Saudi Arabia is often known for its dress code, especially where women are concerned. All around the world, people think of formless black shrouds covering our women from head to toe. The facts in tradition point to the contrary.
Beneath that dark exterior lies a myriad of colour and embroidery, each with a story to tell. There must be hundreds of different kinds of traditional Saudi dress, each one with a unique brand and design. These designs did not only represent the tribe of the woman wearing them, they also suggested the kind of lifestyle this woman led.
However, women are in danger of losing this distinction. A woman no longer stands out as someone from a certain background with a notable identity; she is approaching the line where the history of who she has become is withering.
The connection between the past and the present is almost lost. In the midst of this worry, there is a glimmer of hope with an organization that devotes itself to rescuing the Saudi woman’s identity, let alone the country’s over all record of tradition – Mansoojat.
The Mansoojat Foundation, a UK-registered charity founded by a group of Saudi women with a passionate interest in the traditional ethnic textiles and costumes of Arabia, explores some of these garments in detail, especially when it comes to the stories behind them.
How important is it, in this day and age, to attain a dress with a distinctive identity for the woman wearing it?
MF: Knowing the history of these dresses helps us better understand these women, who are essentially, our ancestors. We learn through these costumes that they were hard working, creative, talented and deft; they had exquisite taste and were extremely practical. These costumes should inspire today’s women to dress with pride and respect for the values of their fore-grandmothers.
What is the significance of individual textile/materials that are used in these dresses?
MF: The dresses worn in the major cities of the kingdom are greatly influenced by trade with other countries.
You can see the Ottoman influence in the city clothes of Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah. In the Northern region of Hail you can distinctly see the Syrian influence, as the fabrics were imported from Syria and Iraq.
The Central and Eastern regions were greatly influenced by the trade with the Indian Subcontinent, and this is reflected in the textiles used for the dresses.
Would you say there is a balance between function, art and design when it comes to these dresses?
MF: Naturally, the dresses worn in the cities are more glamorous and elegant and are often made of very fine fabric such as tulle, velvet, voile, the finest linen, or very finely embroidered cotton. Festive costumes are embroidered with gold and silver thread and sometimes pearls might also be added.
This choice of textiles and embroidery is a reflection of these la dies lifestyles. They were not required to do any heavy manual work; mostly they were ladies attended to by servants and their clothing is a reflection of that. On the other hand, the tribal costumes are very different. These costumes are worn by working women; farmers and shepherdesses. The colours reflect the flora (they used plants to dye their fabrics) of the regions, the fabrics used are hardier to weather, the hardship of manual labour and the different harsh climatic environments.
Also, the embroideries although fine, intricate and diverse, are stitched in a way to embellish the garment as well as to protect it from wear and tear. The tribal dresses take into account the different weather patterns in each region. Using different cuts for different climates does this.
For example, mountainous regions have tight fitting dresses. The desert and the coastal areas are warmer; therefore, the dresses are looser and cut wider. Tribal costumes, although different to city dresses, are also very elegant, most colourful, richly embroidered with metal or glass beads and coloured cotton thread.
How are women in Saudi society taking this re-introduction to the traditional dress? Are you promoting that women start wearing them again?
MF: Women in our Saudi society are actually very supportive of our cause and us. We are not suggesting them to turn back the clock. However, we would like to see women attain one or several exact replicas of the originals as a means to preserve and carry on tradition with their families for generations to come. After all, these dresses represent a beautiful part of our heritage. Every girl should have, as part of her wedding trousseau, a high quality copy of dress style to her liking, of course – there is so much to choose from. This is one of the only ways we can document this beautiful custom and save it from extinction. Although the dresses have evolved into clothing elements that are more convenient to the lifestyle changes of the women wearing them, they still retain their identity. Traditional dresses are being worn to this date, especially on occasions such as the Eid holidays and within family gatherings.
painting hung in GISH, Jeddah by Artist : Amna Ali Reza inspiration : Mansoojat