Kandurah Arabiah Cultural Dress

In the previous post, we looked at the thawb, ‘a loosely comfortable garment with graceful lines that is an over-garment worn by women all around the Arabian Peninsula.’ This robe or tunic is worn over a qamis or kandurah (undergarment or dress). In this post, we take a closer look at the kandurah.

Origin and background

The qamis, from which the kandurah has developed, is a simple practical garment worn by both men and women. It ranges from mid-thigh to floor length and can have long or short sleeves. According to historians this form of dress migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to other cultures with the Islamic faith. A good example of this is the national dress of Pakistan. The qamis is always worn over pants and not tucked in as is the western custom. In some parts of the Arab world, women wore their qamis shorter, only reaching down to the knees.

The qamis or kandurah

Shape and design

In the UAE, the kandurah, a longer version of the qamis, extends anywhere from the calf to the ankle. In Oman, it is usually worn shorter to expose the decorated area (badilah) of the sirwal. Even in the longer version it still allows for the badilah and henna on the feet to be visible when a woman is seated.

The basic pattern is shirt-like with long sleeves and no darts or zippers. The centre panel (al-bidan or bidinah) is cut in one piece from front to back, the side panels (al-jinan or truz) allows for movement as it radiates out towards the hemline from a triangular underarm gusset. The female version of the kandurah has one pocket (mikhbat) at waist level usually on the righthand side. The male version has a pocket on both sides.

Examples of the traditional kandurah

The sleeves (al-akmam or kmam) cover the wrists and are triangular – fitted around the forearm and more spacious around the upper arm and armpit where it is attached to the gusset (al-bat). This allows for free movement around the chest and shoulders. Women’s kandurah are coloured and decorated with teli while the male version is usually white and very plain.

The UAE kandurah, known as Kandurah Arabiah, has one feature which distinguishes it from similar garments in the region. It has a vertical side slit, running downwards from the neck opening (al-halj or halq). It is always placed on the left side of the neckline and extends from the shoulder to a point between the breast and the waistline. The opening is embellished with hand embroidery and teli and is on the seam line between the two panels of the garment to allow for ease of dress.

From the Sultani Collection: A thawb and kandurah ensemble

Social practice and function

The kandurah is a versatile garment that can be used as a basic housedress or a semi-formal dress for outings. In earlier days newly tailored kandurahs were used for special occasions and older more worn garments were kept for use around the house. Now, simple cotton kandurahs simply decorated with machine embroidery are used as housedresses or under an abaya when going to the market. More elaborate, hand-embroidered silk kandurahs are worn for semi-formal occasions like afternoon teas, family visits, simple dinner engagements or excursions. It is not considered formal enough for events like weddings. The traditional Kandurah Arabiah are now commonly worn during the holy month of Ramadan in an attempt to continue traditional practices.

From the Sultani Collection. A thawb and kandurah ensemble.

Modifications

Social changes and external influences, especially in the post-oil era, has resulted in several modifications to the traditional garment.

During the 1960s the kandurah was a simple dress made from lightweight rather transparent cotton and it seldom reached lower than mid-thigh length. This style served three purposes – It was hygienic, as it never touched the floor, it was more aesthetic as it showed the elaborate badilah of the sirwal below, and it was practical as it allowed free body movement. It was simply decorated with one or two teli lines or machine embroidered silver thread applied to the neckline and wrist cuffs.

By the 1970s the traditional sleeve and gusset design were replaced with European style sleeves which were wider and sometimes had pleats or shoulder pads for a fuller more puffed look. It was still tapered down to the wrist and had more decoration on the cuff similar to the badilah on the sirwal.

From the Sultani Collection. Thawb and kandurah ensemble. Note the side slit opening on the kandurah neckline

The unique side-slit neckline continued to be used but with much more elaborate decoration and embellishments. The neck opening also became bigger, showing off more of the neck and chest area, and to display the newly acquired European jewellery. The heavier embroidery around the neckline made the garment stiff, inflexible and cumbersome to wear.

By the 1980s the heavy embroidery led to the kandurah and thawb to be combined into one garment, merging at the neckline. The elaborate embroidery combined with the wider neck opening made the garment heavy and prone to sliding down the shoulder or falling forward, forcing the wearer to continually rearrange her clothes. This lead to the kandurah and thawb to be first pinned together, later fixed with press-studs and finally to be stitched together sharing a single neckline.

Combining the two garments allowed for a more stable surface for the embroidery as the layers of fabric eliminated the use of gauze to stabilise the embellishments. Combining the two garments did away with the side-slit opening of the kandurah and different shapes necklines became fashionable.  

In the 1990s the elaborate styles from the East and West culminated and the kandurah became available in many shapes and regional styles including Moroccan, Bahraini, Lebanese, Indian and Omani. During this time the bulky, stiff and heavily embroidered cuffs on the sleeves were replaced by the Moroccan style that was wide enough for the hand and wrist to pass through without fasteners. The embroidery was also simpler and only about two fingers wide. The UAE ruling family’s close ties with the Moroccan royal family influenced the adoption of this fashion.

International designers such as Jean Paul Gautier, Versace and Roberto Cavalli started using the general kaftan shape in their designs, they acquired wealthy UAE clients, and the local Arab designers stated creating contemporary interpretations of traditional UAE garments. All this contributed to the changing styles of the Kandurah Arabiah.

Shorter kandurah allowed the badilah on the sirwal and the henna on the feet to be visible

The future

The kandurah is here to stay. It conforms to social, religious and commercial conditions, is a highly functional type of garment, and can be adapted and interpreted to suit almost all circumstances. Individual wealth ensures a burgeoning market leading to a growing clientele for designers and tailors in all income groups.

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