Desert Duds: A Primer on Saudi Dress

In the U.S., the stock phrase trotted out anytime you need to remind people that deep down, kings and criminals and dishwashers and billionaires are really all just the same, is “We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”

thobesOops.

Kinda hard to sell the idea that it’s a small, small world when you’ve got a country out there where folks don’t even put their pants on one leg at a time.

But when you think about it, it’s a pretty weird way to divide people, isn’t it? Not that we haven’t been doing it since we made fun of the kid in third grade who wore a shirt with last year’s cartoon hero on it. It takes conscious effort to get over thinking that somebody who dresses differently than you really IS completely different from you.

So in the interest of improving global understanding, a few people at a time, a little de-mystifying seemed like a good idea. (Arab readers: forgive me for using these super annoying terms, but stick with me here–I’m trying to address the dumb stuff head-on and help people move people past it, okay?)

Those Nightshirts: Yes, most Saudi men and boys really do walk around every day in what looks to the Western eye like a Peter Pan nightshirt. This is not a national costume that gets put on for the cameras at special occasions. School, work, mosque, the mall, the hardware store buying light bulbs. It’s called a thobe (also thawb). Looks like this:

thobeThat’s the “Urban Jubbah Thobe.” The typical Saudi one doesn’t quite look like that–it has a two-button, stand-up collar–but when I saw this one came from the from Muslim Hip Hop Shop I had to use it. No matter the collar style, they’re far from nightshirts. In fact, you can get very spendy on thobes from Burberry and Versace. I’m way in love with the screenshot I got with a search for “designer thobes”:

Designer thobes screenshotAs you can see, they’re not just white, though that’s the overwhelming majority on the street. And in the summertime in Saudi Arabia, white only. Inside the windows of dry cleaners and men’s shops, solid racks of white. For some reason the thobe shops are always lit to about 10,000 candles and are downright blinding at night.

When it comes to thobe-wearing, I TOTALLY GET IT. In the summertime, my preferred uniform is dresses, which I accessorize with a necklace of pity for men wearing pants. What man, legs wrapped in separate columns of fabric all the way to the ankle, seams uncomfortably bunched at the crotch, belt at the waist, doesn’t wish he could be a LITTLE cooler, right? Something loose and breezy, just a light cotton brief underneath? Ahhh. And feet open to the fresh air, with nobody making fun of your mandals. Men in the West have missed the boat on summer wear.

Besides, no eye rolls from your wife about your choice of this shirt with those pants! Nobody snarking about your tie! No fail-dressing, right?

Not so fast. Even donning something so deceptively simple as a thobe carries fashion risks. For one, the pockets. Yes, men everywhere love pockets, and they’re all struggling with the amount of stuff our technological age wants them to carry. Man bag, or pockets stuffed like squirrels’ cheeks? So far, Saudi men are eschewing the man bag, and those bulging pockets at the side seams are not doing the look any favors. Unlike Western clothing equipped with a dozen secret compartments, thobes have only a slim breast pocket and the two at the side seam, and when you load those puppies up there’s just a lot going on. Time to man-bag-up.

Then you get tips like this, from the Shukr Islamic clothing blog:

Thobe pas number 1

Thobe pas number 2

So yes, men, it’s possible to go wrong, even in one-piece, one-color dressing, doggone it.

And thobes are not one-size-fits-all. The more you pay, the more tailoring you get (up to a point–no need to fear the fit-and-flare), but even in the most basic it’s possible to get it too tight. WAY too tight. As in everything, wearing the wrong size is not, in fact, slimming.

And then there’s the peacock factor. It’s certainly understandable to want to mix something up when you wear the same thing every day, but there’s definitely a point at which you’re trying too hard. (Refer to the “designer thobes” pictures above.) More common, though, is the opposite problem: Not trying at all. Women may dress for other women, but men are a lot less inclined to dress for other men. In a society where there’s no out-in-public wooing going on, no looking good to try to catch the eye of the ladies, you get a lot of slumpy and scraggly out on the street. A lot. I mean really–a lot.

As inviting as the thobe seems, Western men don’t tend to adopt it here. There’s a sense that it’s Saudi dress, and if this isn’t your natural habitat, it’s silly (and possibly offensive) to walk around as if you belong here. Let your Arab co-workers dress you up for a laugh, wear a thobe as a costume to a dinner among Western friends, but that’s about it. Come summer, you have to stick with those pants.

Those dishtowels: (Again, sorry–please stick with me, here.) As high on thobes as I am, I do not understand the headscarf. Generally, you see two varieties around here, the shemagh, which is red-and-white checked:

shemaghsAnd the ghutra, which is white:

A photograph of seven men in a group facing the camera. Two dressed in western cloths and four dressed in typical Saudi dress.

A stretchy crocheted cap is worn underneath to keep it from slipping, supplementing the rope (agal), not always worn but always black.

The headscarf (keffiyeh) served a valuable purpose in desert life, keeping the head shaded, the sun off your neck, and with loose ends you can wrap around your face when dust is blowing (which is often). Genius. I get it. Plenty of my Western friends have taken taken up wearing it on desert excursions. But for today’s city dweller, getting in a car, driving to the office, and driving back home again–the long end down your back, the drapes hanging at the sides and dragging over your shoulders–it would drive me crazy. Not that anyone’s asking.

shemagh at workAnd it’s complicated. I found this post on all the different ways to wear it. There’s such a thing as a “teacher” style? All I know is it seems every man wearing one is fussing with it most of the time.

Those black crows: (Forgiveness, again, I beg you. I have to work with what I’ve got.) And then there are the women:

abayasYes, that really is what I see walking around most of the time, with slight variations in the length of scarves and how the face covering is worn. Some wear gloves as well, and a veil completely covering the face. The gowns are black, unadorned, and often longer in the back so that they drag on the floor and ankles are never seen. The veil (hijab) is black, and the face covering (niqab) is a black rectangle with ties knotted at the back of the head.

niqabsThe intent of the abaya is to uphold the Arab Islamic tradition that unrelated men and women shouldn’t mix, and a woman shouldn’t be seen by a man not a member of her immediate family. In Saudi Arabia, however, it’s more than tradition. Here, religion is law, and all women are required to cover in public, whether or not they adhere to those religious traditions themselves.

Face covering is not required, and is a matter of family and traditional preference. In conservative Riyadh, it’s almost universal. The few Saudi women in Riyadh who have their faces uncovered are usually young and well off, products of progressive families and a Western education, and you find them clustered in expensive restaurants in the trendier parts of town.

The abayas favored by Western women tend more toward these:

abaya01 abaya02 abaya04

Black, but ornamented, with a little som’som’ going on. But not too much:

Abaya, over the topZowie. By contrast, this is me “dressed up” to go out to dinner, Saudi style:

Fancy abaya, ready for dinner outMy headscarf was tied to my purse, as usual. I’ve put it on only two or three times since I’ve been here, but always have it ready in case someone (an officer from the religious police) tells me to cover. Telling non-Muslim women to cover says a lot about the expectations for men, but for expat women the mantra is to not cause an unnecessary scene, so I’m ready to accommodate. And then unaccommodate when the busybody who spent the afternoon scribbling out women’s faces on detergent boxes is gone.

I realize we’ve crossed a line when “religious police” come up as I’m trying to elevate an often insulting Western vocabulary and de-mystify the unfamiliar. But if you think about it, the officer with his beard and his frown and his stick is really no different than the kid who relished being the hall monitor in elementary school, threatening to write up his classmates if they didn’t obey him when he said to walk. See? Deep down, we’re the same the world over, even if we don’t all put our pants on one leg at a time.

21 thoughts on “Desert Duds: A Primer on Saudi Dress

  1. Kurt K says:

    Margo,

    You look fetching in Saudi evening attire!

    Goodness. I believe in the late 70’s in Riyadh, I used to see Western women in town without abayas. Generally long skirts or long pants and often with arms covered but that seemed to fly at that time without undue pressure from mutawa’ah.

    Many times in Dammam, Hoffuf, or Kohbar I used to escort women, either girlfriends or just as often female secretaries, nurses or teachers into town for shopping because they could not drive and it was pleasant to go where they wanted, when they wanted and have a meal at the Bassam Oasis in the evening which served excellent Lebanese food and sometimes lobster. Some of the women who had grown up in the Aramco camps pushed the limits a bit but most tried to get along and dressed very modestly. We never had problems in those days.

    SA seems much harsher now as does the whole middle east.

    I was blessed to have one extraordinary experience in Taif on a long trip to the Western province which brought me right into the heart of hidden Saudi family life. It was a trip with 4 or 5 vehicles and was a trip with some families and some single men, all engineers that worked for Aramco. Just outside Taif, a GMC pickup had a rear wheel bearing fail and we sought assistance to get the truck repaired. We initially found a Palestinian mechanic who very soberly explained that on principle he would not work on American’s cars because of US support for Israel. We went on and eventually found a mechanic that would work on the truck but he had no parts. I wound up driving to Jeddah to get an axle, wheel bearing and seal but when I got there it was (as I remember) Presidents day and most of the GM dealerships were closed because Siera Amreka Hejazza Amreka (US auto, US holiday). I finally found a shop that had the bearing and the seal but no axle so headed up the switchbacks to Taif to arrive after dark.

    When I got to repair shop it was 8 PM and closed. A 10 year old boy met me in the street and called out Taal hinnah (come here). And I followed to one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

    What had happened during the day while I was down in Jeddah getting parts was that first the Palestinian mechanic had sent his son on foot 2 miles across town to find us and then offer to repair the truck and put all of us up for the night because he didn’t know we had women and children with us and was shamed to think that he didn’t offer shelter to vulnerable families in need.

    Prior to that, however, the wife of the Police Chief of Taif, observing the street and always in need of social contact, had sent her son down to my fellow travelers to first offer tea, then sweets, then dinner and a place to stay for the night.My companions went with the hospitality across the street.

    When I arrived there was a celebration going on the 2nd floor which was the Police Chief’s first wife’s domain. It was amazing, his son was there who did the lions share of translating, and his 2, 18 year old daughters, two sets of grandparents and his second wife, fat and happy along with 8 infidels. No veils, everyone mingled together, everything as natural as you will ever experience with friendly strangers on this planet. Pure kindness.

    We had a great meal, the patriarch, although distressed to find that there were single males among the western visitor raised no objections and was very hospitable. My close friend Tom and I spent more than an hour trying respond to every question posed by the curious daughters, translated by the son fluent in English. All of our party slept comfortably on foam mats on the 2nd floor that night while the extended family moved to accommodate us and into safe quarters.

    The next morning we were asked to stay another night, declined and after a breakfast of pita bread, olives, coffee and feta cheese we headed back home to the Eastern Province.

    So much to learn and see in this world.

    Kind regards,

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  2. JMZ says:

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    I am preparing to travel to Jeddah next month for a business trip. I know I will need an abaya for when I am out in public, but I am unsure of what to wear when I am in the office. I’ve been told I will not need to keep on the abaya while inside. Are skirts that fall mid-calf okay? Certainly anything tight is out, but can dresses have some shape to them? I am also wondering about footwear. Should I plan on hose and closed toed shoes or are dressy sandals okay for day to day (i.e. not formal meetings, presentations, etc.)?

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    • margocatts says:

      The safest course would be to plan on wearing an abaya all the time you’re outside your house/hotel/compound. I go nowhere beyond the airport exit in public without wearing an abaya. That said, Jeddah is far more progressive than Riyadh, where I live. Inside the office, things depend on who else is there and what the office environment is. Office policies vary widely (in those offices that have women in them at all!), and if you’re giving presentations in others’ offices it’s safest, again, to assume on the most conservative approach. If you have on fairly loose, drapey clothes underneath then at least you have the option to do without the abaya if you get the signal that it’s okay. I’d say to wear long sleeves, a neckline at the collarbone, and hem not too far above the ankle. Sandals are fine under an abaya, but if you’re doing without, bare legs and feet would make people uncomfortable. In general, I’d say to come assuming you’ll wear an abaya, always have it and a headscarf with you, and then follow what others are doing for the office. I wish I could be more helpful, but there’s no exact, fixed, published policy, so we do what the Saudis do anyway–try to fit in! Good luck!

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      • jessicanmadsen says:

        Thank you so much. That is very helpful! I would actually prefer to wear the abaya the constantly (since I’ll only be there for a few weeks) just to leave the decision-making out of it. I will be with some groups of only women at times; I think I am actually most concerned about what is appropriate to wear in these situations! Thanks again–I appreciate the inside scoop. 🙂

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      • margocatts says:

        If you’re with only women in a private setting, wear whatever you want! The abaya certainly makes it easy to be sure you’re not doing anything wrong while you check things out for yourself. Best wishes for a great adventure!

        Like

  3. s3odyia says:

    I think you are an ignorant dog. Who are you to mock our dressing (kitchen towels or black cows). At least we have self respect. Its a shame they let a woman like you in our country. silly cow

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Did you read the post, or just the headings? Pity, because what I was doing was not mocking, but using the terms westerners have in their heads to explain and de-mystify. I’m afraid the term “thobe” doesn’t mean anything to most Westerners, but for better or worse, when I say “nightshirt” they know right away what I’m talking about. After that’s clear, THEN I can explain. If the tables were turned and I had to explain women’s skirts to an Arabian audience, I’d probably say they were like futah, only sewn shut on the side. I think it’s hard for Saudis to understand how deeply misunderstood and mysterious their country is to Westerners, but that’s the consequence of no one being able to travel or film here. My posts are intended to explain the place to Westerners in the Western/American vernacular, in an effort to build bridges.

      Oh, and that was black CROW (again, the visual image people see on TV), as in one of very few creatures in nature that’s truly black all over, and which has no negative connotation, rather than COW, which is what you called me. The R you skipped over is important. But it looks like there was a lot you might have missed.

      Wa alaykum as salam, and best wishes on your search for enlightenment,
      Silly cow/ignorant dog

      And P.S., Perhaps my “Letter from Saudi Arabia: Why I Live Here” post might clarify things a bit.

      Like

  4. Roshan Mohamed says:

    Salaams
    I wear a veil, living in a western country i can understand this is how some people view us. I started to wear a veil in April 2003 if only I wore one twenty years earlier. You look stunning in your abaya. I have only been twice for Hajj and Umrah 1993 and 2015. The article on the people of Taif is Awesome. I have read before it is a very good place and that the people are very kind.

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      • Roshan says:

        Salaams
        Thanks for replying, i kept checking and waiting for a couple of weeks. No the above won’t seem pretty strange, don’t be afraid, trust me they would love it.
        I don’t speak Arabic i am Indian, i was born in India came to UK when i was 2. I wear English dresses with trousers not always the Abaya.
        Nice to know that you understand so much about our attire.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ahmad Saeed AlQahtani says:

    Quite good guide for Upcoming Westerners.. As Muslims and then saudis, we expect Expats to respect our rules, traditions, Muttawwa and all of our stuff just as we do when we are in USA or any other western country. Because Saudi Arabia is a lot different from other Muslim Countries.. It’s for Muslims as Vatican is for Christians.

    Expatriates should contribute to their full with authorities and specially Muttawwas in order to avoid any kind of problem.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! And that’s a really good way to put it. Travelers seem fine putting on a sarong when visiting a Hindu temple or not wearing shorts in a cathedral or putting on a headscarf in a mosque.

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  6. Ibrahim says:

    Saudi men DO put their pants on one leg at a time, too. Almost everybody wears elastic-waist pants under his thobe. I also don’t appreciate your referring to the shmagh as a “dishtowel”. You don’t have to get it. You’re a guest who applied to have the privilege of living in The Kingdom, not someone we begged to come “get” stuff or share your insights about them.

    The shmagh is a symbol of dignity for the wearer. If an Arab man came outside bareheaded, he would be lacking dignity. The cap on its own is seen as child-like. Anyone of maturity needs more than that to be dressed as an adult, just like in the west a man is expected to wear a jacket to a boardroom meeting or anything formal.

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    • margocatts says:

      Yes, of course I understand your problem with the “dish towel” reference. I hope you’ll understand that my intended audience is people who have only ever seen Middle Eastern dress on TV and don’t understand it, so I’m describing it in terms that they (unfortunately) use among themselves. Those who are accustomed to it perhaps don’t understand how exotic it is to those who aren’t.

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