Mansoojat Foundation

Museum of Saudi Arabian Costume online

Tribal Dress of Saudi Arabia
by Jennifer Wearden

It is the aim of this article to focus a spotlight on a subject virtually unknown in Europe and North America: the variety and beauty of tribal dress once worn in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To a large extent the subject is unknown within the Kingdom itself, yet it is one obviously rich in colour and pattern. To illustrate the surprising range of traditional dress worn in the first part of the 20th century, six garments have been chosen from a relatively small area of the Kingdom. These belonged to the women of different tribal groups, one nomadic and the others settled, living along the coastal area between Medina in the north and Taif in the south. All the garments are made from machine-woven cotton cloth and all the decoration is angular but the cut, the colours, the patterns of the decoration and the techniques used vary from one group to another. Everything, however, was done with infinite care and patience.

The dresses were usually made within the family, by a girl’s mother and/or her grandmothers, for her wedding day and would subsequently be worn on special occasions. The basic and most common cut is T-shaped, with the fabric folded over the top of the shoulders, a hole or slit cut for the head and sleeve panels added. The result is a fairly narrow garment, skimming the figure and using fabric as economically as possible. Yet in this small group of six examples, three are cut in very different ways. The dress in illus.1 includes several triangular panels, tapering from the hem towards the waist, inserted to give fullness to the skirt. The sleeves also have additional panels which hang open from the wrist. They fulfil no practical function except as a form of status symbol: because overlong sleeves hamper manual work, their inclusion in this garment suggest the wearer was, on special occasions at least, a lady of leisure. On the other hand, the enormously wide sleeves of the dress in illus.6 have a practical function and encourage any cooling breeze to flow in and to circulate around the body. A more unusual form of air conditioning is incorporated into the back of the elegant dress in illus.2. The back panel is longer than it needs to be but fabric ties have been stitched part of the way down it so that they can be tied around the waist, underneath the front of the dress. The extra length at the back is then folded and draped, allowing cooling air to circulate close to the body. Any such variation, promoting cooling, must have been welcome in a country where the summer temperature often exceeds 38 degrees C and has been known to reach 54 degrees.

It is regrettable that one quality of these outfits can never be conveyed by photographs and that is the delicious perfume with which the headdresses are impregnated. Sachets of dried herbs, flower heads, seeds and spices, including whole nutmegs (which were considered to be an aphrodisiac), were often sewn into the headdresses to provide shape and to cushion the wearer’s head, protecting it from the bruising effect of rigid wooden bars which form the more dramatic structures. Similar sweet-smelling sachets were sometimes stitched into the dresses and given the daily temperatures, their delicate scent must have helped to counter less pleasant but inevitable odours.

The main feature of these garments is the fineness of the decorative work which is most obvious in the embroidery, which takes the form of line upon line of narrow bands worked with cotton thread. The stitches themselves are simple, small and packed together to form coloured borders and delicate edges. Only the dress in illus. 1 includes significant variation in the form of amazing metallic cones made by coiling silver thread and securing it with red cotton. These were worked in two sizes: small, almost flat discs and much larger peaks standing about 2 cm high. The narrow bands on the chest area of the wide robe in illus.6 are also embroidered but its dominant pattern was formed by resist dyeing - creating a pattern of small spots on a blue ground by tying areas of the original white cotton to prevent pigment from penetrating when the cloth was steeped in a vat of indigo dye. The result is a bold, striking pattern which belies the laborious preparation necessary for its creation.

The other techniques used to decorate these garments are appliqu and beadwork, one adding colour, the other adding glitter and both adding weight to control or improve the way the garment hangs. Weight is especially important with cotton cloth, which has a tendency to stick to itself, and heavier borders on any fabric draped over the head and shoulders would help to keep it in place.

Bright colour was added by using small amounts of coloured cloth and getting the greatest visual impact by using it in a series of applied strips [the technique is known as appliqu], usually on the sleeve or down towards the hem of the dress. Dexterity and patience were required to work with the very narrow strips and zigzags used on these dresses, turning and securing raw edges to prevent them from fraying. As appliqu is always formed by two or more layers of fabric, it is hardwearing and so it is the undecorated part of the garment that will deteriorate first and need replacing. On some of the older dresses it is clear that decorative borders have been cut from something even older and then applied to a replacement dress but if there were a lot of appliqu on a worn dress and only relatively small, undecorated areas required repair, simple replacement patches were used to extend its life.

The unusual feature of these tribal outfits is the lavish use of small ’silver’ beads, each one placed precisely where it was required. They have not been analysed but they are definitely an alloy rather than pure silver and probably have a high lead content so that they have the advantage of looking like silver but not losing their shiny appearance. As about 45% of the world’s silver comes from lead mines, where it is recovered during the processing of lead ore, the use of the two metals in jewellery is not surprising. Lead has a very low melting point [327 degrees C] and can be easily cast using a mould made from a variety of materials including wood, paper and sand but some people still master the art of hand-making beads from fine metal strips, rather than casting them.

The beads on these garments are small, with about seven per cm threaded together in a fringe and five or six per cm stitched onto a garment. The very finest beads measure only one millimetre in length and width and are so small that they nestle between the warp and weft threads and so appear to have been woven into the fabric rather than added later, which is the case.

Beads are used in five different ways:

1. Single beads or pairs of beads are sewn along the edges of seams and applied bands, either at regularly spaced intervals or in one continuous line.

2. At the other extreme, copious quantities are massed into densely packed patterns based largely on square, rectangular and diamond-shaped blocks and the design is formed by voids, by narrow lines along which there are no beads so that the colour of the ground fabric is allowed to show through [see the veil border in illus.3]. Beads used in such quantity represent a considerable financial outlay, especially as the beads on this veil were hand-made.

3. In between these extremes beads are used to create lines of trellis-like patterns [see the panels above the knee in the skirt of illus.2].

4. Beads are used with coloured thread to make tasselled fringes on headdresses.

5. In one type of dress [illus 2] two rows have been used to join the sleeve panels to the bodice, doing away with the need for a stitched seam and creating a pretty filigree band of beads instead.

Such attention to detail is important because women read other women’s clothes and judge them by whatever are the benchmarks of that particular culture. It might be the sometimes classic and sometimes unconventional tailoring of seasonal couture; it might be the wild colours and exuberant patterns applied to garments of fairly unchanging shape such as saris, T-shirts and huipils; it might be, as in the case of Saudi tribal dress, the skill required to produce understated and subtle decorative effects. Any judgement passed is a reflection not only on the wearer’s taste but on her reputation and that of her family and the wider, tribal group to which it belongs.

At this point I must confess the need for more information if we are to understand and evaluate these garments. The readers of Gereh are known for the delight they take in research so I invite them share any knowledge they may have. There are many unanswered questions: as there is no recorded tradition of weaving cotton cloth in the Kingdom, where did the fabric come from? Egypt, India, England or somewhere else? Is there any evidence for this trade? Are there any references to Saudi tribal dress - photographs or descriptions - among the papers left by diplomats, merchants and travellers or by the engineers who helped to develop the petro-chemical industry? Any information can be passed to Mansoojat via the 'Photo Exchange' or 'Feedback' pages on this website.

The Mansoojat Foundation is a UK registered charity founded by a group of Saudi women with a passionate interest in the traditional ethnic textiles and costumes of Arabia.

Where We Go In The Future Is Determined
By Where We Have Been In The Past.

A non profit organisation, the Mansoojat Foundation's mission is to revive and preserve the traditional ethnic designs and costumes of the various regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; to promote and conduct academic research important for the understanding of the history and culture of the region, and to raise public awareness for the appreciation of this unique heritage.


1. Sulaym Tribe, nomadic pastoralists in the Jedda/Medina area. The beaded border of her veil is draped over one shoulder and arm and there is a woven bag on that wrist but the embroidered sleeve and the red and white edging of the hanging panel can been seen on the other arm.

2. Jahdaly Tribe, settled pastoralists living south of Mecca.

3. Bani Sa’ad Tribe, settled pastoralists living around Taif.

4. Bani Malik Tribe, settled pastoralists living around Taif.

5. Thaqeef Tribe, settled pastoralists living around Taif.

6. Hudheyl Tribe, settled pastoralists living around the base of the Taif Mountains. The yoke of this dress is black with red and white embroidery although it is almost obscured by the multicoloured tassels on the beaded headdress. Excess fabric has been tucked into the waistband of the trousers.