Interestingly, an almost exact example of this Algerian vest (Ghlilah) can be found at the Collection of Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.
The term Ghlilah is a diminutive of the Arabic word ghlalah referring in general to undergarments worn by men or women across social strata and religious spectrum, uniting them across ethnic and religious differences.
This Algerian 19th-century female vest/waistcoat (Ghlilah), is of white and gold brocaded silk in floral design, featuring repeated floral motifs in gold across the entirety of the textile, and extensively hand embellished in passementerie which consists of gold thread braids (Fatlah) appliquéd or couched to the ground fabric. The metal thread embroidery, typically of gold or silver, would have been sourced from local Jewish silversmiths, craftsmen who likely settled in the Maghreb with the exodus from Andalusia following the fall of Granada, the last Muslim-controlled city in southern Spain, in 1492.
It is, sleeveless, open in front with a large rounded neckline, closing with two small braided buttons in gold thread. It has a pocket slit at the waist on the right side, and it is fully lined in white silk.
The edges of the neckline and the armholes are reinforced on the inside with woven cotton ribbon while on the outside the armholes are hemmed with couched trimmings of gold thread (Fatlah). The two rows of passementerie outline the short, shoulder-length sleeves, and one line traverses the shoulders and continues along the entirety of the open frame around the Yoke or neckline. These function not only as adornment but also as a means of concealing and reinforcing the seams of the garment.
The neckline is edged with 8 braided gold thread buttons on each side. While at the level of the chest, on both sides, it is embellished with an application of trimmings of gold threads filled in sequins, in an oval, elongated triangular shape known as the “evil eye” motif.
Ranging from a triangular shape to a more oval-shaped it makes reference to the evil eye, which has been a protective symbol in the Arab world since antiquity. While not exclusive to any one religious canon, the evil eye became integrated into Jewish and Muslim beliefs and practices and thus maintained relevance within North Africa and the Arab world across the centuries. While the persistence of this motif into the 19th century indicates its assertion of local sartorial styles and cultural significances implicating economic differences within Algerian society since the quality and form of the embroidered triangular motifs varied based on the wearer’s economic and social standing.
In contrast to the more luxurious exterior fabric, the interior lining, customarily, however, not in this example, consists of cheaper printed cotton chintz or calico fabrics. The plain-woven, block-printed fabrics originated in India and were exported to Europe beginning in 1600, becoming fashionable dress in Europe by the mid-1600s 1600s.
Elite women could afford the more heavily adorned caftans and Ghlilah that they wore for daily use, while less affluent women possessed
less richly adorned garments that were reserved for ceremonial events and festival days.
The scarcity of documents prior to the French colonial period in Algeria poses an obstacle to reconstructing the temporal transformation of women’s costumes. However, one of the earliest Western texts to remark on a dress in Algiers is by Spanish Friar Diego de Haëdo published in (1612), recorded observations of society in Algiers from 1578 to 1581.
During that time the Ghlilah is described as a waistcoat generally of Satin, velvet, or Damask, that fell to mid-leg length and featured a wide neckline secured just above the breasts by large gold or silver buttons. The garment can display both sleeveless and elbow-length sleeves. At certain times the term connected directly to the function of the garment as a support for a woman’s bosom, and was customarily worn on top of a sheer-sleeved undershirt, together with full-length balloon length (sarwal mdawar) also known as (sarwal chelqa), all of which are concealed under an overall body cloak (hayk) when out in public.
Though by the 19th century, the form-fitting vest/waistcoat served as a common, everyday item of clothing for the majority of Algerian women. According to author Leyla Belkaïd this garment is believed to have originated in the Eurasian steppes during antiquity and was introduced to Eastern and Northern Europe in the 13th century B.C.E. by the Scythians, a Central Asian semi-nomadic empire.
While according to François Boucher, the vests/waistcoats became common in the regions of Central Asia and Northern Europe during antiquity, the costume did not become integrated into the Mediterranean wardrobe until much later. Asserting that, nearly a millennium passed before the Byzantines appropriated the large open-front Qaftan worn by Persian soldiers and fashioned a new open-front coat which became à la mode during the 12th century C.E.
At the same time, the pre-existing Muslim empires, including the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922/23), established in the Mediterranean were also pulling from Persian costuming and importing fine Persian silks to develop their own variations on the open-front tunic.
Thus, when the Ottomans expanded their far-reaching empire to the regions of the Maghreb during the early 16th century, Egypt (1517) and Algeria were the first of the North African states to come under the Ottoman Empire followed by Libya (1551) and Tunisia (1574), heavily embroidered waistcoats were readily adopted by Algerian men and women alike and gradually diverged into distinct garments, including the Ghlilah and (rmlah), as local tastes, techniques, and designs were incorporated.
The most elaborate embroidery traditions were found in Algeria’s coastal cities, where Mediterranean trade and influences combined to create the multi-cultural mélange that became characteristic of urban wear in Algeria, and became popular among all women of Algiers. In this way, the garment represented a point of visual, cultural, and fashionable commonality amongst the women of Algiers which united them across ethnic and religious differences.
Haëdo noted two versions of the women’s waistcoat Ghlilah: the “modest” version, which evolved from a local Algerian model of the 15th century, and the “distinguished” version, which was closer to the Turkish garment. The modest local variation featured a higher, straight neckline, while the distinguished Ottoman-influenced version sported the deeper, curved neckline seen in extant in examples from the 19th century. Both garments used a system of detachable sleeves that allowed the cut to be altered depending on the weather.
- Haëdo, Diego de. Topografia e historia del Argel, Valladolid, 1612, French translation by Berbrugger and Monnereau, in Revue africaine, 1870-71. Reprinted by Jocelyne Dakhlia. Saint-Denis: Editions Bouchene, 1998.
- Leyla Belkaïd, Algéroises: histoire d’un costume méditerranéen (Aix-en-Provence: Edisud, 1998)
- François Boucher, Histoire du costume en Occident de l’Antiquité à nos jours (Paris: Flammarion, 1983)
- Snoap, Morgan, “Algerian Women’s Waistcoats – The Ghlila and Frimla: Readjusting the Lens on the Early French Colonial Era in Algeria (1830-1870)” (2020). Honors Program Theses.
- Pascal Pichault , The traditional Algerian costume, Maisonneuve and Larose,2007 (ISBN 2-7068-1991-X and 978-2-7068-1991-9, OCLC 190966236