Saudi Arabia, colorful fashions from the past!

After ”Sex in the City 2” everybody knows that Arab women have a great fashion sense under their abayas! And today there are many larger and smaller fashion designers at work in Saudi Arabia. But Saudi women have always had a good eye for style and color as can be seen in the ancient traditional clothes worn in Saudi Arabia.
The Bedouins who lived in the center of the country migrated constantly from place to place and were restricted in what they could carry, as well as having access to materials. While the peoples who lived near the coast and in trading cities had access to many fabrics and metals imported from other countries, as well as influence from many different cultures. This was reflected in the clothes worn in the different regions.

Arabs have a great love for colors and ornamentation as can be seen in the examples of dress in this post. Applique and embroidery techniques were used extensively.  Typical is the use of embroidery to put emphasis on the seams in the garments.

The Bedouins used mainly wool from their own sheep, camels and goats. Natural dyes provided the colors red and indigo. City dwellers had access to silks and cottons.

People’s daily chores and the climate had an influence on dress, as well as Islamic dress codes.

On this nineteenth century photo the lady seems to be wearing a bisht with gold embroidery,

This rare photo shows Fatehma, who ruled the province of Hail in the early 20th century. Her dress seems to have been a simple home made material, wide and flowing.

This photo shows a Bedouin couple both wear loose flowing clothes, they look as if they are in shades of brown. The man’s igal looks a lot more practical as today’s stylized igals.

With the modern age and transport more colors and fabrics were available even in the former isolated Nejd region.

This example is a tribal dress from the Bani Tamin of the Nejd region. It displays both bright bands of colorful material, as well as embroidery.

Jewelry has always been an important part of dress, and an easy way of transporting wealth, especially for Bedouin women, but the men also used to have precious metals on their belts, daggers and swords. These are not worn anymore in modern Saudi Arabia.

Some Saudi fashions were truly spectacular: Seen from the back: a black net thawb embroidered with sequins, the sleeves are draped over the head, forming a head cover. This festive dress is from the Eastern Province.


The Hijaz  has always been a trading center which reflects in the beautiful costumes which used to be worn. The blue bands on the dress denote this as a married woman’s dress.

A close up of some beautiful embroidery.

Woman from Meccah dressed to go out.  In the hijaz more women went fully covered in the cities than in the rural area’s.

This bedouin face cover is embroidered, and embellished with buttons and silver bells and coins. A cover like this is called a burqa.


32 Responses

  1. What a fabulous insight! I love the embroidery,

  2. One wonders how these people were able to survive wearing woolen clothing in summer. Still great set of photos.

  3. I have a question about the 5th photo from the top. The people look very light haired for Saudi Arabia. Is there any history to that photo?


  4. that net thwab is so lovely – it resembles a sari fromthe back… all shimmery and feminine. i never saw one anything like this all the time we were in saudi..
    they should have a museum or something like that to showcase all this ..

  5. the last photo uses materials like the banjara’s ( in india) do.. mirrors/coins/bright colors embroiuderty etc.,

  6. @Jerry,
    I was showing my husband these pictures and he immediately said as we scrolled down “that’s a western woman” on photo number 5.

    @Radha- just making a guess here- but that gold/net outfit is from the eastern province which is very near India.

    Sadly local costumes are not really worn anymore. We all get to wear the “black uniform” 😛

    As for the photo of the Asir costume. It is interesting they have a full covering hair scarf under the hat. Long ago I was in the Asir region and the scarf was not part of what they wore.

  7. Sandy…

    I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering how you are as we had not seen you for awhile. Glad to see you back.

  8. I wish that they would go back to wearing these outfits…they are so pretty and colorful and each woman could pick what expresses her best. They kind of remind me of indian designs especially that black net one…gorgeous!

  9. I love the Eastern province black net one! I’d wear that!

    I love costumes like these. I love the decoration and the uniqueness, and also the resemblance to constumes in other parts of the world.
    What a pity the world is so much poorer now.

    It’s an interesting thing about facial structures. Mostly when you see photo’s of Saudis they have round faces and small chins, but I have also seen photo’s of real bedouin women which have a very european style of skull, long with large chins, like the lady on photo 5. Anybody know why this is?

  10. “Fatehma, who ruled the province of Hail in the early 20th century”. Get on with yo’ bad self girl! I had no idea there was a female ruler EVER in testosterone laden KSA. Very coooooool. Its interesting to see what KSA used to be and what it is today. I do know that Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman Alsaud was the sister of KSA’s founder and was an extremely outspoken and influential figure in that time. *sigh* If only…..

  11. I wonder if the woman 5th photo down, could have been of Turkish ancestry?

  12. Dania, and doesn’t she look strong and self assured?

  13. Aafke she does! Her head is held high (as it should be!) and she looks very regal indeed. Totally awesome. Luvin’ it 🙂

  14. Dania…

    I admire you very much for the way you have chosen to interpret your faith…it is much the same way Chrisitians leave the bad stuff in the past and focus on the good. The bad stuff is “in context” and the good stuff is rather eternal for most Christians.

    I hope to God your fellow Muslims someday come to the same conclusion/interpretation as you have.

  15. Oby thank you 🙂

  16. I love the black netted outfit. I also (perhaps ironically) like the one from the Bani Tamin of the Nejd region. These are probably my two favorites as far as the more decorative ones go. Although, for everyday wear I can see how these might not be as practical.

    I find it interesting that coins were once attached to the burqa. Was this to show status/wealth?

    Since trade routes have long since gone through this area of the world, maybe that accounts for the variety in facial structure?

    Some of these also remind me of costume from other parts of the world. Specifically, some of them (like the one from Asir region and Hijaz) remind me of certain Chinese tribal dress I’ve seen. I wonder if imitating Chinese fashions was ever a trend in this part of the world?

  17. @Oby
    Thanks. I”m not here much anymore because I just keep having the same conversations over and over.

    1) I’m a nice person who’s Muslim but that’s because I’m either ignorant of the truth of my faith or because I’ve engaged in intellectual acrobatics to make it palatable to me.

    2) I’m a bad Muslim because I’m “westernized” and either don’t know the truth about my faith or am “rejecting” the Sunnah of the Prophet and following my own desires.

    3) I don’t understand that the Saudi culture/legal system really isn’t all that bad for some young woman who has met the love of her life and knows it will all be fine.

    4) Yo! Moderate Muslims- do something about terrorism, it’s your fault you haven’t fixed everything!

    Anyway, I just don’t have time to keep having the same conversations, as wonderful and uplifting as they are. I have kids to raise, a house to run, and work to get done. But I will occasionally stop by when something else is going on. Take care and all the best to you!

  18. The woman in the second pic is not Fatimah al-Sabhan, her name is Turkiyya al-Muhammad, also from Hail.

  19. @Sandy…. haha that all sounds so familiar I can relate. It has a way of making you feel like you’re running in water doesn’t it…. *sigh*

  20. Dania/Sandy,

    Sorry that both of you feel that way. However, both of you engage in debates where you define Islam based on your opinions and contrary to studies of the religion including most fields of Islam including Figh, Tafseer, Hadith, etc. It is like none of these things exist and they do not define the religion. If a belief is a personal relation with a God and everything in the religious Dogma is ignored, then what you have is not a religion it is your own personal faith.

    I seriously do not have any issue with your personal believes. However, your arguments thus far have been something like this “My personal believes define what Islam is, regardless of its dogma, history, the Sirah of the prophet or its holy book says”. That definition is not acceptable and you will find people like me who will call you on it as a piece of intellectual acrobatics.

    Again we respect your peaceful nature and good thoughts about others.

  21. Yes MoQ…but if what you say is true then many people of differing faiths are not actually “X” (pick a faith) and are more spiritual in basis rather than dogmatic.

    I am not sure we can have it both ways…expecting the person to follow the faith both good and bad in order to be called “X”. Yet when they do we complain that they are dogmatic because they follow all the parts and don’t leave out the nasty bits. When they do leave out the nasty bits then they are not really “X” because they pick and choose. IMO that is a no win situation…isn’t it better to encourage people to embrace the good parts of their faith and leave the bad parts in the dust or “context”. People are not going to abandon their faiths whatever they may be due to “nasty bits”. Rather they will or we can hope that they will emulate the good. Perhaps some call it mental gymnastics and others call it “leaving things in context”. Whatever it actually is I think most people would be happy if Muslims (or anyone else) followed a peaceful life and left the dogma behind. Short of everyone becoming atheists, IMO that is the best we can hope for.

  22. Sorry forgot to add…I do understand the difference between your arguments of rationality and theirs of belief.

  23. @oby,

    As far as I am concerned a person can call him/her self any thing. As you know I do not focus on the individuals but the dogma of the religion. The issue is putting a new definition on the religion, based on individual believes.

    I am very consistent on this position. It is the Dogma that I argue about and the Dogma defines the religion. A person calling himself a Muslim does not impact my opinion of that person so long as I understand their position. In the case of of Sandy/Dania I have great respect for their believes. I just do not agree that they define what Islam is.

    I hope my position is well understood 🙂

  24. I really love traditional costumes and I had no idea Saudi Arabia used to have such beautiful and diverse costumes.
    What a pity that all this has been destroyed in only a few years.
    Tradition and culture replaced by a ”1984”-style dead artificial ”culture”. It’s a crying shame.

  25. MoQ…

    Thanks for your explanation..I think after reading your explanation I understand you a bit better. I agree with you that Islam is not all fluffy, peaceful and angelic light as many would practice. Yes there is a LOT of dogma some of it terribly brutal. For me, if Muslims want to embrace the good parts as Sandy and Dania have done and view themselves as Muslims I think that is great if it works for them. I wish more Muslims would take the approach that they have. In many ways it is the DOGMA that causes the problems because no one can seem to agree on exactly what dogma is truly “islam”. (ie: varying degrees of militancy and moderateness.)

  26. To me, ‘faith’ is a pure trust in the unseen. The Holy Books document the religious journeys including conflicts which have led to wars and showing the warts of many who were simply human beings.

    If one does not have that unfaltering trust in the unseen then I don’t think one has a capacity to believe.

    I don’t feel like I’ve used the best words to get my view across but I hope it is understood.

  27. @Carol, Sure, ‘faith’ in God IS a pure trust in the unseen. But how does one come to believe in a specific religion’s teaching over another?

  28. @Lynn, that is a question that will probably be answered differently to each person asked.

    I think one comes to believe in a specific faith or sect based on a multitude of factors which include birthright, heritage, personal relations and experiences, trauma, gut, preference, ethics….and the list goes on!

  29. Thank you for the beautiful pictures that show a little bit of historical dress! I loved seeing that there were women rulers (we all our in our home, but we also make good rulers outside as well). I would certainly understand all the coverings. Just going to the beach for a walk I end up with sand everywhere…not having the opportunity to shower and live in sand on a daily basis would make me want to cover myself up! I do wonder how women manged the heat during the day with so many coverings!

  30. Picture #5 is showing Wadha and ibn Ajlan. They are famous of their epic love story!

  31. if you don’t mind me asking..where did you find the bani tamin picture? was it from a book i hope….

  32. […] was able to find some photographs of what women used to wear in Saudi Arabia (source- more on Saudi women costumes on this […]

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