Clothing serves as a cultural identity anywhere in the world. Clothes and fashion are a result of history, political, economic, social changes and, external influences that a place experiences over time. Not only does it make an excellent indicator of culture but, it also expresses the extent to which a person is connected to their culture.
The texture of the fabric, the colours, the weaving techniques, the designs, the motifs, the artistry all act as cultural symbols. Thus, becoming objects that directly link people to their native land.
As promised in my previous post, I will gradually introduce you to traditional clothing around the world. Starting with the Middle East this week.
Why the Middle East?
The Middle East is a region that links 3 continents with each other. There is no concrete definition of the Middle East as the countries normally associated with them are dispersed over the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Moreover, different groups have different interpretations of it however, most commonly they are referred to as the group of countries in Western Asia as a majority of them lie in the Asian continent. When referring to the Middle East, this post refers to the 18 countries most associated with the region according to the internet.
The countries are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.
We often associate this region with Islamic culture which undoubtedly is significant however, we tend to forget how diverse the area actually is. This region was home to the Mesopotamian civilization, the oldest settlement in the world and was part of grand empires such as the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Assyrian and the Persian, among others. As such, it is diverse in terms of its religion, ethnicities, customs and even clothing. They do share some similarities, an inevitable result of sharing lands historically and because of trade. Nevertheless, they all have distinct features that identify their own heritage.
The reason I selected this as the first region for this series is that historical evidence shows that one of the earliest pieces of evidence of woven fabric, dating back to 6500-6000 BC, was found in Neolithic sites in Anatolia. A region that includes the majority of the Asian portion of Turkey.
Traditional dresses around the Middle East
As one of the first pieces of woven fabric was found in this region, let us also begin with Turkey.
Like all other places in the world, Turkish clothing too isn’t limited to just one outfit. Each of the 7 geographical regions have their own dresses plus, more in areas that are remote. However, it is the Turkish şalvar suits that are popular among all groups of people and are even known to non-Turkish people. This piece of clothing were worn during the Ottoman Empire and are worn to this day.
Both men and women wear şalvar suits with a few differences in the number of articles of clothing.
The most important part of the outfit is the şalvar. This refer to a loose-fitted baggy pair of trousers. Over this garment, a light but long sleeved, ankle-length tunic called an entari is worn, on top of which another long robe called a kaftan is put on. The kaftan too is long seeved and ankle-length.
The entari is usally dyed with bright colours with patterns inspired by the beauty of nature. The kaftan, look regal because of their dark but rich colours and elaborate embriodery work on them. Many a times, this outfit also has a halime headpiece to cover the head and to complete the look.
Men also have their versions of the şalvar suits. It includes the same baggy trousers as the women’s called the şalvar an inner kaftan called a yelek and and an outer, coat known as a cebken.
Some men, mostly the elderly or those in tourist spots wear the famous Turkish fez. Its origins are debated between Turkey and Morocco however, it holds significant cultural importance in both places. The fez is a cylindrical red hat with a flat top and a tassel and it was a symbol of the ottoman empire and the people’s faith in Islam. As the hat has no brim, it was used to cover the hair without obstructing in prayer. Over time, it became a cultural identity of the region so much so that it was even banned during periods when reforms were made in favour of modernization.
Nowadays fashion in Turkey is very liberal and women in urban areas can be found wearing short dresses and shorts. The men have also adopted a more western sense of fashion however, outfits with traditional patterns or designs can be seen in the local apparel. Thus, allowing them to keep in touch with their tradition in the era of modernization. People in the more rural areas still wear some parts of their traditional clothes, otherwise, in the urban places, it is worn only during cultural events.
Israel is another country whose location is slightly confusing. Many think it is a part of Europe while others say it’s in Asia. Geographically, it is in Asia and an important part of the Middle Eastern region.
Traditional clothing is based both on climate and religion. The clothes are made of either linen or cotton, to stay cool during the summers or, of wool for the winter.
Nowadays, the Israelis generally wear western-style clothes on a daily basis. However, people from some Jewish sects such as the orthodox Hasidic Jews, still wear pious outfits regularly. Others wear them only on special occasions such as Shabbat, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, etc.
In Israel, the devout Jews follow the concept of Tzinus which roughly translates to modesty. This concept is not limited to clothing. It refers to modesty in one’s mannerisms and how one presents themselves to another. It is in fact, also about humility and presenting oneself in a respectful manner.
Those following this concept, wear the following modest garments:
- long skirts extending to the ankle
- long dresses below the knee and with leggings underneath
- high necked blouses with long sleeves
- Married Hasidic women are required to cover their hair. So they do it either with a wig or sheitel or, with a scarf extending to their mid-back. Some women even go to the extent of shaving their head before wearing the sheitel so that their hair is never visible.
The idea here is to make sure that only the hands and face are visible, to cover the hair and to ensure that the physique isn’t accentuated by the clothing.
- All-black outfits, including a jacket, trousers, and shoes.
- Hats to cover the head. The style of hat determines the Jewish sect that one belongs to.
- A Yarmulke, a brimless cap, made of wool or velvet is mandatory for any man visiting a synagogue, regardless of faith, ethnicity or nationality. It symbolizes the fact that God is always above them.
- On weddings, Shabbat and other special occasions, married orthodox Jewish men wear a Shtreimel; a wide hat typically made of mink fur or, alternatively a black fedora.
- Along with the Shtreimel, black caftans, which is a long shirt; trousers, a belt and black shoes are worn to complete the outfit.
- At Shabbat, which is the day of rest and prayer in the Jewish culture, men wear long black suits and Tallit, a religious shawl with tzitzit or tassels tied to each corner. It also makes a popular gift for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Cyprus was a part of the Ottoman Empire from the later part of the 16th century to its fall in the early 20th century. Cyprus is often considered a part of Europe more than the Middle East however, its location and history form a unique culture that has elements of both continents. This particularity influences the Cyprian culture, including its fashion.
Though there are many types of regional dresses, the most known outfits are the following:
The Saiya is a traditional Cyprian robe that is open at the front, slit on the sides and extends all the way to the ankle. It is made of a cotton fabric known as ‘alatzia’. It identified by the horizontal and vertical stripes woven in traditional colour such as red, blue, yellow and green. For special occasions, the outfit would be made using silk fabrics. Red represents the Turkish community in Cyrpus, blue represents the Greek Cypriots, green represents the olive branches which are a symbol of peace and, they are abundant in the region deeming economically useful. Lastly, the shade of yellow represents copper, a metal available in large quantities on the island.
The dress is worn on top of a long-sleeved white blouse and, on top of baggy trousers, covering the legs and ankles. The outfit is completed by a headscarf that covers the head and extends to the back. This was ideal for the conservative ideologies followed earlier in the country.
The outfit was popular till the 19th century after which clothes started to become more westernized. The Saiya was replaced with jackets and long skirts.
The men’s traditional outfit consists of a vraka, a zimbouni and a zostra.
Vraka is a pair of traditional baggy trousers made of a thick cotton fabric called ‘thimito’. The upper portion of the trousers has folds to pass a lace through, used to tie and secure the garment at the waist.
The trousers would be white in colour however they would also be dyed in black by expert dyers. The white ones were worn daily while the black ones were reserved for weddings and special events.
The vraka is paired with a collared white shirt made of silk and an embroidered waistcoat. If the waistcoat has long sleeves, it is called a ‘zimbouni’ but if it is sleeveless, it is known as a ‘gileko’.
The outfit would be completed with a belt or a ‘zostra’, which is a sash with tasselled edges, worn at the waist.
These dresses are no longer worn in everyday life as they’ve been replaced with western clothes however, people wear them at cultural festivals, some weddings and cultural performances.
4. The Gulf Countries and Yemen
The Gulf countries refer to those states that are located in the Arabian Gulf. The countries are Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Clothing in this region is more strict compared to other Islamic countries and communities as their kingdoms are built on the philosophies and laws of Islam.
A thobe or a dishdasha is a long full-sleeved tunic that extends to the ankles and is made of thick fabric. The dress is donned by the men in this region as a garment of modesty. It is usually found in white but beige is also a common colour. It is also available in deeper colours during the winter made of wool or mixed materials.
They wear trousers and a shirt under the thobe despite the heat because the garment is designed to protect the body from the heat and sun.
Depending on the country, the thobe may have variations. For example, in the UAE it is called a Kandora and it comes with no collar and tassels attached to it. The tassels are also found in Omani thobes.
In Kuwait it comes with a one-buttoned collar, in Saudi Arabia, there are two while Bahrain has no buttons but it does have a collar. In Yemen, the bottom half flow like a skirt and finally in Qatar, the thobes are lustrous.
A Shumagh is a large square-shaped cloth worn on the head or wrapped around the face by the men in this region. This tradition is drawn from the nomadic Bedouin tribes who would wander the deserts wearing a cloth to protect themselves from the sun and sand.
The Shumagh is also called a Keffiyeh in some countries. However, while the Shumagh is mostly known to be plain white, countries that call in Keffiyeh have either red and white or black and white chequered patterns on their scarves. The scarf is secured with a thick coil called an agal, and it is usually black in colour.
In Oman, the men do not wear the Shumagh but instead, wear a slightly raised cylindrical hat with holes called the Kumma. Its main function is to cool the head down in the scorching heat. The second is to show off the skilful craftsmanship on the hat.
An Abaya is a black cloak worn over the clothes as a veil for the body, by women in the gulf countries where their governance is directly influenced by Islamic law.
The cloak is traditionally black, it extends to the feet and has long sleeves therefore, it covers the ankles, body and arms making it the ideal garment of modesty, a concept that is crucial in Islam.
Due to the unbearable heat in the region, women often wear western clothes such as shorts and tank tops under the abayas. The clothes that they wear underneath their abaya can only be visible to family members at home and other women.
Depending on the country, there may be different rules, local names and variations related to the abaya.
It is called Al darra in Qatar and Balto in Yemen while a more decorated version in Kuwait is called Dara’a.
In Bahrain, red abayas with beautiful golden embroidery are worn for weddings, Eid and other special occasions.
In Saudia Arabia, for example, the local women have to wear the abaya in public. Whereas in other countries, it isn’t mandatory but people wear it as it is part of the tradition. Like in the UAE, the abaya is part of their national dress and their abayas are more decorative, with rhinestones and elaborate embroidery at the edges. While it is mandatory to be modest in the UAE, it isn’t mandatory to wear an abaya. As such many, women wear western clothes with a hijab or a niqab that fully cover their body, leaving only the face or just the eyes visible to others.
Recently experts have been debating and discussing why black, a colour that absorbs the most heat is used for the abaya when the region is infamous for its hot and arid climate and deserts.
Turns out the Quran doesn’t specifically state whether or not women need to wear black. Therefore, nowadays abayas are being designed with lighter colours that would be more comfortable than the heat-absorbing black abayas.
Note: Not everyone living in these countries is Muslim. There is a large population of Jews, Christians and other religions inhabiting the area as well therefore, dress codes may differ for them.
Veils in the Middle East
Modest clothing and the difficult climate seem to be the main themes of traditional clothing in this region. However, that doesn’t mean veiling is mandatory for women. This is because of the different ethnic and religious groups inhabiting the area.
Before moving forward, let me explain the different types of veils that women wear in this region and why.
Covering the head isn’t limited to Islam. Even Catholics, orthodox Jews have them, the Byzantine Christians, Classical Greeks and the Rajput women in India would veil. Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula with the prophet Mohammed then it expanded over the Middle East, into parts of Africa, Central Asia, parts of Europe and South-East Asia.
In the 7th century, Islam became a significant religion in the world and like most of the religions in the area in that time period, it also included some veiling in their dress codes.
Sources say that the concept of veiling initially had nothing to do with religion but it was more of an economic difference. In that era, the wealthier women would veil themselves to show their wealth and the ability to afford rare fabric unavailable to many. While the less fortunate, would either have smaller and inferior quality fabrics to veil themselves or none at all.
As Islam grew so did its resources like Islamic literature such as the Quran. There it doesn’t explicitly mention that women must veil themselves however, there are quotes referring to some sort of veiling to protect oneself from the male gaze or practice modesty. These quotes have been interpreted differently and dress codes have been imposed and developed according to their understandings.
This is why some Islamic cultures are more relaxed about veiling while others are more strict. Also, as mentioned before, not all are Muslim in the Middle East so naturally, veiling and dress codes, in general, will differ for them.
Difference between different veils worn around the Middle East
Hijab: Is a headscarf that covers only the neck and the head. It is the most popular type of veiling in the Islamic community around the world.
Niqab: Is a veil covering the face leaving only a slit near the eyes to be visible to the public. It is also available in forms with a separate veil for the eye thus, leaving revealing the face and the eyes. This is called a half-niqab. This type of veil is most used in the Middle East, especially in the Arabian Gulf.
Even though 90% of the Egyptian population follows Islam, men and women do not have to follow the Islamic dress codes. However, as it is the dominant religion, the social norm is to dress modestly to cover their entire body.
In Egypt their cultural clothes consist of the following:
- A Gallebaya, which is a long-sleeved, loose-fitting long robe.
- Tshalvar or loose-fitted trousers covering the ankles are worn under the gallebaya
- To complete the outfit, an outer garment called a yelek, which is a long shirt resembling a kaftan. It is worn over the gallebaya and tshalvar. This is an open neck garment that is more fitted but it doesn’t cling to the body.
- Alternatively, a lengthy tob sebleh, made of cotton is worn over the tshalvar.
- The choice to wear headscarves such as a hijab or niqab.
Men do not have any restrictions imposed by the law however, the more religious men avoid wearing clothes that cling to their body. Instead, they wear the following:
- A galabiy, similar to the women’s gallebaya.
- Kaftan, a long over-garment reaching the ankle. This is worn over the galabiy.
- A hizan, a belt sometimes tied on top of the kaftan, traditionally used to carry things like daggers.
- Headcover for protection against the hot climate, the sun and sand. Tarboosh or fez, a turban and taqiyah skullcap are the most common type of headcovers.
Nowadays, men and women in Egypt either wear the above mentioned traditional clothes or, modest western clothes. Women decide whether they wish to wear veils and although a majority of them end up wearing them, there are some who choose not to wear them.
Though each of these places has more types of clothes that are worn at more regional levels, the ones discussed in the post are the ones that are most known in their respective countries. Some are still worn on a daily basis while others are only worn for cultural events and celebrations. This topic shall continue next week, to explore traditional clothing in other parts of the world.
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5 thoughts on “Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Middle East”
can you tell me what is the difference between abaya & burqa
is both of them r same ?
Hi, abbaya is used in the Middle East. Then there is the lithma that covers the face, these are two seprate pieces of clothing. I never heard the word burqa while living there. I think Burqa is more an Asian word and ths is one piece of material all in one.
Hi Aladdin Clothing,
A burqa is a one piece veil covering the head, face and body. As it covers the face, it has a mesh near the eyes for visibility.
An abaya on the other hand only covers the body, and the face and head are covered with separate pieces of clothing, for example a hijab or niqab.
That is correct. The burqa is mostly worn in Asia, particularly in more conservative Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and, some parts of Pakistan.
More recently, however, many women in the Middle East and other parts of the world are also choosing to wear it.
Israel? Really? Their traditional clothings were brought from elsewhere OUTSIDE of the Middle East. You picked them instead of the Palestinians whose dresses are actually very indigenous to the area passed down from their Canaanite ancestors? Yikes! I do not believe you were exposed enough and I suggest you stay away from topics you know nothing about.