Clothing and Fashion, Middle East

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Clothing and Fashion, Middle East

The fashion and clothing of the Middle East represents an evolution of historical and political change and a mixture of influences that has enriched and modernized its diverse cultures and produced a custom of dress both progressive and yet true to its traditional design identities. Although distinct fashions can be traced back to particular regions, the overall effect is a vast collection of clothing traditions adapted and adjusted to new social orders, local climates, and activities. These geographical and cultural variations reflect a complex set of relations between historical change and clothing practices as markers of changing identity over time, including differences relating to gender, age, wealth, and religious status.

Women's dress marks gendered differences in certain settings, differing from that of men of the same age, social "level," and marital status. Men's attire generally differs within the gender more than women's, whose modes of dress have been traditionally dictated by patriarchal taste and political reform. Similarly, the structure and meaning of clothing varies across regions in design, fabric, shape, and ornament.

The Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) is widely acknowledged as the Middle East's greatest influencing force in terms of fashion. The Ottoman period established a tradition of antiquity enforcing national modes of dress via national military uniforms, as well as practical and fashionable trends from the region's existing clothing styles. As the Ottoman Empire evolved and expanded throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, clothing styles were evaluated, developed, and enforced, mirroring the many levels of society and the cosmopolitan nature of Ottoman cultural tastes. Whether parodied or satirized by the rebellious populace of the time and subsequent generations, what is described as Middle Eastern clothing continues to represent the traditional views of the culture. Yet, within the national and political economy, Middle Eastern clothing also exhibits cyclical fashion trends influenced by European and Western tastes and modernity.

Saudi Arabian history is significant to the tradition of dress in the Middle East because the kingdom comprises 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula as opposed to Yemen, Oman, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Sudan, and its tradition of dress is highly representative of the significance of the land, history, and to religion. Its unification in 1932 was marked by a rising national identity and homogeneity of dress, as well as a growing interaction and trade with Egypt and Lebanon from 1945 to about 1970, the impact of oil wealth from 1970 to 1980, and beginning in 1980 the exploration of combinations of cosmopolitan fashion and various local, regional, Arab, and Islamic styles.

For Saudi Arabian men, dress was an important aspect of Arab identity and was employed to distinguish the wearer's profession and social status. Prior to unification, the tujjar merchants of Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, for instance, dressed in contrast to the ulema (religious teachers) and the mutawwifin who served as guides to pilgrims. The tujjar merchants wore long floor-length, loose-flowing coats of plain or printed light fabric with bright turbans or caps, the ulema, whose role was to elect the king along with members of the royal family, wore ample gowns and the mutawwifin, who guided the pilgrims both in prayer and in direction, usually wore less-elaborate local dress. Also differing in dress style was the ashrāf, who were descendants from the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad.

The rest of the male population, mostly in the Arabian Peninsula region, were traditionally seen in mid-calf-length tunics that were belted at the waist. The sleeves tended to be long and consisted of several variations, including straight then tapering at the wrists or flaring down towards the wrist to form a wing effect of differing lengths. Pants were generally full at the top and narrow at the ankle, with large gussets in the crotch. The top of the pant was overturned to the outside and stitched down to form the casing for a drawstring.

Turban headdresses were made up of a continuous strip of narrow fabric, usually 30 or 40 centimeters (about 12 or 16 inches) wide, that was wound around the head over a felt, truncated conical cap. Turban sizes varied from small to large, depending on social class. At times the cloth ends would be made of a decorated silk fabric in meticulous weaves that often incorporated repeated floral motifs or embroidered designs.

The traditional head cloth commonly worn by Saudi Arabian men today was called a kaffiyeh. The plain head cloths worn over felt caps, which were secured with pins or held in place by a headband consisting of a strip of cloth or rope was known as an agal. In the central Arab region of Najd and its hinterlands, the agal was simply a camel hobble (from the Arabic root agal, meaning "to hobble"), which was carried on the head when not in use. Gradually this rope came to distinguish the Bedouins of north and central Arabia and the descendants of ruling families from other Bedouins.

At the same time, male sartorial style included tiraz bands that were intricately woven, embroidered, or painted and then sewn over one or both shoulders of a garment. Although commonly seen on men, the tiraz was also a feature of women's dress. Tirazes were adorned with Arabic script that either named the owner of the garment (in the case of royalty) or quoted a religious phrase.

In winter, men generally wore a cloak, or bisht, which featured piping that ran from the cuff up the seams of the sleeve and ended in a wider band down the front lapel. The winter bisht was made of a rough sacklike fabric, usually dyed in bright colors. In summer, men's cloaks were made of a light, fine material and tended to be black, brown, or beige, with piping made of gold thread on the cloak's sleeves. This garment was worn primarily during ceremonial occasions.

Prior to unification in 1932, Saudi Arabian women favored a long tunic or robe worn over light trousers, cut similarly to men's garments. The sleeves were close-fitting at the wrists, and bands of trim were added to the sleeves as an embellishment. The more urbanized Hejazi women wore a long, fitted dress called a zabun. Under this was a blouse or bodice (sidriyya), which was designed to be seen through the opening of the zabun. The blouse was fastened with buttons of silver, gold, or diamonds, depending on the wearer's wealth. The typical garment of the desert-dwelling women of the Arabian Peninsula was known as a thobe. These were boxlike in construction and narrowed at the hem. Either worn with a belt or loose, the thobe was also decorated with bands of embroidery at the hems and sleeves.

The hijab veil and the burka facemask continue to be worn by women in parts of central and eastern Arabia, as well as Iran. These have variations in meaning and use between regions, as well as between rural and urban settings. The veil and the garments that accompany it (milaya in Egypt, abbayah in Iraq, chador in Iran, yashmak in turkey, burka in Afghanistan, and djellabah and haik in North Africa) are manifestations of cultural practices and meanings that are firmly embedded in Middle Eastern traditions and centered around religious morality, sexuality, gender, and honor.

Although the veil has often been treated as a symbol of class identity, social mobility, and resistance or opposition to the West, it is important to note that it has since become central in the popular Western press as an indicator of colonialism and patriarchy. The fact that large groups of women in the Middle East continue to embrace it as part of contemporary everyday fashion and clothing is indicative of the complex level of nationalism and entrenched cultural and religious codes that have always dictated the traditional clothing of the Middle East.


The intersection between dress, gender, and state control are important in understanding how men and women (and veiled women in particular) are felt to embody the identities of a religion or a nation. By the early twentieth century, a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey and Iran, embarked on programs instigated by Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Atatuürk (1881–1938) and Iran's Reza Shah (1878–1944) in the 1920s and 1930s to reform their social and political infrastructures. In these countries, the wearing of various types of traditional headdresses, such as the veil for women and the fez (a cylindrical cap) for men, was considered symbolic of the country's backwardness and, to some extent, its oppres siveness, and they were subsequently outlawed.

What was known as "folkloric" or "traditional" dress was closely associated with particular ethnicities and was relegated to rural areas, while fashionable indicators of social status and Western and European influences were revived. Various Arab governments decreed that regional or ethnic dress was "backward" or "primitive." As a result, the Middle East began to adopt modes of Western dress, including bowler hats, Western pants, and jackets.

Political dissidents in the Middle East denounced the wearing of such Western fashions, a sentiment that culminated in acts of defiance, a show of pride and local integrity, and physical signs of commitment to regional or ethnic autonomy. Though Reza Shah had outlawed ethnic dress in 1928, various items of men's and women's clothing, such as dogushi (two-eared Qashqai men's hats) were worn by dissidents in that region as statements of revived Qashqai power, autonomy, and identity, and ultimately as a physical satire of the shah's own sense of prevailing power.

Turkey and Dress Reform

The fez, which remains a global symbol of Middle Eastern fashion, is an important marker of clothing tradition. The fez was not of Turkish but of North African origin, and it bears the name of the city of Fez, the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. The fez is a cylindrical cap of scarlet or purple felt, ornamented with a tassel on the end of a long black cord. The earliest varieties were in the form of a bonnet with a long red, white, or black turban wound around it.

After eliminating the Janissaries (an Ottoman army corps) in 1826, Turkey's sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839), established a new army, the Asakir-i Mansur-i Muhammediye. The soldiers at first retained the kavuk, a padded or quilted cap around which the sash of a turban could be wound, and the șalvar (full trousers). Later, each man was issued a setre (an old-fashioned form of European frock coat) and trousers, to resemble Turkey's European contemporaries.

In order to standardize dress customs, Mahmud II introduced the fez to the Ottoman court, and further decreed the reform to civilians in 1829. Gradually the fez was accepted for general civilian use, with exception of the ulema, who retained the robe and turban. Civilians also adopted the European frock coat and cape, preferring trousers instead of robes and black leather boots instead of slippers. It is interesting to note that the image of this mix of Middle Eastern and European fashion was very much part of popular colonial cultural stereotypes of Middle Eastern dress. The turban and Turkish pants are also, with the fez and frock coat, part of the grand narratives of Orientalists and have widely influenced the way the West constructs its visions of the Middle East in both dress and custom.

By 1868 there were ten groups of fez makers in Istanbul. As demand for production accelerated, fez makers were brought from Tunisia, and a factory was established in the Eyüp area of Istanbul. Over time, a variety of fez styles appeared, ranging in shape, length, material, and molds. Fez making soon became a recognized national craft.

Since the discovery of synthetic dyes at the turn of the nineteenth century, Austria had become the chief centre of the fez industry. In 1908, during the Young Turk Revolution, Austrian goods were boycotted for two months by the Committee of Union and Progress in protest against the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time, fezzes were mainly supplied to Turkey by the Austrians (because they had the only fez manufacturing plant) and during what was dubbed the "Fez Boycott" men wore instead either an arakiye (a form of skull cap) or a kalpak (a brimless sheepskin or astrakhan cap). By 1909, beyond the boycott, the kalpak had become an accepted item of dress. Nevertheless, the fez remained an integral part of male sartorial style until 1925, when Atatürk began his modernization campaign by banning the fez in favor of the wide-brimmed Western-style hat.

The tradition of veiling in Turkey can be traced from the Hittite period (1400–1200 bce), where images of women wearing long mantles over their heads that reached to their ankles were depicted at the sites of Carchemish and Yazilikaya. The tradition continued well into the medieval period. During the Ottoman rule in the 1800s, reformers and liberals began denouncing the idea of women's protective clothing. New interpretations of the Koran were argued in 1899, and the gradual impact of nationalism and independence meant that women were encouraged to be symbols of the new state, so much so that various Turkish elites mocked those women who resisted ideas of social progress, calling them "beetles."

In 1915 an imperial decree was issued that permitted women to discard the veil during office hours. Although initially there were numerous protests in opposition, more and more women eventually left their veils at home, opting for a Western-style hat and long coat. Although Atatürk banned the fez and advocated the wearing of it as a criminal offence, there was no action taken by the legislature against veiling. Nevertheless, as he began to build a secular nation-state in 1923, he denounced the veil, calling it demeaning and a hindrance to a civilized nation, without actually outlawing it. Educated women in Turkey began to leave the house unveiled, but still wore the hijab.

Soon a small veil called a litham became the fashion, with all the nationalists' wives adopting it as part of their clothing. Gradually, unveiling became common among women of the wealthier, educated upper classes in large towns or cities. Veiling continued in more conservative rural areas in the form of a peçe (veil) and a çharshaf, commonly made of silk or wool and usually black in color, or the more fashionable ferece, which also concealed the whole body and had straight sleeves extending to the length of the fingers. A type of veil (yashmak) was also worn over the face, and boots or decorative clogs were worn on the feet.

Iran and Dress Reform

Before 1873, the kolah-i pahlavi, a tall black lambskin headdress of the Qajar regime (1796–1925), was worn by Iranian men to replace the four-pointed cap of the former Afsharids regime (1736–1749). A fezlike headdress were also introduced as required dress for government officials.

Official modernization and reform programs were accompanied by dress regulations decreed by Persian ruler Reza Shah (r. 1925–1941). Reza Shah initiated a process of "westernization," which included the abolition of the chador for women and the introduction of Western-style dress for men. In 1928 the cabinet announced the correct dress for men to be a Western coat, jacket, trousers with a leather belt, and leather shoes in European styling. All government workers and school boys were required to wear the brimless kolah-i pahlavi hat as devised by the shah. The stipulation to wear the European-style garments was extended to all Iranian males, except Shipi and Sunni ulema, non-Muslim dignitaries, and male children under the age of six.

The 1928 Uniform Dress Law came into effect in urban centers and within the year was introduced into rural regions. Noncompliance by townsmen was punishable by a fine of one to five tomans (later increased to thirty tomans) and a jail sentence of one to seven days. By 1929 a major redrafting of Iranian legal codes relating to commercial, civil, family, and penal matters involved moving away from Islamic shari'a law in the direction of a European legal system. The legal reform was also accompanied by an official requirement that all judges and lawyers wear secular dress instead of the long robes and turbans associated with ulema jurists. After returning from a visit to Turkey in the spring of 1934, Reza Shah ordered the brimmed hat (the trilby or fedora) to be worn by all Iranian men, and he required that Western lounge suits be worn by court officials. In 1935 he abolished the kolah-i pahlavi headdress.

In early 1936, the shah appeared at the new Normal School in Tehran to address the female students. All of the women of the royal Iranian Party were unveiled and wore Western-style clothing. By February of the same year, regulations designed to encourage the abandonment of the chador came into effect. The chador is a large semicircular piece of fabric that covers the head, hair, and body, but leaves the face uncovered. In the thirteenth century, the chador was worn with a burka, and by the fifteenth century, a black face veil made of horsehair called a picheh appeared as a second form of veiling. This type of veil was fastened to the head with two ties and was classified as a burka.

After the official announcement banning the chador and picheh, women wearing the chador were not permitted in public places. Bus and taxi drivers who accepted veiled women as passengers were subject to fines or dismissal. Doctors were forbidden to treat and admit veiled women into hospitals. Police and the armed forces were also instructed to forcibly remove any veil worn in public and to enter homes to enforce the law.

One of the unexpected effects of outlawing the chador was that the garments worn underneath became public, which exposed the poverty of many women. This resulted in the Iranian government sending its trade commission to Germany and France in 1936 to purchase 500,000 rials worth of women's ready-to-wear clothes for distribution. The ban on chadors was strictly enforced from 1936 to 1941, after which the law was eased following the Allied occupation and consequent abdication and exile of Reza Shah. Today, many Iranian women continue to wear the chador as a matter of religious and cultural principle. Once again, some in the West have come to regard this dress code as oppressive.


The clothing of the Middle East has often been used as a symbol of political and religious affiliations and represents a sartorial history that is equally complex and controversial. Garments and fabric styles have evolved from traditional lines to the introduction of European styles, accessories, and fabrics. Similarly, the fashions of Turkey and Iran have been influenced by secularization, modernization. and legislation. Beyond this, the clothing and fashions of the Middle East communicate a set of social and political relations that are connected with notions of gender and class, as well as with the cultural construction of identity and the "modern" nation.

see also Education, Middle East; Ideology, Political, Middle East; Literature, Middle East.


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