The clothes that the people of Saudi Arabia wear today have their roots in ancient history and are indigenous, having evolved over the centuries in response to the specific needs of the people and the challenges of their physical environment. These clothes are elegant and aesthetically pleasing to the eye while being highly practical.
Although regional styles featuring variations in design and ornamentation still exist today, the clothing of Saudi men and women has become more uniform since the formation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The people of the Kingdom prefer their traditional clothes to Western styles of dress and while they wear Western clothes while visiting abroad, they generally wear traditional styles or modern adaptations of age-old designs while in Saudi Arabia.
For men, the traditional clothing begins with the headdress, which consists of three parts. First there is a skull cap, known as the kuffiyah. Often embroidered, it is generally white, though other colors are also used. A square headcloth known as the ghutrah, folded diagonally to form a triangle, is worn over the kuffiyah. It comes in either white or checkered white and red. In the old days, Bedouins when traveling in the desert wrapped the ghutrah across their face, leaving a slit open for the eyes to protect against sandstorms.
A double coil made of black wool, known as the igaal, is used to hold the ghutrah in place. Its origin is believed to be the thick rope Bedouins used to halter their camels at night, and in day time for convenience it was wrapped around the head.
The main body covering for men is the thobe, which is an ankle-length shirt. Generally white, although other colors are also worn, it is often tailored with cuffs, a collar, two side pockets and often a breast pocket.
Although most Saudi men appear in public in the thobe alone, they wear a cloak, called the bisht or mishlah, over it while attending family or official functions and ceremonies. Generally beige or light cream, brown or black, the bisht or mishlah is embroidered along the edges with gold thread. In ancient days, it was used as a groundsheet or a blanket when sleeping in the sand while traveling.
In summer Arab males wear thin cotton versions of the kuffiyah, ghutrah, thobe and the bisht or mishlah, and in winter thicker wool ones.
The clothes that Saudi men and women wear in the heat of the summer desert help trap air and moisture, preventing the body from overheating and dehydration.
The most distinctive, at least to foreigners, feature of an Arabian womanís attire is the headgear. Like the menís, womenís costumes derive from practicality, although aesthetics also play an important role.
While in public, all Saudi women wear a scarf, called a shayla or tarha, to cover the hair. When leaving the home, women wear the abaya, which is a full-length black cloak often embroidered at the hem.
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. For women living in a harsh desert environment where constant exposure to the sun can cause damage to the skin and its constant glare can have a detrimental effect on the eyes, wearing a thin veil is a practical measure. Over the millennia, wearing a veil has also become a sign of modesty and virtue for women.
Others, such as rural women in southwestern Saudi Arabia, wear hats made of palm fronds over a scarf while outside the home. A small minority of women, largely in the rural areas, wear masks with a slit for the eyes. These masks are often lavishly decorated with bead work, silver jewelry and embroidery.
Today, Saudi fashion designers mix traditional designs and styles with more contemporary outfits to create clothes that both preserve age-old traditions and are practical for modern women.