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Traditional costume is part of Saudi Arabia’s national folklore and is therefore an important part of the country’s history. Indeed, it still influences the way in which young people dress today, mixing modern fashions such as jeans with more traditional colours and patterns which have been part of the Saudi culture for centuries.

The clothes that the people of Saudi Arabia wear today have their origins thousands of years ago, when the country traded with countries such as China, Egypt, India and Greece for cotton and silk. These loose, flowing garments are still the most practical clothes for wearing in the heat. Both men and women cover their heads when outdoors, both as protection from the burning sun and also for religious reasons. Saudi clothing is always respectful of Islamic values – modesty is important at all times for both sexes.

Men today

Saudi men traditionally dress in a thobe or dishdasha , a long-sleeved ankle-length, loose garment, buttoning from neck to waist. Thobes worn in the summer are made from cotton and are either white or light brown in colour, to reflect the heat and keep the wearer comfortable. Winter thobes on the other hand are made from wool and tend to be darker in colour.

The head-cloth worn by men is called a ghoutra, used to keep the head cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Traditionally, it was a useful item of clothing for desert life, wrapped around the face to protect the eyes and mouth during sandstorms). The ghoutra is folded diagonally and worn over a white knitted skull cap called a tagiyah. It is kept in place by wearing a double black cord called an akal, wrapped around the head. The ghoutra may be made of silk but more frequently will be white, or red and white checked, cotton.

Women today

Many women in Saudi Arabia today wear western-style clothing such as jeans and T-shirts. However, Islamic values of modesty are always observed and this means covering the limbs and the head – sleeves or trousers are long and necklines not too low. Outside the home many women wear an abaya, a long, usually black garment which covers them from neck to floor. A Saudi woman will always cover her head when going outside with a scarf.

Some women wear a mask to cover their face, called a Shiyla. The Shiyla is black and is draped around the face, left loose at one side, allowing the face to be covered or uncovered as required. Women who live in the desert wear the Borgga’a, a black face-mask made out of thin cotton. This may be either plain black or decorated around the edges with gold thread or beads.

Women may also choose to wear the traditional thobe , like men, or a fustan, which is a long-sleeved, ankle-length, loose dress made of silk or cotton. The neckline and front opening can be decorated with gold threads and colourful beads but may be left plain.


Jewellery has been a part of Arabian dress for thousands of years, often embedded with beads, coins, precious stones and even coral from the sea. Nowadays gold and silver are the more usual choice of materials and a wide range of jewellery is available in the shops of Saudi Arabia.

Arabian women love their jewellery and it holds special significance for them as it was traditionally given as part of the dowry* for a girl getting married. This jewellery remained the property of the girl throughout her marriage, which meant she had money of her own for emergencies, should this be needed. However, jewellery was also popular with men in the desert tribes of Saudi Arabia.

Ear piercing and nose piercing, now modern western fashions, have been popular in Saudi Arabia for centuries. Traditionally girls would have their ears pierced at birth. Ear piercing was also popular amongst men in the desert tribes, who would wear a silver earring to show their status.

*A dowry is payment made by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, for taking their daughter in marriage.


Henna tattoos, very popular in western culture at the moment have, been part of life for women in Saudi Arabia for centuries. Henna is made from plants and dried red berries, which is what gives it its the distinctive browny-red colour. The berries and leaves are crushed and mixed to form a paste, which is then painted onto the skin in intricate patterns or can be used to dye the hair. Henna tattoos are a traditional decoration at religious festivals, particularly for the bride.

Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.

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