth tones.
Moroccans might accompany the tunic with the traditional slippers called balgha, mostly yellow, but other colours are used.
Moroccan women clothing:
• Kaftan: an overdress similar to the djellaba but without a hood. It is usually worn on festive occasions or weddings and not used in daily life.
Moroccan men clothing
• Pandora: most men wear Pandora, a short-sleeved robe, much lighter than the djellaba described above.
Spotting a traditional outfit in Tunisia may be quite challenging, especially in the cities. But a trip to the medina in Tunis or attending a marriage could give you a chance to admire the beauty of traditional Tunisian clothes.
Tunisian Women Clothing:
• Safseri: while it is rarely worn, there are indeed some older women that still use this long, white veil. Head for the old part of Tunis if you want to see one.
Tunisian Men Clothing:
• Chacha: a symbol of the Tunisian traditions and older men still wear this flat red hat made of wool.
Much like Tunisia, Algeria has also been heavily influenced by the West regarding Arabic clothing; thus, seeing teenagers wearing typical Algerian attire might be difficult.
However, older men and women are most likely to wear these two typical items of clothing.
Algerian women clothing:
• Karakol: Algerian women love colours and embroideries. This traditional embroidered jacket has made its significant return on the Algerian fashion scene and is now used on noteworthy occasions and weddings.
Algerian men clothing:
• Pandora: it is typical of Algeria too, but usually made of brown or white wool.
Young Libyans usually wear jeans and t-shirts. However, it is sufficient to leave the city and approach the rural areas inhabited by the Berbers to see the original Libyan attire.
Lybian women and men clothing:
• Haik – this veil, almost forgotten in Algeria, is still worn by some Libyan Berber women, as well as Moroccan. It is a long white piece of cloth that covers one’s entire body.
• Holi – a white cloak, wrapped around the body and usually worn with the taqiyah.
Just walking through the streets of Cairo will enchant you with a wide range of Arabic clothes and attires. You’ll see women wearing a niqab, full hijabi girls, up to ladies who don’t cover their hair at all.
Men’s Arabic clothing doesn’t tend to be as varied since most male Egyptians wear polo shirts and jeans. However, inhabitants of some peripheral area of Cairo and the great majority of the so-called fellahin (farmers) still prefer traditional and breezy attires.
Egyptian women clothing:
• Jalabiya or “galabeya” – Similar to the djellaba and the gandoura, galabeya is a long tunic without buttons or a proper neck. It comes in colourful and embroidered variations for women and more neutral colours for men.
Egyptian men clothing:
• Taqiya – this skullcap is usually worn in some Levant and Gulf countries under the ghutrah (men’s headscarf). The particularity of Egypt is that some men wear this kind of cap on its own.
The Levant Region
Like the Maghreb countries, Western clothes are predominant in the Levant, especially in big cities such as Beirut or Damascus. However, many local garments and attires can be seen in big cities and not just in the countryside.
So far, we’ve seen that all al-Maghreb countries have some Arabic clothing pieces in common, such as the gandura or the barnous, a hooded djellaba. While the same rule applies to the Levant, some particular headgears or tunics are unique to each country.
Western-style clothes are widespread, especially in the western part of the capital Amman. However, it is common to see more traditional and conservative attires in downtown and eastern Amman, and of course, in the smaller towns.
Jordanian women clothing:
• Combinations of Niqab, hijab, jilbab, jeans, t-shirts, and khimar.
Jordanian men clothing:
• Shemagh mhadab – a red checked keffiyeh widespread in the Gulf, too, especially in Saudi Arabia. It is the colour that is typical of Jordan, as it stands for the Bedouin culture’s values. The more significant the tassels, the higher the importance of the wearer.
Like Jordan, the beauty of traditional Palestinian clothes has been replaced with a western mix.
Palestinian women and men clothing:
• Most men in big cities such as Ramallah or Jerusalem wear jeans and t-shirts, while women wear jilbabs – some soft westernised type of garment. However, the country has a specific chequered type of headgear that now represents the country on a global stage, thanks to Yasser Arafat.
• Black and white keffiyeh – this colour pattern has always been unique to Palestine, and it even became a fashionable item in America and Europe in the early 2000s.
Nowadays, it represents support for the Palestinian cause.
Among all the Arab countries, Lebanon deserves, arguably, the title of most fashionable and stylish. Many women do not wear a hijab, especially in the capital city, Beirut.
Lebanese women and men clothing:
• Serial – baggy and comfortable trousers also seen in the Gulf countries but under a dishdasha. Serials are one of the very few traditional garments still worn by some Lebanese countrymen, however, on their own, without a thobe. Serials are so fashionable that even a female version was created.
Much like the other Levantinian countries, Syria has seen more and more men and women opting for Western-style clothes. Most women wear a hijab, and some sport a jilbab or even an abaya and niqab, while some older men can still be seen with keffiyeh and long tunics.
Traditional clothes were once famous for the quality of their fabrics and their embroideries’ beauty, often in black and red. However, they have disappeared from urban areas and are worn in the countryside only on special occasions.
Syrian women clothing:
‘That’ – Syrian ‘That’ is a garment for women, on the opposite of its use in most Gulf countries. It is dyed black and red and often accompanied by a belt of the same colour.
Syrian men clothing:
• Serial – just like the Lebanese, Serial trousers cannot be missed from traditional Syrian attire. You find them long, loose, and in black or other neutral colours.
• Jordanian and Syrian thobes share the same colours: red and black.
The Gulf Countries
When it comes to the Gulf, it is quite easy to spot the locals, as compared to most countries in the region, they have persisted in wearing traditional Arabic clothing styles. Most men in the Gulf use a long, white tunic called dishdasha, which helps keep the body cool against the region’s heat.
This tunic is often worn with short sherwal trousers and a ghutra, alight, white headscarf, or the keffiyeh, in the colder season. Women wear wide, long robes called abayas, usually associated with a Shayla hijab that shows some hair and a niqab.
Even if men thobes men and women abaya for may seem the same everywhere in the region, some small details allow us to understand whether we are talking to a Qatari, a Kuwaiti, or an Omani.
Saudi men and women have kept wearing their traditional Arabic clothing items, and adherence to the moderate Islamic dress for both sexes is an absolute must.
Saudi women clothing:
• Niqab – if niqabs are sometimes seen in the Levant and North Africa, they become predominant in Saudi Arabia. Only in cities such as Jeddah and Dammam are women allowed to walk around without the face veil.
• Gloves – it is not uncommon to see women wearing black gloves covering their hands and arms.
Saudi men clothing:
• Shemagh – it is the Saudi name for the typical Jordanian keffiyeh, worn by many Saudis in winter to replace the ghuthra.
• Dishdasha – the typical Saudi thobe resembles a long shirt. It has a two buttoned neck, it is tight and made to have cufflinks (Kabak)
Even if only 25 per cent of the 2.1 million inhabitants have Qatari origins, there is a robust national identity expressed through clothes. Qatari fashion is similar to the Saudi Arabian one, but it is more colourful, especially on the women’s side.
The most common garments are:
Qatari women clothing:
• Al-darraa – some Qatari women wear this local version of the black abaya described above.
Qatari men clothing:
• Shemagh – the Qatari shumagh is typically white and has an African feeling thanks to the two tails on the back and the stiff front part, which resembles a cobra snake.
• Dishdasha – the Qatari dishdasha comes in shiny fabrics and usually has a pocket.
The 1.4 million Kuwaitis differentiate themselves from the 2.3 million ex-pats that live in the country because of the language they speak and the way they dress.
Here are the typical Kuwaiti garments:
Kuwaiti women clothing:
Dara’a – the name is the same as the Qatari dress, but it comes in a more colourful version and different models. It is often seen at weddings, formal meetings, traditional dance events, and so on.
Kuwaiti men clothing:
Shemagh: the Kuwaiti shumagh is white and characterised by a scale shape when observed from the front.
Dishdasha: Similar to the classic one, the Kuwaiti dishdasha has a distinguishing one-button collar.
Bahrain might not be as known as Saudi Arabia when it comes to Arabic clothing and culture, but it is nothing short regarding history, biodiversity, and, of course, fashion. Bahrain’s traditional clothes are in line with other Gulf countries but have some unique features which differentiate them from the neighbouring countries.
Bahrani women clothing:
• Abaya – lookout for red abayas with golden embroideries because they are worn only on special occasions.
• Red – is the national colour, and it is not unusual to see women wearing accessories of this colour on important days.
Bahrani men clothing:
• Shemagh – white is the most widespread colour. Worn loose, it lets the head move freely.
• Dishdasha – the Bahraini thobe is very comfortable, loose, and is usually paired with a shirt collar.
The UAE has a highly complex Arabic clothing fashion panorama. While Dubai is the most progressive state among the Emirates in terms of clothing, all other areas remain conservative.
Fashion has evolved here incredibly fast. If in the past sirwal and burqa were a must-wear for women, these pieces of Arabic clothing have been replaced with abaya in recent years.
Moreover, the classic white thobe now comes in a wide variety of colours.
Emirati women clothing:
• Abaya – Dubai is the land of fashionable and trendy abayas decorated with sequins, embroideries, and ribbons.
Emirati men clothing
• Shemagh – Mostly white, but often found in the renown Jordanian ‘red and white’ pattern. It is styled quite loose, over the shoulders.
• Kandora – the UAE name fordishdasha, a collarless and features a long tassel called tarboosh. More recently, it is fashionable for men in the UAE to wear American style baseball or trucker hats with their white or brown Kandora.
The southern sultanate is very mindful of its culture and national heritage, Arabic clothing included. That’s why the traditional dress is compulsory for all employees in the public sector in Oman. Western-style clothes have no space in the country, except for tourists, of course.
Traditional Omani attires could not be complete without:
Omani women clothing:
• Abaya – the black abaya with some colourful details is most common in the capital Masqat.
• Dishdasha – just like Omani men, Omani women of rural areas wear this traditional tunic in a great variety of colours and with rich details. Very often, you’ll see it matched with loose-fitting sirwals.
• Lahav – a typical headscarf wrapped around the head.
Omani men clothing:
• Kumma – there is no space for the shumagh in Oman. Here, shumagh is substituted by the traditional cap, which comes in different colours and has holes to keep the head cool.
• Muzzar – a turban wrapped around the head, with or without a kumma underneath. Dishdasha: it can be white or in earth tones such as brown or grey. It sports a short tassel, too.
This country has preserved an extraordinary heritage in terms of history and traditions. Yemeni clothes are just another expression of how much Yemenis follow their customs.
As such, Yemeni’s Arabic clothing choice is a clear indication of the region they come from, be that the mountainous North, the coastal area of the West, or the tribal area of the South. Still, it is not uncommon for men to wear Western clothes in the cities.
Let’s see what makes Yemeni’s attires different from all the other Gulf countries:
Yemeni women clothing:
• Balto – it is the Yemeni version of the abaya, and it remains quite widespread in the urban areas.
• Lithia – more or less the Yemeni version of the niqab.
• Sitara – literally “curtain,” it is the traditional dress of the capital Sana’a. Nowadays, only older women wear this colourful piece of cloth, covering them from head to toes.
Yemeni men clothing:
• Shawl – a headscarf, similar but somehow different from the shumagh, is wrapped around the head just like a turban, and it comes in many different colours.
• Thobe – while the white thobe is very common in the North of the country, all coastal areas wear a skirt called ‘futa.’
• Jambiya – it is not unusual to see a dagger hanging from men’s belts, especially in the northern areas.
The fashion style of Sudan is unique and easily recognisable. Sudanese wear many of the Arabic garments widespread in the rest of the Middle East.
But, usually, Sudanese clothing has a brighter and more colourful version, which suggests us of other African countries.
While Western clothes are found in big cities, some people still prefer traditional loose-fitting pieces. Let’s see what items of clothing you cannot miss if visiting Sudan:
Sudanese women clothing:
• Thobe – Different from the Gulf, this big piece of Arabic clothing is designed especially for women. According to the occasion, it is wrapped all around the body and the head, and it comes in varying patterns and colours. Older women generally don it as the younger generation wears alternatives such as abayas, long skirts, and dresses.
• Hijab – being a Muslim country, all Sudanese women wear a headscarf, sometimes underneath the thobe.
Sudanese men clothing:
• Jalabiya – just like the Egyptians, Sudanese men like being comfortable clothes, such as loose-fitting tunics. However, Sudanese tend to supplement it with a decorated scarf called immah.
• Taqiya – the skullcap is worn without the keffiyeh to keep the head cool, again, just like in Egypt.
While some countries have followed in Western fashion’s footsteps, notably the Levant and North Africa, some Arabic countries are still holding tight to their traditional attires (Saudi Arabia or Yemen).
Arabic clothing in the Middle East remains a significant business. Unlike in Western countries, Arabic apparel is used to express so many things about the person:
Clothes in the Middle East are a fashion statement, just like they are in the West, but clothing here has a more profound social and moral dimension, as you’ll see below:
According to the garment, the wear can signal its region (country, city, tribe) the social class, wealth, and even personality! Moreover, choosing a specific item of clothing reflects fundamental moral values, not expected in the West.
For example, some Arabs think that women without hijabs are more open-minded but also have fewer morals. They also feel that women wearing hijabs are somewhat more religious and thus respectable. Finally, there is a wide range of Arab garments. What we have listed so far represents a representative, but small, part of them.
This article has not been edited by Fibre2Fashion staff and is re-published with permission from thevou.com