When thinking about Arab dress, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the abaya (al’aba), a cloak-like garment worn by a woman to conceal her body shape. Although the abaya is a familiar garment, it has a relatively short history in the UAE. A mere sixty years ago, this was a relatively unknown garment.
The thawb, the traditional women’s dress of the UAE, refers to ‘a loosely comfortable garment with graceful lines that is a type of over-garment worn by women all around the Arabian Peninsula.’ It can be any type of robe or tunic worn over a kandurah (under-garment/tunic dress). Similar garments are worn by women from different parts of the Middle East and are known as hashmi/msarah/nashil.
Like most other thawbs, the UAE garment developed from the Najdi Bedouin’s traditional thawb – a black garment made from a folded square of either linen, cotton or soft wool fabric. The Bedouin women wove narrow panels on handlooms and sewed them together to create squares. This is believed to be the origin of the panelling in the thawbs.
The UAE thawb is ankle to knee length with the front and back centre panels (bidinah meaning body) cut from one piece, folded at the shoulder line.
The sleeves (jinan-ie-ajnab meaning sides) are rectangular panels similar to and attached to the centre panel. It usually extends to the hipline in one piece of fabric folded at the neckline
The lower side panels (gores) are made of two or more rectangles that run from the front to the back of the centre panels and are separated from the sleeves by an enlarged gusset (al-bat), usually made from a contrasting fabric.
The neckline (al halj) is an open square shape with an embroidered axis below. This sets it apart from thawbs from Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar which have a round neckline with a central buttoned slit.
The tail or train (al thayl) is three pieces of cloth sewn to the back hem of the garment. The centrepiece is the same width as the centre panel of the main garment (bidinah). The length varies but is usually equal to that of the lower side panels.
Types of thawbs
- Thawb nil: the simplest version made out of dark indigo fabric used by brides before the wedding night. The indigo wears off on the skin after a few days of wearing, and when it is washed away conditioning the bride’s body in a lighter, brighter appearance.
- Thawb bu tilah: (also known as bu tayilah, bu al-rubu, bu al-rubiyat) made from a light polka-dotted cotton fabric, used at home while doing household chores, during prayer time or for sleeping. The silk or brocaded versions of this are used for celebrations and special occasions.
- Thawb inmaqad: made from light tulle decorated with strips of silver straw threaded onto a flat, wide needle, worked into the mesh, crisscrossed, flattened with the fingernails creating intricate vegetative or geometric patterns.
- Thawb imfahah: the different panels of the thawb are cut into long, narrower segments and are often made from different fabrics or colours creating distinct vertical lines.
- Thawb imyaza: similar to the previous, but the central panel is one segment, while the sleeves and lower side panels are divided into a number of horizontal panels creating lines, about four fingers wide, at the shoulder, waist and knee level.
- Thawb riyasi/ri’asi: decorated with gold coin ornamentation.
- Thawb thayl: a thawb with a tail/train.
- Thawb teli: decorated with teli work.
Social practice of wearing a thawb
Elaborately decorated and vibrantly coloured thawbs are used for ceremonial occasions like weddings. The more subdued black thawbs are worn in public to signify conservatism, compliance with tradition, and austerity.
A thawb is generally worn over a kandurah, but it can be worn on its own accompanied with underpants (shirwal) in private, for sleep especially during hot weather. The garment is spacious and does not cling to the body. When the wide sleeves catch the breeze, it keeps the wearer cool.
Introduced in the early 1980s, the abaya slowly replaced the thawb as a mode of concealment. The black abaya replaced the black thawb, and the women started wearing an abaya over a more vibrant thawb when in public.
The introduction of modern clothing and the use of air-conditioning in buildings eliminated the use of a thawb at home. It was not needed to keep cool and it was too cumbersome for the modern lifestyle. Instead, the thawb became a symbol of the formal traditional dress of the country and is increasingly used in public at official gatherings and celebrations such as weddings.
Evolution o the thawb
Up to the 1960s, the thawb was a very simple garment made from gauze cotton or nylon net fabrics with only a few simple lines of teli on the neckline. In the early 1970s a simple square dress, known in the region as the ‘UAE thawb’ became very popular. The availability of wider width imported fabric did away with the more traditional three panelled garments. Foreign tailors who did not understand the traditional tailoring methods working in the UAE started improvising and adding their own stamp.
They simply folded the fabric to create a front and back with a neckline cut on the fold. The sides were stitched from the hip to the lower hemline leaving wide openings for the arms, doing away with the sleeves (jinan) As a result of new wealth and modern tailoring shops geared towards mass-production, the embellishment around the neckline became more elaborate, reaching lower down the front of the garment and including rich embroidery patterns.
During the 1980s matching satin-silk and chiffon-silk became popular and was used to produce complementary sets of opaque kandurahs with sheer thawbs in the same fabric design. Matching embroidery was added to the neckline and the cuffs, creating ensembles. During this time it also became fashionable to cut wide and lower necklines for the thawbs revealing more of the embroidered neck and front area of the kandurah underneath.
The matching ensembles did away with the tradition of wearing a thawb on its own, and in the 1990s the two garments were merged at the neckline creating a double-layered garment. Inspired by the international interest in the kaftan style dress, UAE women continued to modernise their traditional outfit by adapting the kandurah to resemble a short-sleeved or sleeveless slip dress worn underneath a matching thawb-style outer layer. The decorative embroidery also set itself free from the neckline to cover different areas of the garment such as the lower hem, the entire front of the garment and the sleeves.
The present and future
To date, most UAE women wear the thawb during celebrations and social gatherings such as weddings. Besides appealing to the local taste, it is viewed as an admired symbol for upholding traditional customs. Younger UAE women are more accustomed to modern international dress and seldom wear the thawb. The future of the thawb as a useful piece of a modern UAE woman’s wardrobe is uncertain. Will it stay relevant or will it become folklore only to be used as a costume during traditional occasions? Time will tell.
In the next post, we will look at the history and design of the traditional UAE kandurah (tunic underdress). If you have a story or memory about traditional Arab dress in your family, we would love to hear about it. Please contact us.