Arabian Culture and Dress

The romance of a desert oasis, the clear starry nights and the allure of a hidden veil all put together can be summed up in one phrase – the Middle East.

Arab culture is more or less also known as an Islamic / Muslim culture. Prior to the revelation of Islam in the 6th century the Arabs had a different way of life than is presently know today. What we see today is the fusion of religion and culture finely interlaced.

With the rapid expansion of the religion Muslims from all over came into contact with, and assimilated from, Persian, Turkish, Mongol, Indian, Malay and Indonesian cultures.

A brief video on the history of the Middle East

A “tourists” introduction to the Middle East

Arab Origins

The Arabs ethnically are one people but were composed of two culturally opposite groups: nomadic and sedentary Arabs. The harshness of the environment forced on Arabs a nomadic, tribal existence for some of them. The nomadic Arabs, called Bedouins, moved their herds in search of scarce resources and water. Trade was the major form of livelihood for these tribes.

The Bedouin are the Arabic speaking nomads of the Middle East who have proudly maintained their pastoral way of life over thousands of years. From the Arabian Peninsula, their original home, they spread out into other lands and now live in the desert regions of all countries between the Arabian Gulf and the Atlantic. Recommended reading: The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.

According to Arab tradition they are descendant from two main stocks: the first settled in the mountains of Southwestern Arabia (the Yemen), claim descent from Qahtan (Yoktan of the Bible) and became known as Yemenis. The second settled in North-Central Arabia, claimed descent from Ishmael and are called the Qaysis.

Prior to the advent of Islam the history of Arabia is very scarcely known. Find out more in the book Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times.

Popular Books on Islamic Dress

1. Islamic Dress: Hijab, Veil, Burqa, Hijab by Country

2.On the Islamic HIJAB by Murtaza Mutahhari

3. Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith by Emma Tarlo

4.Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Arab Geography

Where is Arabia and how much land does it take up?

The Arabian Peninsula is a peninsula in Southwest Asia at the junction of Africa and Asia consisting mainly of desert.

The coasts of the peninsula touch, on the west, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba; on the southeast, the Arabian Sea (part of the Indian Ocean); and on the northeast, the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Persian Gulf.

Geographically, it merges with the Syrian Desert with no clear line of demarcation.

Politically, the Arabian peninsula is separated from the rest of Asia by the northern borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The following countries are considered part of the peninsula Bahrain — an island just off the coast of the Peninsula, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Arabia has few lakes or permanent rivers. Most are drained by watercourses called wadis, which are dry except during the rainy season. Wherever water surfaces from the ground reservoirs oasis form and permit agriculture. The climate being extremely hot and arid, the peninsula has no forests, although desert-adapted wildlife is present throughout the region. The narrow coastal plain and isolated oases, commonly amounting to less than 1% of the land area, are used to cultivate grains, coffee and exotic fruits. Goats, sheep and camels are widespread throughout the region.

Arabian Clothing and Fashion

The Arabs of today wear pretty much similar clothing than they used to wear since pre-Islamic periods. Women may have undergone some changes considering the covering up of the head. Traditional Islamic wear for women includes the abaya, the chador, and the burqa, as well as countless other forms of dress and headcovering.

Abaya Collection, Fashion Show

The women wear a variety of different ensembles to cover themselves.

The Jilbab


In modern day usage, jilbab refers to a long, flowing, baggy overgarment worn by some Muslim women. The modern jilbab covers the entire body, except for hands, feet, face, and head. The head is then covered by a scarf or wrap, known also as a Hijab.

It is not clear that any Muslim women wore jilbabs in the long centuries between the early Muslim period and the 1970s.

The Burqa

A burqa is a type of opaque veil sometimes worn in addition to a headscarf by Muslim women observing purdah. There are various versions of the burqa according to different regions in the muslim world. In Arab terms the burqa is generally black in color and is of ankle length, if not longer. The arms are then put through two holes with the front open and just layered over one another and held together with their hands.

In some parts of the Muslim world the burqa may also cover the entire face with a see through veil over it, although not necessary by the religion some very conservative regions observe burqa this way, example in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule.

The Abaya


The abaya is an overgarment worn by some Muslim women. It is the traditional form of hijab, or Islamic modest dress, for many countries of the Arabian peninsula. Traditional abaya are black, and may be either a large square of fabric draped from the shoulders or head, or a long black caftan.

Today abaya’s are cut from light, flowing fabrics like crepe, georgette, and chiffon. They are now made in colors other than black.

Popular Books on Islamic Dress

1. Islamic Dress: Hijab, Veil, Burqa, Hijab by Country

2.On the Islamic HIJAB by Murtaza Mutahhari

3. Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith by Emma Tarlo

4.Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Various Kinds of Veils


The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women.

These scarves, regarded by many Muslims as a symbol of both religion and womanhood, come in a myriad of styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.


The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.

The burqa is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through.


The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and an accompanying tube-like scarf.

The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.


The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.

The chador, worn by Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.

Images and Information courtesy

Fashion Today


If you have ever visited any of the Middle Eastern countries you will find that some countries like UAE, Bahrain, Doha, Jordan, Egypt do not have strict rules about women’s clothing conduct in public. Saudi Arabia and Iran are known to have some of the strictest rules when it comes to public etiquette for women’s clothing. In private though women are known to flash their local or foreign designer goods with pride.

It is quite normal to see women and men of all religions in some muslim countries dress as they please but with a certain level of covering up that is expected of them. For instance if you do go out it is not recommended to have bare shoulders, navels, or excessive tight clothing. Mini skirts and shorts will attract unwanted attention and is generally frowned upon. The general rule is to be comfortable but suitably attired with a higher level of decency to the clothing.

Top fashion labels from Gucci, Chanel to Diesel have set up shop in many Middle Eastern countries as the women and men have become more conscious of their looks and do not mind spending for designer prices. Some countries like Doha and the UAE are building their economies on trade and tourism rather than oil, so they have started to adopt a more westernized approach to promoting their countries by their beaches and sand dunes.

The mystique of Arabia is definitely an inspiration for many designers around the world, as they try to think of new ways to make a stride into the Muslim culture and make fashionable clothing according to the religion of the location. Swarovksi crystals seem to be the new favourite glamour quotient as it is easily applied and provide the oopmh factor that many women want on their burqa’s or abaya’s.