This tunic dress is accompanied by two coloured braids (Kutan) (ZI2019.500491a EGYPT). However, the full outfit would traditionally include the head veil (turqa‘at) and underpants (khawatim), shoes (zrabin) and silver jewellery to complete it.
This Siwan tunic dress (ashirah_lamilal) was originally part of Mrs. Sheila Paine’s collection. It was then purchased from Kerry Taylor’s auction to be added to The Zay Initiative collection.
Sheila Paine is a collector of textiles acquired during her travels; author of several books, including ‘Chikan embroidery: the floral whitework of India’ (Aylesbury 1989), ‘Embroidered Textiles: traditional patterns from five continents with a worldwide guide to identification (London 1989), ‘The Afghan Amulet: travels from the Hindu Kush to Razgrad’ (London 1994), ’Amulets: a world of secret powers, charms and magic’ (London 2004). The British Museum acquired a number of items from her collection when they were sold through public auction at Dreweatts (q.v.) in April and November 2008.
This bridal tunic dress (ashirah_lamilal) is from Siwa, an oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, close to the Libyan north-eastern border inhabited by Amazigh. Until the turn of the century, Siwa was one of the most isolated places in Egypt, creating a unique culture throughout the centuries.
Made from white rayon fabric with ready-made floral satin stitch, the tunic dress (ashirah_lamilal) takes the form of a large ‘T’ shape. It is extremely wide and bears little relation to the wearer’s dimensions. The neckline is rounded, extends to above the navel, and fastened with metal buttons. The bodice (tidi) is lined with white cotton in areas that support embroidery work. The long wide sleeves (amfus) are made by stitching together two different sized fabrics. The sides (lijnab) are composed of four longitudinal strips of black chiffon stretching from the waistline to the bottom attached to two rectangular white rayon panels. The front side is shorter than the back, reaching mid-calf only.
The tunic dress (ashirah_lamilal) is heavily hand embroidered with threads of traditional Siwan colours in red, orange, yellow, green, and dark brown. Such colours generally mirror the colours of dates in various stages of ripeness. The embroidery yarns used to be silk, but by the late twentieth-century rayon, perlé cotton, and cotton threads were widely available and used. Seven colourful square motifs (khatim) are embroidered around the neck opening, each divided into four quadrants. This motif (khatim) is believed to protect the bride from evil eye, the sharp corners of triangles forming a defensive function. Their placements are thought to also draw awareness to and promote fertility as the largest square rests against the woman’s reproductive organs, emphasizing and protecting the bride’s fertility. The rest of the embroidery on the upper half of the garment also possibly resembles the ‘key to life’ embroidered on Tutankhamun’s shirt, a colourful pattern that radiates from the seven blocks in all directions, resembling sun rays with small, embroidered symbols scattered throughout. The sun was one of the deities of the Amazigh people in ancient times, and the symbols allude to items relevant to the Amazigh civilization such as the spider, fish, leaf, bride, fan, comb, etc.
Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, a basic bridal outfit consisted of decorative trousers (khawatim), various dresses, head and body coverings and shoes (zrabin).
Traditionally, the dress (akbir_alharir) is worn on the first and seventh days of the wedding ceremony along with the ‘first-night dress’ (taqtusht_maqli). On the second day of the wedding, the bride tends to wear a simple, white dress with no ornaments or the same dress as the day before. The richly embroidered white dress (ashirah_lamilal) is reserved for the third day. This dress is also often worn on the succeeding days of the wedding festivities. On the evening of the seventh day, the bride changes her clothes again and wears the dress she had on during the first day, namely the braids (kutan) and her jewellery.
The bride also puts on her head a red silk shawl embroidered with Amazigh symbols and ends with long tassels, made of various bright colours used in embroidery.
A black dress (ashrah_hawaq_azdaf) meaning “the decorated black shirt that makes us happy”, is worn by the bride in public immediately following the wedding. It is embroidered in a similar fashion as the white dress. After the first few months, the bride is allowed to wear ‘normal’ clothing, reserving the larger embroidered dresses for special occasions.
Due to the many details in this costume, the process of stitching and embroidering it by hand takes up to six months. Most of these bridal garments and related items were stitched and embroidered by the girl’s mother as well as the girl herself, with the help of other female family members. Such work would start when the girl is about three to four years old, as it was common until comparatively recently for most girls to be married by the age of fourteen.
A bride’s trousseau is the responsibility of her parents and should include every day and festive wear. Dresses worn by the bride during the wedding period form part of her trousseau. Normally it contains between 35 and 75 dresses, while some wealthier families include over a hundred.