In Diriyah, the capital of the first royal Saudi dynasty, women from the Kingdom’s provinces display their rich and distinct traditional dress.
As the all-Saudi team – led by historian Dr Laila AlBassam and with photographer Hayat Osamah – maneuver around Diriyah to prepare for the Vogue Arabia December 2020 cover story shoot, they can’t help but marvel at one of the most significant cultural heritage sites in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Throughout its rocky topography and winding valleys and amid the mud brick former palaces of At-Turaif, Ghussaibah, and AlMulaybeed, a myriad of treasures await discovery.
As the capital of the first Saudi dynasty, Diriyah established what is known today as modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1744; it also united all corners of the diverse and culturally rich Kingdom. Since then, the Kingdom has been divided into five main provinces – Najd in central Saudi Arabia; Hijaz in the west of the Kingdom; the Eastern Province; and the Northern and Southern borders.
Given the Kingdom’s unique geographical location – occupying 80% of the Arabian Peninsula and surrounded by Gulf countries – its lands have been populated with numerous tribes impacting and stimulating the nation’s unique culture and aesthetic. Diriyah was the needle pulling its thread throughout the Kingdom, uniting the regions while honoring their cultural diversity. This diversity is evident within the variety of dresses that presently make up part of the Kingdom’s cultural DNA.
Nowadays, what is considered traditional dress in the Kingdom was deemed fashion to the generations that preceded. Like many contemporary designers, the Kingdom’s women used traditional techniques to forge identities of their own. They quickly found that the methods in stitching used to join animal skins together could be used for ornamentation and embellishment, and despite the primary function of their traditional apparel being protection against the relentless desert sun, the innovative women of the Kingdom found ways to balance function and fashion by communicating the stories and narratives of their tribes and regions through embroidery and embellishment.
AlBassam, one of the first Saudi women to study and document the Kingdom’s history through traditional Saudi costume and textile, explains, “Decorative embroideries and accessories have well-defined each region as its own, and through these intricacies you can tell a lot about the cultures they were influenced by and which tribes they came from.” She continues, “Whether it was a simple embroidered sleeve or a feminine-shaped design, they used their environments as their muse and canvas.” Accordingly, the differences in the positioning of appliqué and embellishment took into consideration both the tribe of the wearer and the temperature and topography of the region. Within the Najd region of central Saudi Arabia, intricate adornments made of gold and silver thread were placed strategically around the bust, neck, and sleeves of their traditional Thoub AlToor. Predominantly Bedouins, who were in constant movement under the overwhelming sun, the peoples of the region needed garments that were embroidered in parts that were exposed to direct sunlight to detract the harsh heat of Arabia. Their dresses were known for their massive wide sleeves with deep flaps that reached their hemlines and were designed in such a way to catch the breeze and trap body moisture. The Eastern Province incorporated similar features with the contrast of dress color. The vibrant tones of the region’s Thoub AlNashal were influenced by shades worn in India, from where many textiles were brought in by merchants returning from their voyages.
In the Southern region, Dr AlBassam explains that the Asiri Qatt – a geometric design in bright hues of red, green, blue, and yellow typically painted by women in the entrance of their houses – found its way into the region’s traditional dress over the years. The South’s Thoub Mujanab is elaborately embroidered with Asiri Qaat and cinched with meshes of silver at the waist. Occupied by mountainous terrain with a more temperate climate, the South’s dresses are both shorter and more fitted, yet the garments still drop easily over the head, being both mindful and modest. The Northern region of the Kingdom is known to have the most practical of traditional dress, sparsely embroidered with fine line stitching. Their Thoub Al-Midrgah is made much longer than the frame of the women wearing it and is hitched up in a deep fold at the waist to provide freedom of movement through the region’s towering peaks and plunging valleys. Known to be the most culturally diverse of the Kingdom’s regions, primarily due to being the traditional host area of all pilgrims to Makkah – many of whom settled and intermarried there – is Hijaz. The women of Hijaz had hundreds of distinctive traditional dresses depending on their lineage. One particular traditional dress, Thoub Mobgir, from Taif in the Hijaz region, combines practical patchwork, gold embroidery, and ornate headpieces. Albeit being incredibly diverse in technique and tradition, two things remain constant – modesty and ornamentation. Of the more than 300 types of traditional dress, depending on tribe, these are just some of the many skins of Saudi fashion, and they are what pave the way for future creations.
Presently, Saudi is at a pivotal point, where so much is being invested in preserving, protecting, and promoting its culture and heritage. In doing so, the country has developed initiatives with the aspiration of promoting culture as a way of life that contributes to economic growth and creates opportunities for international exchange. With 66% of Saudi’s population under the age of 35, it is no surprise that nurturing young talent is absolutely vital to the Kingdom’s goal of developing a thriving cultural sector and paving the way for future generations. One remarkable initiative that has come into fruition is the Cultural Scholarship Program, which launched in January 2020 under Saudi’s Ministry of Culture. The program aims to emphasize the importance of culture in improving quality of life, enabling national talents, creating opportunities for dialogue, and promoting the exchange of experiences with the world. Dr AlBassam recognizes that traditional dress and crafts are inherently linked to culture, and their need to preserve it – through documentation, engagement, and conversation – is what will give way to future artisans, which in turn will lead to the birth of modern Saudi fashion. As Njoud Alanbari, one of the women on these pages, compellingly states, “Tradition is imperative to the future of fashion because everything new must be inspired by something old, and tradition is a point of creation – the beginning and the foundation for anything novel.”
Originally published in the December 2020 Issue of Vogue Arabia
Makeup Aljoud Aldrees
Production KSA Aisha Almamy for Basamat Arabia
Production UAE Laura Prior
Photography assistant Abdullah Al Jahdhami
Production assistants Suhailah Almamy, Abdullah Alquayt