Researching Dress and Identity in Saudi Arabia: – ‘What a strange power there is in clothing’ – Isaac Bashevis Singer

Clothing is part of a system of non-verbal communication; it is a language of personal adornment. In addition to serving a merely functional role in covering the body, clothing differentiates us from one another, displaying and projecting our individual identities. It also facilitates social rituals, ranging from every-day public interactions to more private ceremonial occasions.1 Embellished garments are powerful cultural statements that communicate on physical and symbolic levels. The types and colours of threads and fabrics used, in different dress shapes and patterns, embroidery motifs, as well as the placement and extent of embellishment all contribute to a garment’s power to reflect social values, identities, and personal style.

The study of social and historical contexts of women’s traditional embellished garments in Saudi Arabia has not been previously explored in detail in English-language publications. The subject of dress studies as an academic field within the context of the Middle East is also a relatively new undertaking, with major theories and case studies emerging in the 1980s. Stillman’s Arab Dress: A Short History (2000, Brill) recognises the general lack of ethnographic studies of dress in the region, though it makes a general claim about how ‘traditional clothing’ has persisted throughout all levels of society in the Arabian Peninsula in the twentieth century.2 This idea is problematic for Saudi Arabia, a land that covers a geographically and socially diverse area, where little academic study of its dress traditions had been conducted, especially in comparison to the likes of North Africa and the Levant. Dress styles vary from region to region, between urban and rural areas, and within regions and tribes. They also have undergone changes in the past two centuries, and issues of continuity and change over time and space need to be considered when examining certain types of embellished garments. Fortunately, more recently-published works have delved into deeper discussions of dress and identity in the Arabian Peninsula and the greater Middle East; for example: how extensive trade networks have affected the types of materials imported into the region, and how attitudes towards ‘traditional dress’ in the urban areas of western Saudi Arabia have changed since the establishment of the modern Kingdom in 1932.3


Saudi Arabia is an unusual case study for dress research – it has no local textile industries except for weaving. Bedouin women throughout the Peninsula weave animal hair tents and related domestic accoutrements for their families’ camps, and the Eastern Province is well-known for weaving the bisht (or ‘aba), the dark-coloured loose over garment typically worn by men throughout the region for formal public occasions. Western travellers have made brief, passing mentions of cotton growing in the central (Najd) and eastern (Sharqiyah) regions of Saudi Arabia, yet they provide no further evidence that these crops may have contributed to local cloth production.4 For centuries, different types of cloth and materials have been imported into the lands that make up modern Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it is not only logical but imperative to study Saudi’s neighbours so as to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the cultural biography of its dress styles. Examining the history and expanse of trade networks that directed goods and materials into the Peninsula sheds light on potentially shared elements of embellished dress styles found on both sides of today’s borders.

These boundaries were non-existent just a century ago, and the lands that make up the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were once part of other independent geographical entities. In border regions, embellished garments combine elements from both sides to create something new and distinct, in what is termed a ‘cultural authentication process’.5 For example, many sumptuously embroidered dresses worn in parts of the northern region boast the colourful cross-stitch patterns of traditional Palestinian embroidery, combined with garment shapes worn in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In the urban Hijaz, bridal outfits incorporate metal thread embellishments and garment pieces similar in style to those worn in Ottoman Turkey.


There are a handful of publications from the 1980s that are seen as the ‘classic’ references to traditional dress in Saudi Arabia, the most notable being Heather Colyer Ross’ The Art of Arabian Costume (1981, Stacey International).6 Ross gives a broad overview of different regional dress styles for women and also covers men’s dress, jewellery, and adornment; she also summarises foreign influences and trade patterns. The Arabic-language equivalent is Layla Bassam’s 1985 publication on traditional dress in the central region (Najd). The content is laid out in a structured format, with stitches and motifs of dresses for every-day wear and ceremonial occasions organised into various charts further categorised by fabrics and types of stitches. Despite not providing a specific time frame for what she terms as ‘older’ styles and motifs, Bassam’s information is a foundation for how ‘traditional’ dress has been portrayed and discussed in Saudi Arabia by a Saudi scholar. It also allows comparison between Najdi elements of dress and other regional styles. Other Arabic-language publications from Saudi Arabia include an encyclopaedia volume citing Ross and organising information in the style of Bassam, and a Ministry of Information publication presenting information in the style of a museum catalogue, with little more than basic garment descriptions.

Since 2011, I have been involved with a unique research project at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS that aims to update the existing information on Saudi Arabian embellished dresses using a three-pronged interdisciplinary approach: object-based research, historical research in archives and libraries, and ethnographic fieldwork briefly conducted in 2012. The Art of Heritage (AOH) and Haifa Faisal Collections in Riyadh serve as basis for collecting basic information about general garment shapes and decorative styles in the five regional categories (western region – Hijaz, southern region, central region – Najd, eastern region – Sharqiyah, and northern region). European travellers’ written accounts and photographic collections are valuable sources of information as written and visual records of social life in the Arabian Peninsula over the past two centuries. What we have come to know as Saudi ‘traditional’ dress is thus examined from a range of perspectives, with empirical information from the garments themselves supplemented with both historical and contemporary social contexts.

Object-based study (Figure 1)


Dress collections are ideal as the first point of reference before further exploring historical connections and contemporary social contexts. Some of the largest collections of Saudi dress and material include the Art of Heritage7 and Haifa Faisal8collections in Riyadh and the Mansoojat Foundation based in Jeddah. I also consulted smaller collections at the British Museum and the Textile Research Centre in Leiden, Netherlands. There are many other private collections of Saudi dress, such as that of the late Tahra Abdul Hafiz Al-Siba’i which was exhibited at Exeter’s Royal Albert Museum in the 1980s, as well as numerous others in private museums throughout Saudi Arabia.

These collections are unique platforms where we can visualise and discuss change – in fabric quality, textures, weights, and colours, in materials used and in place of origin. From these details, we start to differentiate possible uses for all these elements in the different regions and throughout the different eras of modern Saudi Arabian history. (The use of colourful glass and plastic beads in the rural areas of the Hijaz may indicate closer or more frequent trade connections with Africa, for example.9) These garments also reveal Saudi’s recent history of modernisation and wealth after oil and how trade patterns have changed. Saudi tailors in the Ta’if market relate that the best quality threads were the DMC mercerised threads imported from France, known locally as harir, though these days less expensive rayon or nylon threads from Japan, China, or Indonesia are stocked. Luxurious silks were regularly imported from India or Syria, though have now been replaced by less expensive fabrics such as nylon or rayon that simulate a silky texture. Even pure cotton comes at a high price in the Ta’if suq and is difficult to locate, despite having been the most common fabric used throughout the Arabian Peninsula in the early twentieth century.

These dress collections are not ‘complete’ or ‘whole’. Certain organisational categories (e.g., regions, men’s and women’s dress, types of garments – trousers, tunics, over-garments, head coverings, etc) have a larger representation of items than others. For example, in the AOH collection, the Najd and the Sharqiyah have the highest number of women’s garments and the northern region has the least. When out on fieldwork, some of the people I encountered had not seen or were not aware of some pieces in the collection. I also encountered pieces in the field that were not included in the collection, such as the qamis from Jizan province in the south or the long and voluminous thawb muhawthal in the north. In a sense, dress collection can never be ‘complete’; trends in garment styles and decorations change over time, and these changes will have to be continually collected and documented.

Archival research

We can construct a more in-depth cultural biography of dress in Saudi Arabia with information from European travellers to the region, namely their private diaries, personal correspondence, and photographic collections found in archives throughout the UK and Europe. The Middle East Centre Archive (MECA) at St Antony’s College, Oxford is a treasure trove of the collections of several notable British travellers and colonial administrators. Harry St John Philby’s collection is one of the most useful; he travelled extensively throughout the Arabian Peninsula from the 1910s until well into the 1950s, keeping meticulous notes of geographical details, locations, budgeting, and other practicalities of exploring a then relatively unknown land. He acknowledges himself as the first European in a long time to explore the south-west border lands with Yemen, and his reputed womanising has served as an advantage. His attraction to local women resulted in detailed descriptions about their tribal or ethnic origins as well as the clothes and accessories they were wearing at the time of encounter. Lady Anne Blunt’s diaries and papers at the British Library form part of another notable collection, the Wentworth Bequest. She and her husband Sir Wilfrid travelled around northern Arabia in 1878-1879, and Lady Anne’s writings are peppered with watercolour sketches of their natural surroundings and Arabian horses, which were the primary reason for their travels. She also has a few drawings of people, namely the Emir Rashid of Al-Ha’il in his ceremonial finery and his wife Amusheh, who wears a bright red dress.10 Other notable collections include those of Gertrude Bell at the Robinson Library Special Collections, Newcastle University, Wilfred Thesiger’s papers and photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and Dutch traveller Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje’s photographs at the Tropenmuseum in Leiden, Netherlands. The Royal Geographical Society also has an extensive picture library with mostly British travellers’ visual records of their time in Arabia during the turn of the twentieth century.

There are limitations with any historical research endeavour, and eighteenth-century German traveller Carsten Neibuhr (d. 1815) explains the difficulties in studying Arab women’s garments:

It is more difficult for a traveller to become acquainted with the dress of women than with that of the men in the East [.] It is impossible to observe their dress, when one meets them in the street: for the Mussulmans [sic] think it extreme indirection, or even an insult, to look with an eye of curiosity upon a woman in the street. Besides, they wrap themselves so closely up, when they go abroad, that it would be vain to attempt to distinguish the different parts of their dress.11

The majority of these visitors were men, and their vague descriptions of women’s dress were based on observations of Arab women in ordinary functional clothing while in public. They would not have been privileged to see the more embellished garments reserved for private family occasions. Black and white photography also limits our ability to view details in colours or differences in fabric texture and decorative materials in women’s garments. Sometimes these travellers provided detailed captions to their photographs or a reader can easily discern which written excerpts correspond to certain images; sometimes they do not. Much of the early photographs from Saudi Arabia depict geographic terrain, animals, and some parts of Mecca and the Hajj rituals. When depicting people and dress details, Arab men are mostly featured. Many of these travellers were honoured guests of notable tribal and regional leaders, such as King ‘Abdul ‘Aziz himself. Women were rarely photographed, though exceptions include examples from Gertrude Bell and Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. Bell’s photo collection includes several images of her Circassian friend Turkiyyeh in Al-Ha’il, and Snouck Hurgronje is well-known for his project of photographing pilgrims and local citizens in Mecca (Figure 2).12

These photographs and written accounts supplement information provided by dress collections and collected in fieldwork. Although the dress styles represented in collections may not be discussed specifically in these travellers’ diaries, and examples of the garments they describe may not be present in collections, the written records of social life throughout the Arabian Peninsula remain essential resources. They add depth to the discussion of dress, embellishment, and identity and help highlight issues regarding continuity and change of what we have come to accept as ‘traditional’ clothing in Saudi Arabia.

Fieldwork research

In-depth field research in any subject in Saudi Arabia is a challenge in itself, and being trained as an anthropologist, I found it difficult to carry out any long-term ethnographic study.13 I spent a total of three months in Saudi Arabia (Feb-March and July 2012). My ‘whistle-stop’ tours of the main cities and villages of the Kingdom’s five main regions included spending a few days at each locale before moving on to the next. However, it was a privilege for me to have this opportunity to travel to and around Saudi Arabia for however long or short a period.

My main resources in the field included heritage displays at museums and people at local markets. The National Museum in Riyadh is an expansive complex that showcases regional dress styles in diorama-like displays that put clothing in the context of domestic life. Smaller regional museums are often converted from old family homes and house private collections. Often the owners or guards at such establishments do not have much information about the garments they have on display beyond empirical data on the garments’ appearance. However, many did reveal the fact that dress-making and embellishment was once an entirely female activity, recalling how their mothers and other women of the family made their garments. The market (suq) is an ideal place to interact with shopkeepers and shoppers alike. I focused my attention on the older generation, particularly women in their 70s who were likely to have grown up hand-sewing and embroidering their families’ wardrobes in their own homes, in a social setting with other women. I also met with Saudi men who had trained as tailors to continue their mothers’ and sisters’ work on sewing machines so as to reach a wider customer base. However, these days, older local seamstresses or Saudi male tailors are a rare find. Women often buy dresses for weddings, parties, and Eid celebrations at shopping malls, in styles influenced by Western fashions with few resemblances to what their grandmothers and mothers wore for the same occasions. Saudis making and decorating clothes for Saudis is not a common sight in local tailoring shops either, let alone those that specialise in ‘traditional’ dress styles, such as the Al-Zahrani Shop in Ta’if (Figure 3).14 In the southern city of Abha, capital of the Asir Province, I was sent to speak with Indian and Pakistani tailors who made embellished dresses in the local style for women in the area. They had been tailors there for the past 25 years and claimed that Saudi male tailors were common when they had first arrived. (There were no Saudi tailors left in that area of Abha when I visited in March 2012.)

These encounters with shopkeepers, older Saudi men and women, and the foreign tailors who have ‘taken over’ their trade all highlight the issues of continuity and change in what we have come to know as traditional dress in Saudi’s five regions. Locally, the term ‘traditional’ seems to be synonymous with something older or related to a heritage style, and alluding to a specific role in modern Saudi society that recalls a nostalgic version of the recent past. The newer or ‘modern’ styles of dress supposedly look different and are separate and distinct from the older garments, even though they may incorporate similar elements or designs.


The embellished women’s garments worn in the five regions of modern Saudi Arabia reflect a history of foreign trade networks and interaction of peoples, ideas, decorative goods and materials. Regional distinctions are identified by combinations of embellishment materials. For example, the use of beads, appliqué, metal threads, luxurious fabrics, and gemstones in the urban Hijaz contrasts the colourful thread embroidery for which is the primary decoration in parts of the northern region. The close-fitting bodice on dresses in the highlands of the southern region contrasts with the skirt and shirt outfit worn in other parts of the south closer to the coast, as well as with the loose layered garments of the Najd and the Sharqiyah. While certain decorative elements distinguish regional styles from one another, they do not necessarily correspond to modern administrative borders. Migration patterns and trade networks have been active since long before the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and these have defined the availability of goods and materials and decorative styles throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

Regardless of geographical categories, the variety of these decorated garments reveals elements of their respective cultural biographies thus far, prompting further questions about the ‘lives’ of these garments. From where were its decorative materials imported? Who made it – was it a family member, local tailor, or was it purchased ready-made in a shop? For which occasions were these garments worn? Have patches of sumptuous embroidery passed down to the next generation to be re-used on another dress? Over time, these garments’ social and cultural biographies have experienced changes as documented by travellers and scholars from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.15

Throughout Saudi Arabia, these older heritage style or traditional dresses of the grandparents’ generation are being reproduced today. I met two women in Medina who were replicating the sumptuously embellished bridal outfits of their mothers and grandmothers, although they were using different colours and materials from the past and had even introduced a sizing system. Foreign tailors in many urban markets have all but replaced the Saudi-operated shops, even introducing elements of design and ornamentation from their home countries in South Asia. Synthetic fabrics and decorative materials imported from East Asia are less expensive and are preferred to the higher-quality natural fabrics and genuine gemstones and other decorations formerly imported from the Egypt, Turkey, Europe, and India. Technology has also changed; the rotary Singer brand machines for tailoring and embroidering were ubiquitous throughout the country and used by both local seamstresses and tailors alike.16 Now, the Japanese Juki brand of sewing machine is being used by foreign and Saudi tailors.

However, despite these gradual changes throughout the country, there remains a sense of continuity. Even with the different materials and the shift in those who work in the tailoring and embellishment trades, the garments are still decorated on the same areas in replicated designs from the grandmothers’ generation. This ‘reinvention’ of traditional dress in Saudi Arabia has profound implications for future generations’ attitudes to how this living heritage will continue. The younger generations are further influenced by regional styles in other areas of the Middle East as well as Western fashions in their sartorial choices for ceremonial occasions. At wedding celebrations, brides often choose to wear a white wedding gown in addition to their regional traditional outfit. With this shift in generational attitudes to heritage garments, the older styles are being manifested in newer ways; embroidery patterns and distinct regional fabric prints are incorporated into home decor, handbags, ceramics designs, and other accessories. Local women’s organisations help to popularise these products, partly by employing the older and younger generations to pass on their knowledge and skills.17In this way, these traditional styles remain part of a localised regional identity and history, further contributing to an idea of a Saudi national identity and cultural heritage (Figure 4).



Fig. 1: Examples of Saudi regional dress styles in the AOH collection (Riyadh). From left to right – Najdi bride wearing a heavily embellished voluminous over dress (thawb mugassab), Najdi bride wearing a dafat al-‘arus (over dress resembling a man’s bisht), Sharqiyah outfit with gold thread (zarri) embroidery in the national emblem and the bukhnuqhead covering, Meccan bridal outfit, bride from Medina, embellished thawb marhadan worn by women in the Harb or Bani Salim tribes (known as ‘Bedu Mecca’) in the rural areas of the Hijaz, heavily embroidered dress in yellow threads worn by Bani Malik women in the rural areas of the Hijaz, heavily embellished dress with flared skirt worn by women in Abha and the highland areas of the South, and embroidered dress worn by women in Wadi Mahram near Ta’if in the Hijaz.


Fig. 2: Turkiyyeh, Gertrude Bell’s Circassian friend in Al-Ha’il around 1913/1914 (L) and a Meccan bride photographed by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in 1885 (R).


Fig. 3: Colourful embroidery patches are made by local older women and sold in the Al-Zahrani shop in Ta’if market.


Fig. 4: ‘Traditional’ clothing and accessories are not just for wearing at special occasions in modern Saudi Arabia. They can be incorporated into toys and cushion covers, for example, and other similar accessories.


Fig. 1: Art of Heritage (Riyadh) 2012

Fig. 2: Gertrude Bell Papers, Robinson Library Special Papers, Newcastle University Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje Photograph Collection, Tropenmuseum, Leiden, Netherlands (Object no: 60057074)

Fig.3 and 4: Aisa Martinez 2012.

1 Douglas, M and B Isherwood. 1996. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. London Routledge. p 66; Kuchler, S and D Miller (eds). 2005. Clothing as Material Culture. Oxford: Berg. p 2.
For more information regarding clothing and adornment as tools of nonverbal communication of identity, see: Barnes, R and J Eicher (eds). 1992. Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts. Oxford: Berg; Eicher, J. 1995. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time. Oxford: Berg and 1999. ‘The Anthropology of Dress’, in Owens, NJ (ed). Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the International Textile and Apparel Association, Inc.Monument, Colorado: ITAA. pp 4-7; Eicher et al. 2008. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society, Third Edition. New York: Fairchild Productions; Hansen, KT. 2004. ‘The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture’, Annual Review of Anthropology. 33:369-392; and Kuper, H. 1973. ‘Costume and Identity’, in Comparative Studies in Society and History. 15 (3):348-367
2 ‘[The Arabian Peninsula is] an area that has successfully maintained traditional style of dress in all levels of society’ (2000:172). Based on Stillman’s discussion on how other areas of the Arab world transitioned from local ‘traditional’ forms of dress into ‘modern’ Western styles, ‘traditional’ in this sense may simply mean ‘non-Western.’
3 See Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham’s 1997 edited publication Languages of Dress in the Middle East, especially chapters by Ingham on men’s dress in the Arabian Peninsula and Yamani’s piece on changing attitudes towards ‘traditional’ dress of the HIjazi urban elite.
4 Sadleir, GF. 1866. Diary of a Journey Across Arabia from El Khatif in the Persian Gulf, to Yambo in the Red Sea, During the Year 1819 (with a map).Bombay: Society’s Press. p 68.
Palgrave, WG. 1883. Personal Narrative of Year’s Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia (1862-1863). London: Macmillan. p 257 (He only mentions weaving in Al-Hasa in the Eastern Province, not cotton crops specifically.)
5 Erekosima, V. and J. Eicher. 2008. ‘Aesthetics of men’s dress of the Kalabri of Nigeria’, in Eicher, J. et al (eds). The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society. New York: Fairchild Publications. pp 402-414
6 Another notable publication from Stacey International in the same year is John Topham’s Traditional Crafts of Saudi Arabia.
7 Formerly the Heritage Centre at the Al-Nahda Women’s Charity.
8 The Haifa Faisal collection originally began with Ross and Topham’s material culture collections, both featured in their respective publications.
9 See: Labelle, M. 2005. Beads of Life: Eastern and Southern African Beadwork from Canadian Collections. Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilisation Corporation; Pokornowski, I. 1979. ‘Beads and personal adornment’, in Cordwell, JM and Schwarz, RA (eds). The Fabrics of Culture: the Anthropology of Cloth and Adornment. Paris: Mouton Publishers. pp 103-117; Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 2010. Embroidery from the Arab World. Primavera Pers. pp 38-40
10 See Blunt, A. 1881. A Pilgrimage to Nejd, the Cradle of the Arab Race: a Visit to the Court of the Arab Emir, and ‘Our Persian Campaign’. London: John Murray. pp 216-217, 234-236. Blunt’s watercolour sketches of the Emir and Amusheh can be found in her 1879 diary (Vol. LXXXIII, 16 Jan – 7 Feb 1789),Wentworth Bequest, Western Manuscripts, British Library, London
11 1894 [1792]. Travels Through Arabia and Other Countries of the East. Reading: Gernet Publishing. pp 89-92. Niebuhr travelled to the Hijaz and the Two Holy Cities, southern Arabia (including Yemen – which may have included parts of modern southern Saudi, the Hadhramaut, and Oman), and the Najd and Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
12 For further information on early photographs of Saudi Arabia, see Facey, W and G Grant. 1996. Saudi Arabia By the First Photographs. London: Stacey International.
13 One of the few ethnographic studies conducted in Saudi Arabia includes Matoko Katakura’s 1977 Bedouin Village: a Study of a Saudi Arabian People in Transition. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, based on her time in Wadi Fatima (near Mecca) during the late 1960s.
14 See YouTube video entitled ‘Popular country market in Ta’if. Amal Mahmoud’. (In Arabic: ‘Suq al-balad ash-sha’bi bit-ta’if.’). from user Ebraheem0brm, uploaded on 13 July 2010.
15 Kopytoff, I. 1986. ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in Appadurai, A (ed). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 66-67
16 The Philby Collection at MECA includes his correspondence relating to the regular import of Singer sewing machines into the Arabian Peninsula via Jeddah port. See: Philby. 1946. ‘Singer sewing machine correspondence, 1930-1946’. Harry St John Philby Collection GB165-0229, Box 5 File 2/22/1 and 1947. ‘Singer sewing machine correspondence, 1936-1946’. HSJP Collection GB165-0229, Box 5 File 2/22/2. MECA, St Antony’s College, Oxford.
17 Such organisations include the King ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Women’s Centre in Al-Jawf, the Herfah Women’s Co-operative in Qasim, and the Art of Heritage in Riyadh.

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