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, Ill deal with some of the most common misconceptions about Arabs and
Then, Ill detail the traditional garments
worn in different countries, starting from Morocco to Oman. Ill 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,
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
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 wearers 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 ones 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
Arab women wear hijab.
No. This statement is wrong for two main
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
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 womans head.
Hijab is also a general term describing
modest attires that include a head covering.
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
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 Gambooa, 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 gambooa) 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 womans 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
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.
Arab women wear a burqa.
Not entirely, and youll 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.
niqab is usually black and merely a face veil.
is mostly light blue and covers the whole body.
the niqab leaves the eyes uncovered, while the burqa has a net over them.
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
While the keffiah is also used in Palestine
and Jordan, the dishdasha remains the Gulf mens 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
Michigans Institute for Social Research. The study shows how peoples
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 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
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
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 ones 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. Youll see
women wearing a niqab, full hijabi girls, up to ladies who dont cover their
hair at all.
Mens Arabic clothing doesnt 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:
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 (mens 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, weve 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:
of Niqab, hijab, jilbab, jeans, t-shirts, and khimar.
Jordanian men clothing:
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 cultures
values. The more significant the tassels, the higher the importance of the
Like Jordan, the beauty of traditional
Palestinian clothes has been replaced with a western mix.
Palestinian women and men clothing:
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.
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
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.
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 regions 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 womens 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:
Daraa 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. Bahrains 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
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
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. Thats 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
Traditional Omani attires could not be
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, youll see it matched with loose-fitting
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, Yemenis 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.
Lets see what makes Yemenis 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 Sanaa. 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
Jambiya it is not unusual to see a
dagger hanging from mens 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
While Western clothes are found in big
cities, some people still prefer traditional loose-fitting pieces. Lets see
what items of clothing you cannot miss if visiting Sudan:
Sudanese women clothing:
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,
Hijab being a Muslim country, all
Sudanese women wear a headscarf, sometimes underneath the thobe.
Sudanese men clothing:
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
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 fashions footsteps, notably the Levant and North Africa, some Arabic
countries are still holding tight to their traditional attires (Saudi Arabia or
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 youll 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 wtvox.com