Now that we understand traditional women’s outerwear, let’s look at what is worn underneath close to the skin and mostly out of sight. In the previous post, we referred to a sirwal several times without explaining it. Let’s take a closer look.
Men and women throughout the Arab world traditionally wear similar underwear called sirwal, however UAE men prefer to wear a loincloth (wizrah). This is a rectangular cotton cloth, usually white or chequered, about 2.4m by 1.2m, wrapped around the lower part of the body and tucked in at the waist to keep it in place. These days they sometimes wear modern European underpants underneath the wizrah.
Shape and design
Different styles and designs of the sirwal exist throughout the Arab world, but Emirati women only wear the longer style. The sirwal is loose-fitting pants with an ample crotch gusset and narrow legs. The lower legs are decorated with metal thread embellishments and can be any length between the calf and the ankle. The gusset is diamond-shaped and inserted lengthwise into the inside leg seam.
The sirwal is commonly made from cotton, and in rare instances from silk or satin. Where these expensive fabrics were used, it was usually only applied to the lower parts of the leg that might be visible under the kandurah. It has a loose cut – baggy at the thighs, narrowing from the knees down and tight around the ankles. The waist was pulled tight by wound threads of wool called nis’a, habchah or dakkah. Ankle fasteners are hand-made fabric buttons and thread loops. Shirwals meant for special occasions has embroidered cuffs at the ankles but those used for sleeping or house chores are plain and unadorned.
Three different styles of sirwals were used in the UAE pre-1980s. They shared the same style but had different decorations and functions:
- Sirwal bu chesfah had no embroidery at the ankle, was made from white or monochrome sadah cotton and was used as everyday wear.
- Sirwal bu teli was decorated at the ankles with metal thread embroidery known as teli and was made from cotton or silk. These were everyday wear as well but indicated the wealth of the wearer. Older women and young girls only added a few lines of teli to their garments while newly married women added elaborate teli embellishments.
- Sirwal bu badilah has an embroidered cuff that can be transferred from one pair of sirwal to another, using an old pair to decorate a new pair. The handmade silver thread teli embroidery was highly regarded and treasured.
This is the embroidered ankle cuff at the bottom of the sirwal. Designs may vary but they are all made with the same five basic components:
The bayit, meaning house, is the largest part of the cuff and can include twenty different embroidery stitches using up to forty-four different stranded threads. The stitched designs take their names from their shapes, indicating the intricacies of the designs.
Two traf (singular taraf). These are the edges or rims and borders the bayit. Sometimes it has a red or green trim between the bayit and taraf called shakil. The gitan is the lower taraf and the ghuli or minsharah is the upper taraf. Every component is made separately and joined later. The larger size badilah’s are reserved for special occasions, while smaller sizes are used for everyday wear.
During the early 1960s, the fourth type of sirwal was used made from white muslin. It was shorter and wider at the ankle with no need for buttons. The outer ankle edges were decorated with fine lace or crochet. It was known as shalsh and originated in Persia.
During the 1970s the sirwal’s original cut was changed to make it better suited for use under tighter-fitting European dress styles. This eliminated the use of cotton strings at the waist replacing it with a metal hook, then a button and later a zipper. The loose fabric was folded into pleats tucked into a waistband. This style became known as the Indian sirwal. In time the pleats were replaced with tighter fitting styles.
Over time the hand embroidered badilah was replaced by machine embroidered styles which could be produced faster and cheaper allowing for more variety. It also allowed more elaborate embroidery designs, spreading over the whole lower part of the sirwal. In the end, the whole leg of the sirwal was so stiffly embroidered that it became impractical and uncomfortable.
In the late 1970s, the taste for heavy embroidery declined and styles became more moderate using more refined colours. It was during this era that tailors started making kanduras and sirwals in matching fabrics and embroidery, creating sets.
In the 1980s the trend returned to plain white cotton sirwals under everyday garments and European dress styles, reserving the colourful decorated style for outings and with wearing the Kandurah Arabiah.
The introduction of western leggings revolutionised the custom of wearing a sirwal. Leggings became very popular as the tight fit and opaque colours made it practical and comfortable to wear under any style of clothes. It also became popular to wear underneath western style bathing suits, previously unthought of by UAE women.
The sirwal is mostly a thing of the past, only worn by the older generation, in more rural settings or as part of the traditional costume. However, the tradition of covering the legs remains and leggings serve as a good substitute – adhering to custom and fitting with a modern dress code.
To read the other posts in our series on traditional UAE dress here:
The Story of the UAE Thawb