Men wear an ankle-length shirt of wool or cotton known as a thawb. On their heads, they wear a large square of cotton (ghutra) that is folded diagonally over a skullcap (kufiyyah), and held in place with a cord circlet (igaal). The flowing, full-length outer cloak (bisht), generally made of wool or camel hair, completes the outfit. In the old days, the bisht was also used as a blanket while traveling.
Women customarily wear a black outer cloak (abaya) over their dress, which may well be modern in style. On their heads, Saudi women traditionally wear a shayla – a black, gauzy scarf that is wrapped around the head and secured with circlets, hats or jewelry. Traditional dress is often richly decorated with coins, sequins or brightly colored fabric appliqués.
Some Saudi women wear veils made of sheer material. The practice of wearing a veil is an ancient one that dates back at least two millennia, before the advent of Islam. In a harsh desert environment, a thin veil provides protection from constant exposure to the sun, which can damage the skin and eyes. Today, a veil is also a sign of modesty and virtue.
Jewelry has been an essential part of Arabian dress for thousands of years. More than just personal decoration, jewelry symbolized social and economic status. For the migrant Bedouins, it was also an easily transportable form of wealth and security.
Traditional jewelry was mostly made of silver, although gold was also used. Jewelers used stones such as turquoise, garnets and amber from the Kingdom’s rich mines, and pearls and coral from the coastal areas. Tiny bells, coins and chains were also used for decoration. Designs primarily evolved from Islamic calligraphy and motifs, and featured intricate patterns of geometric shapes, leaves, crescents and flowers.
Today, Saudi women still receive gifts of jewelry from their husbands when they marry or have children. Unlike their ancestors, who received large amounts of bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces as part of their dowry, modern Saudi women wear jewelry in traditional and contemporary designs with diamonds and a variety of precious metals. Solid gold bracelets remain a traditional gift for girls.