Palestinian costumes

Palestinian costumes are the traditional clothing worn by Palestinians. Foreign travelers to Palestine in late nineteenth and early twentieth 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.

Most experts in the field trace the origins of Palestinian costumes to ancient times, though 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 status, whether married or single, and the town or district of origin, and a knowledgeable observer could glean such information from the fabric, colours, cut, and embroidery motifs (or lack thereof) in a given woman's apparel. Dresses generally had a loose-fitting cut that allowed for considerable freedom of movement. Decorative embellishments supplied a substantial share of the distinctive elements, and elaborately crafted elements such as embroidery were often worked on as panels that could be removed from one garment and transferred to another as a young girl grew or as a woman's old clothes wore out. Men's apparel was more uniform in style, with some variation by locale, status, and age. Headgear has been the chief distinguishing feature of Palestinian men's costume both traditionally and in the present era.

Although regional variations of Palestinian costumes largely disappeared after the establishment of Israel, which saw the Palestinian exodus, Palestinian embroidery and costume continue to be produced in new forms. While most modern Palestinians have now adopted Western or generic Islamic fashions, some continue to wear the traditional costumes as an expression of solidarity and pride in their heritage.


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

Hanan Munayyer, a collector of Palestinian clothing and researcher of its ancient origins, argues that examples of proto-Palestinian attire are seen in artifacts from the Canaanite period (1500 BCE), specifically in Egyptian paintings that depict Canaanites wearing A-shaped garments. Munayyer further argues that from 1200 BCE up until 1940, all Palestinian dresses were cut from natural fabrics in a similar A-line shape with triangular sleeves. The distinctive silhouette of what archaeologists have dubbed the "Syrian tunic" is also observed in an ivory engraving from Megiddo dating to 1200 BCE.

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."
Needler also notes that well-preserved costumes from late Roman-Egyptian times consist of "loose linen garments with patterned woven bands of wool, shoes and sandals and linen caps," and argues that these items are comparable to modern Palestinian costumes.

In the 8th century, Damascus artisans began manufacturing fine needles and thereby made possible a shift from weaving designs to embroidery. The square chest piece (qabbeh) and decorated back panel (shinyar), so ubiquitous in Palestinian dresses, are also found in costume from 13th century Andalusia. Each village in Palestine had motifs that were identifying markers for local women. The eight-pointed star, the moon, birds, a diamond-shaped icon to ward off the evil eye, palm leaves and stair steps were common patterns.

Garment types

Basic dress

Traditionally, the Palestinian costume for women is centered around the thob, a loose-fitting robe with sleeves, the cut varying by region. A square chest panel on the thob, known as the qabbeh is often decorated. A highly decorated qabbeh could function as a family heirloom, handed down from mother to daughter for use on several different dresses. Embroidery on the lower back panel of the thob used in some regions, is known as the shinyar. In Bethlehem, brocade on the back hem panel of the thob is known as the diyal. Pants or trousers known as libas or shirwal were commonly worn under the thob. The men's shirwal was typically black, white or blue cotton.

Both men and women also donned jackets, known as jubbeh, over their everyday dress. If embroidered, the jubbeh was known as the jillayeh. A short embroidered jacket known as the taqsireh, deriving its name from the Arabic verb "to shorten", was worn by the women of Bethlehem on festive occasions. The gold couching of the taqsireh often matched the thob. European influence on local fashions resulted in the addition of pockets sometime in the 1930s.

In villages, men wore a traditional, ankle-length coat (qumbaz) with a rounded neckline and narrow sleeves, often striped. Reportedly, the color of the coat could identify one's village. For Bedouin men, the overcoat or shoulder mantle is known as an abaya. Under such coats, the traditional village or Bedouin costume included a cotton or wool tunic (qamis).

Traditionally, Palestinians wore sandals or were barefoot, donning red or brown leather shoes as needed.


It was deemed proper and dignified both for men and women of all religious denominations to cover their heads, whereas it was shameful (´ayb) to leave it uncovered.

The women in each region had distinctive headdresses, often embellished with gold and silver coins from their bridewealth money. The more coins, the greater the wealth and prestige of the owner. The sha'weh, a distinctive conical hat "shaped rather like an upturned flower pot," was worn only by married women, mainly in Bethlehem, Lifta and Ain Karm (District of Jerusalem), and Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (Bethlehem District). Hanan Munayyer's research revealed that these hats, often associated with women of King Arthur's court, were seen on Levantine women by the Crusaders who subsequently brought the style back to Europe.

The smadeh, an embroidered cap with a stiff padded rim worn in Ramallah, had a row of coins, tightly placed one against the other, around the top of the rim. Additional coins might be sewn to the upper part or attached to narrow, embroidered bands. As with the other female head-dresses, the smadeh represented bridal wealth, and acted as an important cash reserve. One observer wrote in 1935: "Sometimes you see a gap in the row of coins and you guess that a doctor's bill has had to be paid, or the husband in America has failed to send money".

The words araqiyyeh and taqiyyeh have been used since the Middle Ages in the Arab world to denote small, close-fitting head-caps, usually of cotton, worn by both genders. The original purpose was to absorb sweat (in Arabic: "araq"). In the Hebron area, araqiyyeh came to denote the embroidered cap with a pointed top that a married women would wear over her taqiyyeh. During her period of engagement prior to marriage, a woman of the Hebron area would sew and embroider her araqiyyeh and embellish the rim with coins from her bridal money. The first time she would wear her araqiyyeh would be on her wedding day. A large veil known as the shambar was also commonly worn in the Hebron area and in southern Palestine.

Until the 1930s, the men wore headwear that would be a clear marker of their wealth, locale, religious and political position. Bedouins wore a hatta or keffiyeh, held in place by black headropes (agal). The urban elite wore turbans (where wide, bulky turbans proclaimed a man's social importance), until mid- late- 19th century, when they changed to the Turkish tall, stiff, red tarbush istambouli or fez.

The greatest variation of headgear was in the villages. Village men wore a soft, red felt hat (tarbush), with a type of turban (laffeh) wrapped around it, leaving the crown (top) of the tarbush exposed. The laffeh signified status and position, as H.B. Tristram noticed while visiting the Samaritans of the Nablus-region in 1865:

All [Samaritans] wore red turban, the peculiar badge of the sect, while colour white is appropriate to the Moslems, green being the exclusive colour of the shireefs or descendants of the prophet, and black or purple left to Jews or Christians.
Turban colour could also indicate political affiliations. In the early 20th century, a white turban, besides signifying a Muslim or even an Islamic law judge, was also worn by supporters of the Yaman political faction, while the opposing Qais faction wore red.

The adoption of the tarbush and laffeh signified manhood, and boys wore only a cap (taqiyeh). The one exception was for the boy's circumcision ceremony, when a highly decorated tarbush was worn. The circumcision ceremony would be the main occasion in a man's life for celebration and display of his social value, and was in this respect the male equivalent of the wedding for women, even though most boys were circumcised under the age of six. On his circumcision day a boy was ornamented in a similar way to a bride, and led in procession on horseback or camel through the village.

In the late 1930s, around the time of the Arab revolt, the headdress changed significantly, in that many villagers and townsmen, especially the young, adopted the Bedouins' keffiyeh and headropes as an expression of Palestinian nationalism. Photographs from this period (1930s-1940s) show that the head cloth was white, but later black and white and red and white checked patterns became popular. Meanwhile, the tarbush and laffeh went out of fashion except among elderly men. After the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the black and white keffiyeh adopted by Yasser Arafat became, according to Weir, a "potent symbol of Palestinian national identity [..] [becoming] a popular motif in Palestinian cartoons, posters and paintings, and its meaning has passed into the international language of costume.


Social and gender variations

Palestinian costumes reflected how men enjoyed more physical and social mobility than women. For the women of Palestine's towns and villages who rarely traveled, clothing reflected very distinctive styles and patterns unique to where they lived. Conversely, as in most of the Middle East, clothing for men had a more uniform style than women's clothing.

Traditionally, Palestinian society has been divided into three groups: villagers, townspeople, and Bedouins. 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. Townspeople, (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 that of the village. By the early 20th century, well to-do women in the cities had mostly adopted a Western style of dress. Typically, Ghada Karmi recalls in her autobiography how in the 1940's 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 (as in case of the villagers) a localized geographic area.

Palestinian embroidery

Village women embroidering in locally-distinctive styles was a tradition that was at its height in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Women would sew in items to represent their heritage, ancestry, and affiliations. 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. To avoid potential jinxes from other women, an imperfection was stitched in each garment to distract the focus of those looking. Girls would begin producing embroidered garments, a skill generally passed to them by their grandmothers, beginning at the age of seven. Since most young girls were not sent to school, much of their time outside of household chores was spent creating clothes. Much of this would be preparation for their marriage trousseau (or jhaz) which would consist of all dress requirements for future life including everyday and ceremonial dresses, jewelry, veils, headdresses, kerchiefs, girdles, belts, undergarments and footwear.

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. The cypress tree (saru) motif is found throughout Palestine in many complex and simple forms. Other Palestinian motifs are derived from quite basic geometric forms such as triangles, squares and rosettes. 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. John Whitting (collector for 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". 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.

Before the appearance of synthetically dyed threads, the colors used in Palestinian embroidery 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. Shahin argues that the colors used in Palestinian embroidery include the ancient color schemes of the Canaanite and Philistine coast: red, purple, indigo blue, and saffron and that more recently, Islamic green and Byzantine black were added to the traditional palette.

Shelagh Weir, author of Palestinian costume (1989) and Palestinian embroidery (1970), demarcates embroidery distribution patterns in Palestine by painting two horizontal lines: the first running south of Mount Carmel and the Sea of Galilee at the longitude of Afula, and the second running north of Jaffa and south of Nablus from the coast to the Jordan River. Her research indicates that in the area between these two lines there is very little history of embroidery, though there remains evidence of traditions of fine decoration, including braidwork and appliqué, in women’s costume. An Arab proverb of this particular region, originally recorded by Gustaf Dalman in 1937, went: "embroidery signifies a lack of work."

Longstanding traditions of embroidery were found in the Upper and Lower Galilee, and in the Judean Hills and on the coastal plain. Weir 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.

Regional diversity

Northern Palestine

Northern Palestine is one of the richest and most diverse regions in terms of traditional costume. In the upper and lower Galilee, costumes vary according to social class and religious sect.

The basic wardrobe of the fellaheen woman in the Galilee consisted of the thob (robe) and libas (pants) with a jillayeh (coat), and a smadeh (hat with coins). Embroidery was used throughout this region. In the 1860s, H.B. Tristram described costumes in the villages of El Bussah and Isfia as being either "plain, patched or embroidered in the most fantastic and grotesque shapes". As may be seen in collections today, satin stitch, diagonal satin stitch, cross-stitch, stem stitch and joining stitch were popular in the Galilee.

During the 19th century, coats in the Galilee were produced using varying techniques and fabrics. Often coats were made of handwoven cotton with front sections decorated in a rich patchwork of silk or taffeta appliqué (heremezy) and ikat-dyed silk weaves, with back panels embroidered with silk thread in carpet-like designs of geometric motifs. While the basic garment pieces and construction were the same, the costumes donned by the Druze of the northern Galilee wore more conservative due to their strict religious laws on modesty.

Nablus costume had a distinctive style using colorful combinations of fabric. As an important trade centre with a flourishing souk, items available in 1882 included a large choice of fabrics, from Damascus and Aleppo silk to Manchester cottons and calicos. Garments were similar in construction to those in Galilee, with the wearing of both long and short Turkish style jackets over the thob. For daily wear, thobs were often made of white cotton or linen, with a preference for winged sleeves. In the summer, costumes often incorporated interwoven striped bands of red, green and yellow on the front and back, with appliqué and braidwork popularly decorating the qabbeh.

Central Palestine

The hill country of Judaea in the eastern half of central Palestine encompassed four important towns: Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Three distinct styles of Palestinian costume with embroidery as the major feature were produced here. Outside of the taqsireh worn on special occasions in Bethlehem, Turkish influence is less apparent in central and southern Palestine costumes than in the north.

Ramallah costumes used a white linen fabric (roumi) for festive dresses and scarves, though in the winter, indigo-dyed linen was preferred. Embroidery was predominantly red cross-stitch in silk thread whose contrast against the white linen gives Ramallah garments their stylistic distinctiveness. Ramallah was known for a great variety of distinguishable very finely executed patterns. The qabbeh panel was often a separate piece of cloth that was then stitched to the dress, and in some garments extended from the chest over the back and shoulders. Other features of Ramallah costume included sleeve embroidery and two vertical bands on the front and back of the skirt covering the seams with an embroidered shinyar panel fitted between the vertical bands on the back hem.

Popular Ramallah motifs included: the tall date palm arranged in horizontal rows, a rainbow design (qos), the leech (lalaq), the star (nujum) and "moon feathers" (qamar-ish). Motifs introduced by European missionaries and those derived from earlier Turkish and Greek influence were used as well, such as flowering plants, irises and birds. The smadeh was of a type that was once also worn throughout northern Palestine: a small roundish cap, padded and stiffened, with gold and silver coins set in a fringe. A long veil was pinned to the back, sometimes of silk and sometimes embroidered.

Bethlehem costumes and embroidery were popular in villages throughout the Judaean Hills and the coastal plain and the female embroiderers of Bethlehem and the neighbouring villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour were known to be professional producers of wedding costumes. Bethlehem was a center for embroidery that produced a "strong overall effect of colors and metallic brilliance."

Less formal dresses in Bethlehem were generally made of indigo fabric with a sleeveless coat (bisht) worn overtop, made from locally woven wool. Dresses for special occasions were made of striped silk with winged sleeves, and the short taqsireh jacket, known throughout Palestine as the "Bethlehem jacket", was worn overtop. The taqsireh was made of velvet or broadcloth, and was usually heavily embroidered.

Bethlehem work was unique in its use of couched gold or silver cord, or silk cord which was applied onto the silk, wool, felt or velvet used for the garment to create stylized floral patterns with free or rounded lines. This technique was used for "royal" wedding dresses (thob malak), taqsirehs and the shatwehs worn by married women. It has been traced by some to Byzantium, and by others to the more formal costumes of the elite of the Ottoman empire. As Bethlehem was a Christian village, local women were also exposed to the detailing on church vestments with their heavy embroidery and silver brocade.

Hebron and the surrounding villages of Beit Ummar, Bani Na'im, Beit Jibrin, ad-Dhahiriya, ad-Dura and Samula produced some the richest and most beautiful forms of Palestinian embroidery. The fabrics used included handwoven linens, cottons and indigo-dyed silks cut in a manner similar to that of Ramallah dresses, often with long sleeves. The embroidered areas on dresses in the Hebron region were much larger and denser than those of Ramallah, with the sides and back also embroidered in vertical patterns.

The standard embroidery stitch was cross-stitch with fishbone used as a joining stitch. Dresses for special occasions used the heremezy technique, with triangular and diamond silk appliqué patches with significance attached to them as amulets. The qabbeh was similar to the Ramallah style using the rainbow qos to determine composition. Motifs on the qabbeh would often be repeated on the shinyar of the skirt and included stars, triangles, grapes, cypress trees, and birds, among others.

Jerusalem never developed any indigenous style of costume, tending to borrow from local and international influences manifested in its cosmopolitan population. Major local influences on Palestinian garments donned in Jerusalem came largely from Bethlehem and Ramallah. Jerusalem dresses tended to be of the basic Ramallah style with decorative panels often embroidered in Ramallah, while using completely different fabrics from those traditionally used in the Ramallah district. A dress with quilt-like patches known as the thob abu qutbeh, "the dress of pieces", was made from long patches of Aleppo or Damascus silk or velvet (or in some cases, Syrian embroidered fabrics) with a Bethlehem qabbeh sewn onto the chest.

Lifta (near Jerusalem), and Beit Dajan (near Jaffa) were known as being among the wealthiest communities in their areas, and the embroidery produced in these towns was among the most artistic. Beit Dajan remained an influential centre of weaving and embroidery until 1948.

A popular motif was the nafnuf design: a floral pattern thought to be inspired by the locally grown orange trees. The nafnuf design changed after World War I becoming embroidery running in long panels known as "branches" (erq). It is the forerunner of the "6 branch" style dresses worn by Palestinian women in different regions today.

The Jericho thob was extremely long, usually two to three times the height of the woman wearing it. The excess fabric was gathered up and pulled through a belt, so that it fell over in a fold, forming three layers. The air trapped in these folds was cooling in the Jordan Valley's exceedingly hot climate. The sleeves were so large that they could be thrown over the head as a veil, or used to carry objects. Despite these functional aspects, the amount of fabric used for the dress also spoke to status and exhibited the wealth of its owner.

Coastal plain

The central coastal plain extending from the base of the Judaean Hills to the Mediterranean sea was an agriculturally rich area, and towns in this region, like Jaffa and Majdal, used very little embroidery. Costumes instead featured the fabric itself, often made up of strong stripes of purple, magenta or green.

Gauze (gazzatum) is reputed to have originated in Gaza and transported to Europe by the Crusaders. Cloth for the Gaza thob was often woven at nearby Majdal. Black or blue cottons or striped pink and green fabric that had been made in Majdal continued to be woven in the Gaza Strip by refugees from the coastal plain villages until the 1960s. Thobs here had narrow, tight, straight sleeves. Embroidery was much less dense than that applied in Hebron. The most popular motifs included: scissors (muqass), combs (mushut) and triangles (hijab) often arranged in clusters of fives, sevens and threes, as the use of odd numbers is considered in Arab folklore to be effective against the evil eye. The heavy use of triangular motifs and designs with amuletic significance exemplifies the similarities in the styles and traditions of the southern fellaheen and the local nomadic Bedouin tribes.

Bedouin costumes

Bedouin in the Sinai wore costume modified for the desert environment, consisting of a thob, libas, and shambar as worn by the fellaheen, with the addition of a face veil, or burqa. Besides offering protection from the elements, the burqa was used by Bedouin women to display wealth and status. Hanging from a narrow band at the forehead, the burqa covered the nose, mouth and neck areas. The basic thob here was cut fuller than that of the fellaheen, and the sleeves were either with narrow with no cuffs, or those of a long winged style called abu erdan. Usually made of heavy cotton, poplin or sateen, black was the preferred colour for fabric. Sinai and Negev Bedouin women used the same brightly coloured embroidery cross-stich used throughout Palestinian villages. The colour of the embroidery was highly significant: stitches in blue were used by young, unmarried women, and only after marriage or becoming pregnant were women permitted to adorn their dresses with red embroidery. Embroidery was focused not the qabbeh, but rather on the shinyar at the back of the dress which was decorated with heavily embroidered block-like geometric forms in dense cross-stitch. Shawls of black cotton or silk were worn for special occasions, with embroidery designs extending from the top of the head to the embroidered back panel of the dress down the centre. The village of El Arish combined Bedouin styles with those used in the Palestinian villages.


The establishment of the state of Israel in the northern, western and southern parts of Palestine in 1948 severely disrupted Palestinian society and culture, and over half the rural population became refugees. Another wave of refugees was produced by the 1967 war and there is very little that remains of the costume and textile traditions of the 1950s and 1960s. Traditional costume made a resurgence after 1967, but in much plainer styles than before. Local weaving practices ceased and without access to the same quality of imported fabrics, costumes became less ornate and more practical. Elaborate shambars and smadehs as well as the distinctions between everyday dress and formal wear were largely lost.

The highly evolved regional styles disappeared after the mass movement of village populations into the refugee camps. Certain general styles emerged such as the "6 branch" and the shawal, the latter designed originally for sale to Western markets. During the intifada in the late 1980s, traditional costume was used as a means of passive protest and a way of expressing national pride. Embroidery produced by refugees in the camps which had served as a way of generating a stable income, has since been transformed into one of the most enduring elements of Palestinian cultural heritage.

Samiha Khalil was one of the first to start with embroidery and costume making as a way of empowering Palestinian women with the founding of The Society of Ina'ash El-Usra in 1965 in al-Bireh, West Bank. Besides becoming one of the major present-day producers of Palestinian handcrafts, the organization also has a museum of Palestinian costumes.

In 1969 Serene Husseini Shahid helped found the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps, a.k.a. "Inaash in Lebanon, an association devoted to preserving Traditional Palestinian Embroidery and helping women and children in Palestinian refugee camps.

Today, Palestinian costume styles no longer follow the traditional regional breakdown and can instead be classified as refugee camp styles, Palestinian Territories styles, and Bedouin costume, with Bedouin costume retaining most of the elements of its traditional pre-1948 role. Beginning in the 1970's, Hamas and other Islamic movements sought to increase the use of the hijab (headscarf) among Gazan women, especially urban and educated women, and the hijab styles since introduced have varied according to class and group identity. New forms of Islamic dress, such as shari'a dress (plain long tailored overcoats worn with the hijab) have proliferated as well. Described by Reem Hammami as "an invented tradition in both form and meaning", Fadwa El Guindi notes it has "no precedents in indigenous Palestinian dress (Seng and Wass 1995)." El Guindi also explains the development of Islamic dress as, "[...] a movement developing in the context of occupation and resistance, subjugation and struggle, in which the hijab is ideologized and transformed into a symbol of resistance." Among Palestinians today, Western and Islamic dress predominate, though various forms of "traditional" embroidered dresses remain popular. However, what is now identified as "traditional" is a much simpler garment in terms of construction and decoration.

The "6 branch" style - named for the six vertical bands of embroidery that run from waist to hem - emerged in the 1960s and it was the first post-1948 style to evolve without being tied to an established regional style. It is characterized by its curvilinear foliage and flower designs and its various "branches of birds" motifs drawn primarily from European patterns. Perle cotton thread was most popularly used, with multicoloured shaded threads being popular in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Refugees producing clothing for consumption by Western markets led to the development of the shawal style in the 1980s. A pre-embroidered uncut form made of heavy linen would have embroidery added onto the main fabric which was sold with a fringed shawl similarly worked. Geometric embroidery motifs and the saru remained common in these pieces. Although originally developed for the foreign market, the shawal also became populat among women in Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories as a kind of Palestinian haute couture.

Embroidery also developed as a kind of cultural form not solely restricted to costume in the 1980s as aid projects in the refugee camps encouraged the creation of new products. One young woman from the Sulafa UNRWA embroidery project has said: "... we no longer embroider in the style of our towns, we embroider for our houses and for our work. We embroidered cushions, clocks and maps of Palestine. Embroidery is our heritage. We love embroidery ... and we are proud of it" (Price 2000 p.17). Each refugee camp or aid organization has developed certain stylistic characterizations with time. For example, Christian imagery such as stars, mangers and Christmas trees appear as common designs on products from aid agencies such as Sunbula that enjoy church funding. Projects in Lebanon such as those of Al-Badia are known for high quality embroidery in silk thread on dresses made of linen.

During the intifada, embroidered costume became a statement of national pride. According to one woman involved in an embroidery project "women of the new generation who are in universities wear thobs full of embroidery because it is their heritage ... even educated people are turning to their heritage" (Price 2000 p.16). Sliman Mansour, known as an artist of the Intifada, depicted traditional Palestinian dress in his poster, Palestine.

A new style of shawal dress, known as the "flag dress", was made for a limited period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, featuring embroidery predominantly in the colours of the Palestinian flag, and other nationalist motifs such as the flag and map of Palestine, the Dome of the Rock mosque, guns and grenades, or the pattern of the keffiyeh, which were worked into the structure of the qabbeh and the vertical skirt panels, or the shinyar. Um Ahmed, a 75-year old woman from Beit 'Ummar explained that "people were being imprisoned for carrying the flag, so women would embroider it on their thobs" (Price 2000 p.15). Um Ahmed created an embroidery motif called the Palestine design: "women made up the name during the intifada. When the women started this design, they said it would be called Palestine" (ibid, p.39) The pattern resembled a flowery border rather than anything nationalistic, but Price suggests that even the political naming of embroidery motifs at this time could be perceived as an act of nationalist defiance. With the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, women again wore these "flag dresses" as a sign of protest, though the actual production of such dresses in this style has declined.

In the mid-1980s, embroidered items produced by refugees were clearly marked with tags reading "Israeli handicraft" in English and Hebrew, prompting Palestinians to incorporate "Palestine" calligraphy directly into the embroidery designs, with words like "Palestine", "PLO", "Abu Amar", and slogans such as "We shall return".

Palestinian dress designers, such as Leila Jeryas in Amman, continue to explore traditional designs producing dresses with heremezy panels and saru motif cross-stitch since 2001. Other dresses are modern interpretations of traditional designs from Jericho and Salt. The ANAT Workshop in Damascus and the Family Care Society in Amman also produce "replicated" traditional dresses based on surviving pre-1948 designs, though "modernized dresses" they carry the traditional Palestinian characteristics and "the form and shape of the motifs as well as the patterns" can also be commissioned.

Costume collection, research, and display

In the second half of the eighteenth century, American and European travelers in Palestine began gathering costumes for collections, which paved the way for future exhibits and research. For example, the painter William Holman Hunt put together a collection now housed at the Royal Ontario Museum. Holman relied on the costumes to depict what were once considered "photographic and archaeologically correct" Biblical scenes. Another painter of Biblical art at that time was William Hole, who collected Palestinian costumes and was advised by David Whiting, an expert collector of Palestinian village costume.

Foreign residents of the American Colony in Jerusalem played a central role in the collection and sale of local costumes. Notably, John Whitting (died 1951) left his collection to his daughter, Grace Spafford Whitting of the American Colony Hotel, who subsequently passed on the costumes to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Meanwhile, in the early twentieth century, members of the American Colony assembled a collection given to the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago. Not surprisingly, much of the historiography of the Palestinian costume has been based on such collections.

Palestinian costumes have also been preserved through less directly tangible means such as photography. The artistry of the costumes was captured and disseminated, for instance, through postcards from Palestine. According to Tim Jon Semmerling, such postcards diminished Palestinian identity since they "promote Orientalized portrayals of Palestinians.

During the 1980s, there was a growing interest in Palestinian costume at international museums. Previously, most exhibitions of Palestinian costume and embroidery had been limited to displays organized by the PLO and other pro-Palestinian political groups. In 1989, the British Museum's Museum of Mankind held a major display of their Palestinian collection, curated by Shelagh Weir. According to Akbar Ahmed, the exhibit received an overwhelmingly positive response, though Weir was sharply attacked for what was seen as an attempt to project the Palestinian cause. Weir worked closely with private collectors, such as Widad Kamel Kawar, a Palestinian residing in Jordan. Kawar's own private collection also toured several European and Asian venues in the 1980s. The Palestine Costume Archive established its traveling exhibition program in 1995, and had five museum quality exhibitions and twenty smaller displays touring internationally by the early 21st century. The Archive tours Palestinian diaspora communities so as to sustain interest and knowledge of Palestinian culture.

Examples of Palestinian costumes and related artifacts are housed in several museums and collections, both public and private. In 1995, the Palestinian National Authority issued a series of four postage stamps featuring women in Palestinian costumes.

Public collections

  • British Museum in London. The British Museum holds over 1,000 pre-1948 items in its Palestinian costume collection. Though not on permanent display, highlights of the collection were featured in Shelagh Weir's major 1989 \"Palestinian costume\" exhibition. Weir's monograph remains the seminal publication on traditional Palestinian costume.
  • Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) at Museum of New Mexico at Santa Fe. John Whitting acquired Palestinian items directly from the owners and noted down the provenance of each, thereby making the collection especially informative. There are many items from villages which were destroyed/depopulated in the Nakba in 1948, e.g. al-Qubayba, al-Dawayima, Bayt Dajan, Lifta, Kafr Ana, Bayt Jibrin, az-Zakariyya, Zayta (the last three in the District of Hebron). The oldest items are traced back to the 1840s, while later examples include a wedding dress from Zakariyya (ca. 1930) and a dress from Zayta (ca. 1910).
  • Palestine Costume Archive, in Canberra, Australia. The Archive acquires, and holds in trust, Palestinian and Middle Eastern costumes on behalf of the proposed National Museum of Palestine. It holds costumes from the 18th century to the 21st, from many regions of Palestine as well as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf, Egypt and North Africa. The Archive is the only museum in the world to prioritize the acquisition and research of Palestinian costume after 1948. The Archive also holds a large collection of political textiles as well as contemporary costumes and embroideries from Palestinian diaspora communities. The Archive's collections tour worldwide.
  • The Israel Museum in Jerusalem holds one of the most sizable collections of Palestinian costumes. In 1986-7, the Museum held a major exhibit, "Embroideries from the Holy Land" and, in 1988, published Ziva Amir's The Development and Dissemination of the Chest-Panel of the Bethlehem Embroidery. An art historian, Amir traces the development of motifs (e.g., the floral vase) and the geographic spread of styles. An Israeli, Amir worked closely with Palestinian locals in Gaza and the West Bank.
  • Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait. Based on a private collection, this museum is open to the public and houses a significant Palestinian costume collection, as featured in Jehan Rajab's 1989 monograph Palestinian costume.

Private collections

  • Widad Kawar Arab Heritage collection. The collection of Ms. Widad Kawar. An important private collection now in Amman, Jordan, the Kawar collection of Palestinian and Jordanian dress toured extensively in the 1980s.
  • The Abed Al-Samih Abu Omar collection, Jerusalem. Private collection, mostly 20th century, featured in the book by Omar (1986): Traditional Palestinian embroidery and jewelry,
  • Palestinian Heritage Foundation; The Munayyer Collection. The largest private collection in America, the Munayyer collection includes costumes from most Palestinian regions well known for distinctive costumes. The collection has been displayed in several American museums.
  • Palestinian Heritage Center, a cultural center located in Bethlehem, established in 1991 by Maha Saca. Has a collection of traditional costumes, some have been exhibited at the Oriental Institute, Chicago.
  • List of worldwide collections of Palestinian costumes, from Palestine Costume Archive

See also

External links





  • Farsoun, Samih K. (2004) Culture and Customs of the Palestinians, Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313320519 (Google books)
  • Gilmour, David. (1983) Dispossessed. The Ordeal of the Palestinians, Sphere Books, Great Britain. (first published in 1980)
  • Needler, Winifred (1949). Palestine: Ancient and - A handbook and guide to the Palestinian collection of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology.
  • Price, Elizabeth (2000). Embroidering a Life: Palestinian Women and Embroidery Sunbula and the Palestinian Heritage Center, Bethlehem
  • Saca, Iman. (2006) Embroidering Identities: A Century of Palestinian Clothing, Chicago: The Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago. ISBN 1-885923-49-X.
  • Shahin, Mariam (2005). Palestine: A Guide, Interlink Books. ISBN 1-56656-557-X.
  • Stillman, Yedida Kalfon (2003). ''Arab Dress: A Short History: from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times, BRILL. ISBN 9004135936.
  • Stillman, Yedida Kalfon (1979). Palestinian costume and jewelry, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-0490-7 (exhibition catalog of the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) at Santa Fe)
  • Völger, Gisela, Welck, Karin v. Hackstein, Katharina (1987). Pracht und Geheimnis: Kleidung und Schmuck aus Palästina und Jordanien: Katalog der Sammlung Widad Kawar, Köln: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum. (also published in French as Memoire de soie. Costumes et parures de Palestine et de Jordanie )
  • Weir, Shelagh (1970). Palestinian embroidery, a village Arab craft, British Museum, London. ISBN 714115088.
  • Weir, Shelagh (1989). Palestinian Costume, London: British Museum Publications Ltd. ISBN 0-7141-2517-2. (exhibition catalog)

Additional reading

  • Allenby, Jeni (1995). Portraits without Names: Palestinian costume, Canberra: Palestine Costume Archive ISBN 0-646-23303-3. (traveling exhibition catalog)
  • Allenby, Jeni. (2002 onwards): Palestine Costume Archive website text
  • Allenby, Jeni (2003). "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948" in Proceedings of the 8th Symposium of the Textile Society of America, USA: Textile Society of America.
  • Allenby, Jeni (2003). "Palestinian cultural heritage since 1948", Kalimat (Australia - English edition). Issue no.15. September.
  • Amir, Ziva. The Development and Dissemination of the Chest-Panel of the Bethlehem Embroidery, The Israel Museum, 1988. (Hebrew)
  • El Guindi, Fadwa (1999). Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Berg Publishers. ISBN 1859739296
  • El-Khalidi, Leila. The Art of Palestinian Embroidery London: al-Saqi Books, 1999.
  • Fuller Museum (1995). Threads of Tradition: Ceremonial Bridal Costumes from Palestine: The Munayyer Collection. Brockton, MA: Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA. (exhibition catalog)
  • Kawar, Widad and Weir, Shelagh (1975): "Costumes and Wedding Customs in Bayt Dajan" in Palestinian Exploration Quarterly, London, Jan / June
  • Kawar, Widad Kamel with Tania Nasir. "The Traditional Palestinian Costume" in Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1. (Autumn, 1980), pp. 118-129. (JSTOR)
  • Omar, Abed Al-Samih Abu (1986). Traditional Palestinian embroidery and jewelry, Jerusalem: Al-Shark. (published to promote own collection for sale)
  • Hafiz al - Siba'i, Tahira Abdul (1987). A Brief Look at Traditional Palestinian Costumes: a Presentation of Palestinian Fashion, T. A. Hafiz. English, French and Arabic text.
  • Rajab, Jehan S. (1989). Palestinian Costume, London: Kegan Paul International. ISBN 0-7103-0283-5.
  • Weir, Shelagh and Shahid, Serene (1988). Palestinian embroidery: cross-stitch patterns from the traditional costumes of the village women of Palestine, London: British Museum publications. ISBN 0-7141-1591-6.

Further reference materials:

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