Palestine, dress, embroidery, fashion, ethnography, moesgaard museum, collections, colour, color, fashion

Threadened history: Palestinian dress

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Middle East

Threads in green, yellow, red, blue, pink, orange, all colours imaginable. Stitched into massive and connected patterns covering almost the entirety of the dark dress. Hands working over the fabric and the elegant embroidery thread for hours, days, years to make the dress more than a dress. Make it a story teller.

Palestinian dresses, such as this one from the Ethnographic Collections, are impressive story tellers. Their patterns can reveal whether the woman wearing it is getting married, who her family is, which village or region she is from, and where she has travelled. Daughters learn the patterns from mothers. Some women get their inspiration when meeting other women and their dresses on the street or when travelling to other cities.

Many patterns are repeated across dresses like ‘the tree of life’ visible at the lower half of the dress. ‘The tree of life’ is a typical pattern for women about to get married. The chest piece of the dress here is “recycled” from her mother, meaning that they share the same pattern. From the patterns, the ethnographers who collected and registered it in the collections were also able to place it geographically as the patterns on the shoulders are typical of Jaffa and Gaza. However, from the dark blue flax used for the dress, they became certain it was from Gaza as this kind of flax typically was made in this region.

Because of the political developments and the occupation of Palestine during the past 70 years, many of the dresses have perished. This dress was collected in 1930 by a UN peace officer stationed in Gaza, who picked it up as a souvenir in Jerusalem, but later gave it to Moesgaard Museum. The dresses are not nearly as visible as they used to be in the beginning of the twentieth century and jeans have come to substitute the dresses for many young women. While you may not see many women wearing the dresses today, cheaper versions made for tourists can be found in abundance in street markets in Jordan especially.

But some people are working to preserve this disappearing Palestinian tradition, craft and heritage. One of them is collector Widad Kawar, who has collected Palestinian dresses and studied the different embroidery techniques for the past 60 years. In 2015, she was part of founding the Tiraz Centre – home for Arab dress in Amman, Jordan. Here her large collection of marvellous dresses are on display and tell the story of the region through the narratives of the women who made the dresses. The centre also hosts workshops to pass on the craft to younger women, while working to preserve the dresses, headpieces, jewellery and other objects from the collection. Should you ever visit Amman, the Tiraz Centre is a true gem worth visiting!

Widad Kawar granted Moesgaard Museum three Palestinian dresses from her collection for Moesgaard’s exhibition “2000 års farvepragt” in 1991, bringing the total of Palestinian dresses in Moesgaard’s ethnographic collections up to eleven. Eleven important pieces of not just the history of Palestine, Gaza and Israel, but also very personal stories of the individual women and their everyday lives in the midst of these conflicts.

Curious for more? Read more in Widad Kawar’s book Threads of Identity (2010) – an account of the dresses in her collection and the personal stories of their makers.

//Katrine Mandrup Bach


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