As somewhere with a hot desert climate, the traditional dress of the United Arab Emirates combines its Islamic traditions, it’s relationship with the British empire and the practicality of the bedouin lifestyle
These three key elements have helped shape what we see as the traditional clothes of the UAE today. In order to understand how and why, I’ll delve in deeper about the history of the region and the clothes Emirati’s wear. Along with their names in Arabic and even where in Dubai you can get such clothes yourself!
So let’s begin!
Want to learn more about Dubai and the UAE? Don’t forget to check out my other articles after you’ve finished this one
What is the traditional dress of UAE for men?
The Emirati traditional dress is made up of four key items:
- The Kandura
- The Ghutra
- The Agal
- The Bisht – only for special occasions
The Kandura is the main piece of clothing, consisting of a long piece of white fabric. Like a very long white shirt. With a collar and sleeves that fasten. The Emirati style has a more open collar that ties with a plaited string, unlike the Saudi version with a high collar
The Ghutra is the fabric that is placed on the head, traditionally in a white colour and folded into a triangle before being placed on the head. It can also be wrapped around the head in a turban style without the Agal. There is also a small cap worn to help keep everything in place called a gahfiya
The Agal, sometimes spelt Igal or Egal, is the black band that holds everything in place and has a very interesting history! As it used to be used as a camel hobble at night. A camel hobble ties the front legs of the camel together
The Bisht is a decorative long cloak that goes over the Kandura and is only typically worn by those of high status and for weddings. This is how you can tell who the groom is!
So why is the kandura white? You may think, surely herding camels and so forth wouldn’t be very practical in white. Prophet Muhammad encouraged all of his followers in the early days of Islam for the men to wear white and this tradition has stayed in the gulf till this day
What do men wear under the kandura?
We know you’ve secretly always wanted to ask this question! So we’ll give you exactly what should be worn underneath
Men will typically wear white boxers so that they aren’t seen through the white material, followed by either long white shorts or a piece of white fabric that is wrapped around the waist. This is to ensure their underwear isn’t visible
On the top it’s common to either wear a plain white t-shirt or vest under the kandura. This stops the fabric from rubbing and chaffing and adds extra coverage. It also ensures the kandura looks nice and smooth over the body.
So now you know!
What is the history of the Kandura?
So while the Ghutra and Agal have a very long history with bedouins and had a practical side the Kandura is a little different
The long fabric of the Ghutra was able to be wrapped around the face to protect them from the dust and sand. While the Agal had a dual use, as it would be used to bound the front legs of the camel together called a hobble while they slept at night in the desert
The Kandura as you may have noticed is more similar to a tailored shirt. The style we see today is a modern invention inspired by the British empire and the shirts worn by those who came to the gulf region in the Victorian era. Thus the bedoin style was merged with British fashion to create the tailored style kandura today
Variations of the Kandura
There are variations based on the seasons and slightly thicker fabrics are used during winter seasons along with different colours however the UAE is still quite warm even in winter. So not all will choose to wear the thicker fabrics
You’ll also see different colour variations, the yellow colour was made popular by the ruler of Dubai; Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This colour wasn’t often seen before this
Other popular colours can be shades of blue or grey but the most commonly worn is the white colour
What is the traditional dress of UAE for ladies?
For women, the traditional dress is made up of two key items along with an optional third:
- Niqab (optional)
The abaya is traditionally a long black cloak that goes over the clothes of a woman. It again comes from Islamic traditions and is to cover the modesty of the woman, so it should be loose fitting
The shayla, also called hijab, is the piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and covers the hair of the woman. It’s popular these days in the UAE for women to wear it quite loose and have a little bit of hair showing at the front
The niqab is a piece of cloth that goes over the face and has a gap for the eyes. In the past it was very common for women to veil their faces in the gulf. However in more recent times, it is becoming less common
We’re not sure where the colour black came from but it is a more modern invention as we can see historically yellow and red were popular colours in the Islamic era according to Islamic texts
You can learn more about why women wear hijab in my previous article here
What do women wear under the Abaya?
So traditionally the women wear a colourful dress called a Jalabiya that has long sleeves and reaches the ankles or lower. The Emirati style has a decorated neck and this would be normally worn around the house
Whenever the women wants to go out, she just takes the Abaya and shayla to cover over the jalabiya. It is commonly in the UAE bought as a pattern with the fabric and taken to a tailor to be made
Now in modern times, many women choose to wear western style clothes underneath. Whether it’s comfy loose fitting trousers and a t-shirt or sometimes even pyjamas but shush don’t tell anyone
Who wears the traditional dress of the UAE?
So typically the Kandura is worn by Emiratis but it is also popular for those who enjoy living in the country or who have lived there for a long time to wear it too. You may find other nationalities when it’s a special occasion such as a wedding, jummah prayers, UAE national day or ramadan that they wear it too
The abaya and shayla is typically worn by women in the gulf region however many Muslim women regardless of their nationality will wear it here. It is still more associated with Khaleeji women in the style but again many women who have lived in the region for a long time will wear it too
Can tourists wear a kandura?
Yes there isn’t an issue for tourists to wear the kandura and frequently you will see tourists running around in them in Dubai Mall and locals are happy to share their culture for those willing to learn
Though of course be respectful in the clothes and remember there are Islamic values attached to those clothes. In fact many bars do not allow local dress and anyone who does wear local dress in such places is normally not an Emirati
What is the old UAE traditional dress?
The old traditional dress of the UAE is actually pretty different to the dress you see today, especially for women. The black colour is something which became more popular in the last 100 years
In addition to this, women often wore a gold mask over their faces and you’ll see this mask featured in cartoons for the UAE along with other items. Some older Emirati women still wear this style today
For men, they mostly dress the same but the kandura had a more loose style that wasn’t as tailored as the modern version today but white and light colours were still popular. Along with their long length
What is the UAE traditional dress for girls and boys?
For boys, the traditional outfits are super cute mini versions of the adult version. With a kandura and ghutra wrapped in the turban style
For girls, it’s different and involves colourful dresses with traditional Emirati patterns. Often they’ll incorporate the UAE flag colours or mix white, black, red and gold.
There is a traditional form of embroidery and each gulf region has a style or pattern of embroidery that is typical for their region. So sometimes you’ll see dresses than incorporate this part of their cultural history too
Where can I buy traditional clothes in Dubai?
There are lots of areas where you can buy traditional clothes and the shops are separated into male and female
For men, you’ll see large glass windows with the kanduras on manikins. There are some shops in Dubai Mall but you’ll also find loads in Jumeirah and Umm Suqiem in Dubai as this is an area where locals tend to live. Here in these shops, you pick what fabric you like and the kandura is tailored to fit the man
For women, most abayas are ready made and sold at various shops through out Dubai. Again you will find abaya shops in Dubai Mall and in places like Souq Madinat in Jumeirah. Make sure to haggle so you don’t get the tourist price!
If you’re wanting to get a good deal on an Abaya you can head to Abaya Mall in Mirdif or even Dragon Mart!
Is it okay to wear shorts in Dubai?
Yes, shorts are allowed in the UAE but it’s not typical for locals to wear shorts. For malls, the official dress code is shorts below the knee but the dress code is rarely enforced these days in Dubai with the exception of government offices
To find out more about what it’s permissible to wear in Dubai, check out my article on the Dubai dress code and what to wear as a tourist
I hope you’ve learnt some more about the traditions and the culture of the UAE through their clothes! If you decide to try on some of the local clothes, don’t forget to tag me on Instagram!