Palestinian costumes

A woman from Ramallah, c. 1929-1946

Palestinian costumes are the traditional clothing worn by Palestinians. Foreign travelers to Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries often commented on the rich variety of the costumes worn, particularly by the fellaheen or village women. Many of the handcrafted garments were richly embroidered and the creation and maintenance of these items played a significant role in the lives of the region's women.

Though experts in the field trace the origins of Palestinian costumes to ancient times, there are no surviving clothing artifacts from this early period against which the modern items might be definitively compared. Influences from the various empires to have ruled Palestine, such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and the Byzantine empire, among others, have been documented by scholars largely based on the depictions in art and descriptions in literature of costumes produced during these times.

Until the 1940s, traditional Palestinian costumes reflected a woman's economic and marital status and her town or district of origin, with knowledgeable observers discerning this information from the fabric, colours, cut, and embroidery motifs (or lack thereof) used in the apparel.[1]


Geoff Emberling, director of the Oriental Institute Museum, notes that Palestinian clothing from the early 19th century to World War I show "traces of similar styles of clothing represented in art over 3,000 years ago."[2]

Hanan Munayyer, collector and researcher of Palestinian clothing, sees examples of proto-Palestinian attire in artifacts from the Canaanite period (1500 BCE) such as Egyptian paintings depicting Canaanites in A-shaped garments.[3] Munayyer says that from 1200 BC to 1940 AD, all Palestinian dresses were cut from natural fabrics in a similar A-line shape with triangular sleeves.[3] This shape is known to archaeologists as the "Syrian tunic" and appears in artifacts such as an ivory engraving from Megiddo dating to 1200 BC.[3][4]

In Palestine: Ancient and Modern (1949) produced by the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, Winifred Needler writes that:

No actual clothing from ancient Palestine has survived and detailed descriptions are lacking in the ancient literature. In their length, fullness, and use of pattern these modern garments bear a general resemblance to the costumes of West Asiatic people seen in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian monuments. The dress of the daughters of Zion mentioned in Isaiah 3:22-24, with 'changeable suits of apparel,' 'mantles,' 'wimples,' 'hoods,' 'vails,' and 'girdles', suggests that feminine city fashions of Isaiah's day may have resembled modern Palestinian country dress.[5]

Needler also cites well-preserved costume artifacts from late Roman-Egyptian times consisting of "loose linen garments with patterned woven bands of wool, shoes and sandals and linen caps," as comparable to modern Palestinian costumes.[6]

The shift from woven to embroidered designs was made possible by artisanal manufacture of fine needles in Damascus in the 8th century. Embroidered dress sections, like the square chest piece (qabbeh) and decorated back panel (shinyar) prevalent in Palestinian dresses, are also found in costume from 13th century Andalusia. Each village in Palestine had motifs that served as identifying markers for local women.[3] Common patterns included the eight-pointed star, the moon, birds, palm leaves, stairs, and diamonds or triangles used as amulets to ward off the evil eye.[2][3]

Social and gender variations

Traditionally, Palestinian society has been divided into three groups: villagers, townspeople, and Bedouins. Palestinian costumes reflected differences in the physical and social mobility enjoyed by men and women in these different groups in Palestinian society.

The villagers, referred to in Arabic as fellaheen, lived in relative isolation, so that the older, more traditional costume designs were found most frequently in the dress of village women. The specificity of local village designs was such that, "A Palestinian woman's village could be deduced from the embroidery on her dress."[6]

Townspeople, (Arabic: beladin) had increased access to news and an openness to outside influences that was naturally also reflected in the costumes, with town fashions exhibiting a more impermanent nature than those of the village. By the early 20th century, well to-do women (and men) in the cities had mostly adopted a Western style of dress. Typically, Ghada Karmi recalls in her autobiography how in the 1940s in the wealthy Arab district of Katamon, Jerusalem, only the maids, who were local village women, donned traditional Palestinian dresses.

Due to their nomadic life-style, Bedouin costume reflected tribal affiliations, rather than their affiliations to a localized geographic area.

As in most of the Middle East, clothing for men had a more uniform style than women's clothing.

Weaving and fabrics

Bedouin woman in Jerusalem, 1880s

Woolen fabrics for everyday use were produced by weavers in Majdal, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. The wool could be from sheep, goats or camels.[7][8] Weaving among the Bedouins was and is still traditionally carried out by women to create domestic items, such as tents, rugs, and pillow covers. Thread is spun from sheep's wool, colored with natural dyes, and woven into a strong fabric using a ground loom.[9]

Linen woven on hand-looms and cotton were mainstay fabrics for embroidered garments,[10] though cotton was not widely used until the end of the 19th century when it began to be imported from Europe.[7] Fabrics could be left uncoloured or dyed various colours, the most popular being deep blue using indigo, others being black, red and green. In 1870 there were ten dyeing workshops in the Murestan quarter of Jerusalem, employing around 100 men.[11][12]

According to Shelagh Weir, the colour produced by indigo (nileh) was believed to ward off the evil eye, and frequently used for coats in the Galilee and dresses in southern Palestine.[10] Indigo dyed heavy cotton was also used to make sirwals or shirwals, cotton trousers worn by men and women that were baggy from the waist down but tailored tight around the calves or ankles. The wealthier the region, the darker the blue produced; cloth could be dipped in the vat and left to set as many as nine times. Dresses with the heaviest and most intricate embroidery, often described as 'black', were made of heavy cotton or linen of a very dark blue.[13] Travellers to Palestine in the 19th and 20th centuries represented pastoral scenes of peasant women donned in blue going about their daily tasks, in art and literature.[10]

Because of the hot climate and for reasons of prestige, dresses were cut voluminously, particularly in the south, often running twice the length of the human body with the excess being wrapped up into a belt. For more festive dresses in southern Palestine, silks where imported from Syria with some from Egypt.[14] For example, a fashion of the Bethlehem area was to interlay stripes of indigo-blue linen with those of silk.[13]

Fashions in towns followed those in Damascus, Syria.[14] Some producers in Aleppo, Hama and Damascus produced styles specifically for the Palestinian market.[15] Weavers in Homs produced belts and some shawls exclusively for export to Nablus and Jerusalem.[16]

The production of cloth for traditional Palestinian costumes and for export throughout the Arab world was a key industry of the destroyed village of Majdal. Majdalawi fabric was produced by a male weaver on a single treadle loom using black and indigo cotton threads combined with fuchsia and turquoise silk threads. While the village no longer exists today, the craft of Majdalawi weaving continues as part of a cultural preservation project run by the Atfaluna Crafts organization and the Arts and Crafts Village in Gaza City.[9]

Palestinian embroidery

Village woman, circa 1900

Diverse motifs were favored in Palestinian embroidery and costume as Palestine's long history and position on the international trade routes exposed it to multiple influences.[17] Before the appearance of synthetically dyed threads, the colors used were determined by the materials available for the production of natural dyes: "reds" from insects and pomegranate, "dark blues" from the indigo plant: "yellow" from saffron flowers, soil and vine leaves, "brown" from oak bark, and "purple" from crushed murex shells.[18] Shahin writes that the use of red, purple, indigo blue, and saffron reflected the ancient color schemes of the Canaanite and Philistine coast, and that Islamic green and Byzantine black were more recent additions to the traditional palette.[19] Shelagh Weir, author of Palestinian costume (1989) and Palestinian embroidery (1970), writes that cross-stitch motifs may have been derived from oriental carpets, and that couching motifs may have origins in the vestments of Christian priests or the gold thread work of Byzantium.[20] Simple and stylized versions of the cypress tree (saru) motif are found throughout Palestine.[17]

Longstanding traditions of embroidery were found in the Upper and Lower Galilee, in the Judean Hills and on the coastal plain.[20] Research by Weir on embroidery distribution patterns in Palestine indicates there was little history of embroidery in the area from the coast to the Jordan River that lay to the south of Mount Carmel and the Sea of Galilee and to the north of Jaffa and from Nablus to the north. Decorative elements on women's clothing in this area consisted primarily of braidwork and appliqué.[17] "Embroidery signifies a lack of work," an Arab proverb recorded by Gustaf Dalman in this area in 1937 has been put forward as a possible explanation for this regional variation.[17]

Village women embroidering in locally-distinctive styles was a tradition that was at its height in Ottoman-ruled Palestine.[2] Women would sew in items to represent their heritage, ancestry, and affiliations. Motifs were derived from basic geometric forms such as squares and rosettes.[17] Triangles, used as amulets, were often incorporated to ward off the "evil eye", a common superstition in the Middle East. Large blocks of intricate embroidery were used on the chest panel to protect the vulnerable chest area from the evil eye, bad luck and illness.[18] To avoid potential jinxes from other women, an imperfection was stitched in each garment to distract the focus of those looking.[2]

Girls in Bethlehem costume pre-1918, Bonfils Portrait

Girls would begin producing embroidered garments, a skill generally passed to them by their grandmothers, beginning at the age of seven. Before the 20th century, most young girls were not sent to school, and much of their time outside of household chores was spent creating clothes, often for their marriage trousseau (or jhaz) which included everything they would need in terms of apparel, encompassing everyday and ceremonial dresses, jewelry, veils, headdresses, undergarments, kerchiefs, belts and footwear.[2][21]

In the late 1930s, new influences introduced by European pattern books and magazines promoted the appearance of curvilinear motifs, like flowers, vines or leaf arrangements, and introduced the paired bird motif which became very popular in central Palestinian regions.[17] John Whitting, who put together parts of the MOIFA collection, has argued that "anything later than 1918 was not indigenous Palestinian design, but had input from foreign pattern books brought in by foreign nuns and Swiss nannies".[22] Others say that the changes did not set in before the late 1930s, up to which time embroidery motifs local to certain villages could still be found. Geometric motifs remained popular in the Galilee and southern regions, like the Sinai Desert.[17]

Men's clothing

Some professions, such as the Jaffa boatmen, had their own unique uniforms. The horse or mule drivers (mukaaris), widely used between the towns in an age before proper roads, wore a short embroidered jacket with long sleeves slit open on the inside, red shoes and a small yellow woolen cap with a tight turban.[23]


Widad Kawar was among the first to recognize the new styles developing after the Nakba.

Front of dress (qabbeh) sold as cushion cover, Ramallah, 2000.

New styles began to appear in the 1960s. For example, the "six-branched dress" named after the six wide bands of embroidery running down from the waist.[24] These styles came from the refugee camps, particularly after 1967. Individual village styles were lost and replaced by an identifiable "Palestinian" style.[25]

The shawal, a style popular in the West Bank and Jordan before the First Intifada, probably evolved from one of the many welfare embroidery projects in the refugee camps. It was a shorter and narrower fashion, with a western cut.[26]

Income generating projects in the refugee camps and in the Occupied Territories began to use embroidery motifs on non-clothing items such as accessories, bags and purses. With the evolution of the different groups distinct styles are beginning to be appear. Sulafa the UNRWA project[27] in the Gaza Strip has exhibited work at Santa Fe in America. Atfaluna,[28] also from Gaza, working with deaf people, sells its products through the internet. West Bank groups include the Bethlehem Arabs Women's Union,[29] Surif Women's Cooperative,[30] Idna,[31] the Melkite Embroidery Project (Ramallah).[32] In Lebanon Al-Badia,[33] working in the Refugee Camps, is known for high quality embroidery in silk thread on dresses made of linen. The Jerusalem-based Fair Trade organisation Sunbula,[34] is working to improve the quality and presentation of items so that they can be sold in European, American and Japanese markets.


Modern couching stitch from Bayt Jalla traditionally used on panels of malak wedding dress.
Doll in wedding-dress typical of Ramallah area popular before 1948. Made by YWCA project in Jalazone RC. c. 2000.

Garment types

Basic dress


Main article: Palestinian keffiyeh

The women in each region had their distinctive headdress. The women embellished their headdresses with gold and silver coins from their bridewealth money. The more coins, the greater the wealth and prestige of the owner (Stillman, p. 38);

The styles of headwear for men have always been an important indicator of a man's civil and religious status as well as his political affiliation: A turban being worn by a townsman and a kaffiyeh by a countryman. A white turban signifying an Islamic judge qadi. In the 1790s, the Ottoman authorities instructed the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hassan al-Husayni, to put a stop to the fashion of wearing green and white turbans which they regarded as the prerogative of officially appointed judges.[50] In the 19th century, white turbans were also worn by supporters of the Yaman political faction, while the opposing Qais faction wore red.[51] In 1912, the Palestine Exploration Fund reported that Muslim men from Jerusalem usually wore white linen turbans, called shash. In Hebron, it would be of red and yellow silk, in Nablus red and white cotton. Men in Jaffa wore white and gold turbans, similar to the style in Damascus.[52] A green turban indicated a descendant of Muhammed.[53]

From 1880 the Ottoman style of tarboush or fez began to replace the turban amongst the effendi class.[54] The tarboush had been preceded by a rounder version with blue tassel which originated from the Magreb. The arrival of the more vertical Young Turk version was emancipating for the Christian communities since it was worn by all civil and military officials regardless of religion. The exception being the Armenians who adopted a black style.[55]

The European styles, Franjy hat (burneiTah), were not adopted.[56]

The kaffiyeh replaced the tarbush in the 1930s.[57]


Residents of the major towns, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramleh, Lydd, Hebron, Gaza and Nablus, wore soft white sheepskin shoes with the point in front turned up: low cut, not above the ankle, and yellow for men. Before the mid-19th century non-Muslims wore black shoes. Village men wore a higher style fastened at the front with a leather button which provided protection from thorns in the fields. Bedouin wore sandals, made by wandering shoemakers, usually Algerian Jews. The Arabic name for sandal, na'l, is identical to that used in the Bible. On special occasions Bedouin men wore long red boots with blue tassels and iron heels, jizmet, which were made in Damascus.[58]

Collections of Palestinian costumes

Examples of Palestinian costumes and related artifacts are housed in several museums and collections, both public and private.

Public collections

Bride's wedding attire from Bayt Jibrin in an exhibition at Oriental Institute, Chicago.

The following is a list of some of the public collections:

Private collections

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Palestinian clothing.
  1. Jane Waldron Grutz (January–February 1991). "Woven Legacy, Woven Language". Saudi Aramco World.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Palestinian women used clothes to make more than a fashion statement". University of Chicago News Office. 9 November 2006.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Pat McDonnell Twair (October 2006). "Sovereign Threads". Palestine Heritage Foundation.
  4. Denise O'Neal (September–October 2005). "Threads of Tradition:An Exhibition of Palestinian Folk Dress at Antiochian Village". Palestine Heritage Association.
  5. Needler & 1949 p. 87
  6. Weir, 1989, p. 68.
  7. 1 2 Gillow, John (2010) Textiles of the Islamic World. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-51527-3. p.112.
  8. Kawar, Widad Kamel (2011) Threads of Identity. Melisende. ISBN 978-9963-610-41-9. p.185.
  9. 1 2 "Craft traditions from Palestine". Sunbula. Archived from the original on March 21, 2008. Retrieved July 18, 2012.
  10. 1 2 3 Balfour-Paul, 1997, p. 143.
  11. Baldensperger, 1903, p.164
  12. Weir, Palestinian Costumes. p.26.
  13. 1 2 Balfour-Paul, 1997, p. 144.
  14. 1 2 Kawar. p. 41.
  15. Gillow. p.110
  16. Kawar, p. 42.
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Palestinian costume: Background". Palestine Costume Archive.
  18. 1 2 "Palestinian Embroidery". USAID. September 2002. Archived from the original on October 24, 2007.
  19. Shahin, 2005, p. 71.
  20. 1 2 Weir, 1970, pp. 13-14.
  21. Shahin, 2005, p. 73.
  22. Stillman, 1979, p. ix.
  23. Baldensperger. 1903. p.340.
  24. Weir, Shelagh (1989) Palestinian Costume. British Museum. ISBN 0-7141-1597-5. p. 112.
  25. Skinner, Margarita (2007) PALESTINIAN EMBROIDERY MOTIVES. A Treasury of Stiches 1850-1950. Melisende. ISBN 978-1-901764-47-5. p. 21.
  26. Weir, Shelagh (1989) Palestinian Costume. British Museum. ISBN 0-7141-1597-5. pp. 88, 113.
  35. Kawar, Widad Kamel (2011) Threads of Identity. Melisende. ISBN 978-9963-610-41-9. pp. 41,177,179,191.
  36. Weir, Sheilagh (2006) Embroidery from Palestine. British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2573-2. pp. 17, 24.
  37. Kawal. p.287.
  38. Skinner, Margarita (2007) Palestinian Embroidery Motives. A Treasury of Stitches 1850-1950. Rimal. ISBN 978-1-901764-47-5. p. 14.
  39. Weir, 1989, p.80, citing H. B. Tristram's (1865) The Land of Israel, a Journal of Travels in Palestine, p. 66.
  40. Weir, Sheilagh (1989) Palestinian Costume. British Museum. ISBN 978-0-7141-1597-9. p. 145.
  41. Skinner. p. 14.
  42. Weir (2006). p. 18.
  43. Kawar. p. 284.
  44. Kawar. p. 274.
  45. Skinner. pp 14.
  46. Graham-Brown, Sarah (1980) Palestinians and their Society. 1880-1946. Quartet. ISBN 0-7043-3343-0. p. 63.
  47. Kawar. p.10.
  48. Gillow. p.118.
  49. Kawar. p.207.
  50. Pappe, Illan (2010) The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty. The Husaynis 1700-1968. Saqi, ISBN 978-0-86356-460-4. p. 43.
  51. Weir, 1989, p. 66, citing p. 141 of C. T. Wilson (1906) Peasant Life in the Holy Land, London.
  52. Palestine Exploration Fund. Quarterly Statement for 1912. Page 11.
  53. Baldensperger, Philip G. (1905) The Immovable East. Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Report. p. 51.
  54. Weir Shelagh Palestinian Costume p. 64.
  55. Baldensperger, 1903, p. 342.
  56. Baldensperger, 1903, p. 65
  57. Kawar. p. 213.
  58. Baldensperger, Philip G. (1903) Palestine Exploration Fund Magazine.
  59. Review by Shifra Epstein in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 412. (Spring, 1991), pp. 229-231. (JSTOR)
  60. Ullian, 2006, pp. 184-185.
  61. "Collections:Textiles and Costumes". Museum of International Folk Art. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
  62. Stillman, 1979, p. 60.
  63. Stillman, 1979, p. 59.
  64. "Palestine Costume Archive: Canberra, Australia". Palestine Costume Archive. Archived from the original on October 1, 2002. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
  65. "Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait". Tarq Rajab Museum. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
  66. "Kawar Arab Heritage Collection". Widad Kawar Arab Heritage Collection. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
  67. "Costumes from Palestine". Palestinian Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 2008-01-16.


A fuller bibliography can be found here:


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