Beyond aesthetic resonance, traditional garments have a way of preserving ancient narratives and of weaving them into the new ages. This is the wealth of time-honored design. In this ode to craftsmanship, Vogue Arabia lends its pages to the reflections of three regional royals – Oman’s HH AlSayyida, Meyyan Shihab Al Said, Saudi Princess HRH Nourah Alfaisal, and Bahraini Sheikha HRH Dana Al Khalifa – who share the memories and mastery behind the garments that have nurtured them.
Her Highness AlSayyida, Meyyan Shihab Al Said, of Oman
Oman is renowned for the richness of its 11 regions – each with exquisite landscapes, climates, and traditions of their own. Accordingly, each one holds its own style of dress, representing the distinct tribes living within them. As a native of the Muscat area, Her Highness AlSayyida, Meyyan Shihab Al Said, notes it to be “the most multicultural region of Oman” and a destination that boasts “natural and architectural beauty.” Photographed by the coastal Mutrah Fort, the chosen dress worn by HH Meyyan Al Said evokes a tribute to the country as a whole. A similar design is traditionally worn by brides in the region, in a deep emerald green tone, alluding to notions of abundance, new beginnings, and growth. “To wear this means to represent and celebrate all the women of Oman,” she expresses. “I feel a sense of pride whenever I wear this dress. It reminds me of how my mother, grandmother, and great grandmothers wore this. The dress brings me joy, knowing that we still carry on with our traditions and continue to wear these garments today.” Such outfits are mainly worn during special occasions in the region, which is why they prove so dear to her. “Our mothers and grandmothers used to wear these clothes, much more toned down and less elaborate, on a daily basis,” HH continues. “It’s what gives Omani women our identity.” Designer Nawal Al Hooti demonstrates unique precision, along with a thorough understanding of the required proportions necessary for the two-piece garment. She maintains the original form as much as possible, adhering to the true Omani dress design worn by many generations before. The pattern work is what lends these pieces a personalized touch, however. Al Hooti has fashioned these in geometric forms, simplified and minimal in style, as opposed to the very traditional motifs that sway more towards the intricate and floral. Omani dresses are generally decorated with the brightest colors, patterns, and hand-stitched embroidery. The top forms the main element of this ensemble – complete with pants known as the sirwal. There are also two types of head pieces that are worn; a scarf wrapped around the head, called a waqaya, and a large head shawl known as the lahaf. Almost every child in the country wears this dress for the first time when she turns one, evoking a somewhat initiation as an Omani girl. As Her Highness Meyyan Al Said suggests, it “welcomes her with grace, beauty, and femininity.” There is also a specific set of jewelry that is only worn with this type of Omani dress, which appears in gold or silver. The head pieces are known as the shambar, ghos, and iqam. As for the neck, a long necklace with an elaborate pendant called the muriyah is worn. “We also wear two sets of large bangles on the wrists called mushawak and timbee. Sometimes some anklets are worn too, which are called hawajeel. Basically, the jewelry for this type of garment is very special, and can be either gold or silver.”
Her Royal Highness Princess Nourah AlFaisal, of Saudi Arabia
As founder and designer of Nuun Jewels, and more recently the new CEO of Art of Heritage, Saudi Princess Her Royal Highness Nourah Alfaisal has a particular sensibility towards the craftsmanship of traditional wear. Photographed in Adhlal, Abi Al Karam, Riyadh, she expresses, “I feel proud whenever I wear traditional Saudi clothes. They are beautiful; they represent a heritage and culture that is now being celebrated in the best way possible. We see this in how people are wearing traditional clothing for the founding day, and at events like the Saudi Cup.” The thobes she wears are made by Art of Heritage, a social enterprise that she has often been associated with in one form or another. “As a teenager, I used to volunteer with them regularly. They focus on the preservation of Saudi heritage and craftsmanship through fashion and objects like pottery. They also hold the largest collection of comprehensive Saudi heritage items, with over 57 000 pieces.” HRH Princess Alfaisal is now at the helm of the enterprise, under the leadership of HRH Princess Basma bint Majed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. “I have always worn thobes from AOH for Eid and for family celebrations,” she recounts. “The beautiful regional embroidery is so intricate and on a par with any international haute couture. It makes me proud to represent and celebrate Saudi Arabia in this way.” The thobes she wears are traditional Najdi cut thobes, with the neckline for both, originating from the Banu Tamim tribe. The flower embroidery on the sleeves and chest of the green garment is known as the shalki. “Having been born and living in Riyadh, both pieces represent my region, however I truly feel a kinship to all the regions in Saudi Arabia.” The ornaments worn by the royal are part of the Jewels of Arabia collection, from a collaboration with Yasmeen Marzouq Jewels. Nuun Jewels and Marzouq merged their design skills to create pieces depicting the culture and architecture of five ancient civilizations. The jewelry line offers a glimpse into the past, paying tribute to the Arabian Peninsula’s historical treasures. The concept behind the collection was to use the ancient Arabian kingdoms that existed in what is now the Saudi area as inspiration. As the Princess reflects, “I loved this project and found it both inspiring and rewarding. I am proud of the pieces we created.” The collection also highlights the ingenuity of ancient craftsmen, and aims to ensure that historic archaeological finds are remembered through jewelry. “The beauty is in every region,” the royal expresses. “Saudi Arabia is so varied; it changes from region to region both geographically and culturally. I think that is what makes it so special. I look forward to the world seeing that and falling in love with every part of it. But I have to say, what makes it the most beautiful to me, is the people.”
Her Royal Highness Sheikha Dana Al Khalifa, of Bahrain
“In the past, traditional wear was the equivalent of haute couture,” says HRH Sheikha Dana Al Khalifa. Photographed at the Riffa fort in Bahrain, she notes that “each piece made was unique to the person, from the colors to the motifs on the garment. Everything in traditional wear is made in a special way for that one person.” The craftsmanship behind the garment she wears, known as the Dara’a, is by Mohamed Saleh Al Zari, who is one of the most renowned traditional-wear crafters of modern times, just as his father was before him. The Sheikha’s grandmother had sent her to him when she asked to create her own collection of traditional wear. Worn by young girls and women in the Gulf region, it is combined with an added layer, called a thobe; an ensemble worn to evoke notions of beauty and womanhood. As narrated by her dear cousin, Sheikha Mariam bint Hesham, “The tell on how expensive this piece is, is the finished embroidery around its extremities.” She reflects on the embellishment down the shoulder and arms of such garments, noting, “The heavier the embroidery, the more expensive it is.” On the cultural significance of such garments, Sheikha Mariam insists, “We do not exist in a vacuum, these clothes are not country specific. Zari is the link between many Muslim countries, as it traveled through much of the Islamic Empire. Historically, Bahrain was a great port and a trade route and that is how these treasures passed through to us.” This is a sentiment echoed by Sheikha Dana Al Khalifa herself. “In this highly homogenized global world we live in, wearing this makes me feel Bahraini. I have a strong sense of identity and as I mature, it is more and more apparent. I am first and foremost an islander. This is a trait that defines me so deeply. I am from Bahrain. As a mother, I want my children to have as strong a sense of an identity as I do. This piece really is an ode to who I am and where I am from. Who are we if we do not know where we come from?” The headscarf she wears is one of her dearest possessions, as it belonged to her own grandmother. “It is truly a gift. The scarf is black tulle with hammered silver. It is heavy and the smell reminds of Eid, of my grandmother, and of very happy times from my childhood. Every Eid my grandmother would be ready at 5am, waiting for us, the celebrants, in her embroidered thobe. As she would hug us tight, we would smell her Taifi rose, mixed with the smell of the gold thread. She would give us four red crisp dinars and send us off with Ghandour gum in a jelly pouch with fake sand and jelly water. Magic.” Naqda refers to the art of hammering silver onto fabric. The art is currently facing a huge revival after a slump in the 90s. Hammering naqda is typically women’s work. The Awal Society in Bahrain has helped female naqda crafters to sustain themselves and gain independence through their work and their craft. “The names of these patterns are flexible,” says the Sheikha. “But I heard a reference somewhere that it is called Rash Al Mattar, or ‘scattered rain,’ which I find beautifully poetic.”
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia