We were fortunate to obtain this rare article, and another similar one (ZI1975.50020 UAE), from one source. Both are in great condition.
Due to the prevailing notions of modesty in Arab cultures, this is one of the rarest undergarments in the UAE. objects like this rarely come to market because of their age, their high value due to the silver adornment, and last but not least, because they are undergarments (sarwal).
Dr. Reem Tariq el Mutwalli has only come across a few silver examples in her lifetime. We are lucky to have three of them in The Zay collection. This example was purchased, from a lady who, for the above mentioned rational, chose not to give her name, thus we know her as um Abdullah, from the Al Muhairi tribe of the UAE.
Um Abdullah had stopped wearing this object because it’s old-fashioned. She had held on to it due to the value of the silver cuffs (badlah fadhah) and sentimental reasons. The garment was inherited (mkhalaf_’alayiha) from her mother, who in turn was bequeathed it from her mother. As a child, um Abdullah remembers her grandmother wearing them with a different fabric, for her mother recycled the object, replacing the original with taffeta (barashut) in her favourite colour of fuchsia (busi).
She felt reserved (hishim) over letting go of such an intimate article of dress. Like many other women who do not comprehend the documentary value of placing their items within a historical collection, they could only be encouraged to sell their items to The Zay collection following the suggestion that they use the proceeds as (sadaqah), to help build a mosque or school. Their reserve was multi-layered; it being an undergarment an intimate article of dress. In addition, the act of selling can infer financial need, and even after they were convinced to do so for the sake of charity, they followed the tradition that dictates one does not publicly declare good deeds.
As silver is the main embellishing element of the decorative cuffs (talli badlah) on these undergarments (sarwal), it means they were not made for everyday use, except for those who could afford it. They were made of braided pure silver straw (khus_talli) and represent a physical example of the traditional Arabic saying (zinah_wa_khazinah), meaning “beauty and wealth in one”. The silver normally decorated the visible cuffs (badlah) to show status and style and could be melted down and sold in times of need.
The visible cuffs are generally composed of multiple lines of braids (fatlat) or (ftul), that are individually created by knotting together cotton (hdub), silk (brisam) or synthetic (nailon) threads with silver (fadhah), gold plated or metallic (zari) straw. This has resulted in the creation of over 40 distinct recorded designs, in varying widths and intricacies, often named after the motifs depicted on them.
The badlah consists of the large central part (bayt) and the edges (traf). The bayt can be between one and 20 braids of (ftul talli) with different decorations, then the braids are sewn manually with each other so that the bayt is surrounded by the traf to form its borders.
The traditional basic style of badlah includes several stripes called (talli_shakl), which are located between the bayt and the traf. Usually, a (talli_qitan) is placed on the lower edge, while the upper edge is decorated with a (talli_ghuli) or (talli_minsharah). Each braid is made separately and then the braids are manually sewn together.
The large and wide badlah is usually reserved for social occasions, and the smaller, narrower one is applied on an everyday sarwal or those worn by an elderly woman.
In this example, the central portion bayt of the visible cuffs badlah is composed of four cords/braids ftul; the top braid is in black cotton (hdub) thread and silver straw khus, created in a saw tooth motif called talli_minsharah; the second one, below it is in white cotton thread and silver straw, in one running stitch motif called (talli_fatlah) or (talli_khusah); the third band is in red cotton thread and silver straw, also in one running stitch motif called talli_fatlah or talli_khusah; and the fourth, final band is in black cotton thread and silver straw, with a repeated eye like motif called (talli_’ain_mozah).
The cuff edges are all created in the style of talli_fatlah or talli_khusah using three red, white, and black braids.
The undergarment sarwal is relatively simple in adornment, yet still, demonstrates elegance while making a statement about the owner’s social status. The fact that the silk taffeta barashut fabric is used in abundance for the full garment, rather than just on the lower visible parts reinforces this point.
Repair work has been carried out on the object in order to extend its life. In addition to the use of the fuchsia fabric noted above, metal snaps (siq_w_biq) were also added during a later repair, probably in the 1980s. It has also had some cotton fabric with a floral print inserted as lining to the decorative cuffs, in order to fortify the garment.