The attire of the United Arab Emirates, a land of scorching deserts, tells a fascinating story. It has evolved through a mix of Islamic tradition, ties with the British Empire and the Bedouin way of life. Culminating in today’s Emirati fashion. Come with me to discover the rich cultural tapestry woven into every garment.
The UAE’s national dress as we know it today is influenced by those three key elements. To understand how and why, let’s delve deeper into the rich history of the region and the Emirati dress. This journey will take us through the Arabic names for different types of garments and even some remarkable places in Dubai where you can try them for yourself!
As a spouse to a Saudi national and with Emirati friends, I made sure to speak to actual Khaleejis and dispel some of the myths along with correcting common mistakes when it comes to wearing traditional Emirati clothes.
Whether you’ve been curious about the name of the dress worn by the Dubai sheikh or want to know if it’s okay to wear the traditional attire of Dubai, I’ll cover everything for you below.
So let’s begin!
What is the UAE national dress for men?
The traditional dress for Emirati men is made up of four key items:
- Bisht – only for special occasions
The Kandura is the main part of Emirati male clothing, consisting of what can be described as a very long white shirt. The Emirati style has a low collar with a long plaited string that hangs down from the middle. This is combined with a large piece of white cloth placed on the head and held in place by a black ring called an agal on the top.
The Arab traditional clothing for men is pretty similar across the whole of the gulf with variations mostly involving the collar, as you can see below. Oman is the most similar to the Emirates however the strings, called tarboosh, are placed to the side of the neck.
Even for the rest of the Middle East, the Kandura is popular for men however the name does change with it being called a dishdasha or thawb. Only in the Emirates is it called a Kandura.
The Ghutra is the fabric that is placed on the head, traditionally in a white colour in the Emirates and folded into a triangle before being placed on the head. It can also be wrapped around the head in a turban style, nicknamed a hamdaniyah, without the Agal.
This fabric is called a Shamagh in Saudi and other Gulf countries but it is the same piece of fabric that can be either worn on the head flat or folded to create a turban style. It is also called a Keffiyeh in other countries in the Middle East.
There is also a small cap worn underneath to help keep everything in place called a Gahfiya (in the picture below). The Agal, sometimes spelt Igal or Egal, is the black band that goes over the top of the fabric as the final piece to keep the fabric on the head. There are many different ways to fold and style the fabric depending on the preference of the man.
The Agal also 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, in case you didn’t know!
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!
🐪 If you’re curious to learn more about the traditional culture of Dubai while in Dubai, I highly recommend this incredible 7 hour tour which showcases traditional Emirati culture along with a camel ride and desert safari 🐪
So why is the Kandura white?
It may seem impractical to herd camels while wearing white, but in the early days of Islam, Prophet Muhammad encouraged his male followers to wear white. This tradition has persisted in the Gulf region to this day, where men still wear white and is seen as clean, pure and modest.
What do men wear under the Kandura?
We know you’ve secretly wanted to ask this question! So we’ll give you exactly what should be worn underneath.
Men usually wear white boxers as they are less visible under white garments, coupled with long shorts or a fabric wrapped around the waist. This helps avoid an exposed undergarment faux pas.
On the top, it’s common to either wear a plain white t-shirt or vest under the Kandura also. 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! Also if you’re a tourist planning to wear one, make sure to take care of these details! I’ve seen too many running around Dubai Mall making this fatal faux pas. No one wants to see your underwear.
What is the history of the Kandura?
So while the Ghutra and Agal have a very long history with bedouins and also serve a practical side, the Kandura is a little different. UAE men are descended from Bedouin Arabs who roamed the deserts of Arabia.
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 history of the Kandura is unique. As you may have noticed, the modern version today looks similar to a tailored shirt at the top. The style was inspired by the British and Americans present in the region. As formal shirts were popular during this time. Especially in the 1960s when the popularity of tailours grew in the region.
The Kandura or Thobe (Thawb) before this era were often plain gowns and it was popular to wear a jacket over the top.
Is this also the Dubai traditional dress?
Yes, the Kandura is also the Dubai national dress and the national dress of UAE. Meaning it’s worn across the country in places like Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah as well as Dubai.
Dubai’s traditional clothing does not have a different collar or style to the other UAE dress. The colour differences you see in the Arabic Kandura dress are mostly a fashion choice however certain colours are more popular in winter with slightly thicker fabrics.
Variations of the Kandura
There are variations based on the seasons and slightly thicker fabrics are used during winter seasons along with different coloured Kandura, UAE is however 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 UAE traditional dress is made up of three key items along with an optional third:
- Burqu or Battoulah or Niqab
The abaya is a traditional long loose black cloak which goes over the clothes of a woman. It comes from Islamic principles which should hide the body shape of the woman to preserve her modesty. The Shayla is the black scarf which covers the hair and the Jalibiya is a colourful traditional UAE dress that is worn underneath. Finally, the Burqa in its traditional form is a gold mask, still worn by elderly Emirati women today.
Historically, it wasn’t always black and different colours other than black are gaining popularity in Dubai along with the rest of the Emirates.
The Shayla, also called a hijab, is a piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and covers the hair of the woman. In the Gulf, it is popular to wrap it twice around the head. It’s also popular in UAE for women to wear it quite loose and have a little bit of hair showing at the front.
The Battoulah or Burqu, in the Emirati dialect pronounced Burghu, is traditionally a metal mask or fabric that is made to look like metal. Worn to cover part of the face, mostly the nose, mouth and part of the chin.
Niqab, is a piece of cloth that goes over the face and has a gap for the eyes. It was very common for women to veil their faces in the past and you may see Emirati women wearing it today. However, in more recent times, it is becoming less common.
The names have evolved to have slightly different meanings over time, for instance, niqab would usually now mean the black cloth with an opening for the eyes while the burka covers the woman completely with mesh for the eyes.
In the UAE there is another part sometimes worn called a Gashwa, this is a hood that goes on the woman’s head and is typically worn with a niqab. Commonly the forehead is exposed and a veil covers the nose, mouth and chin. I’ve rarely these this one in Dubai but it can be popular in the more Bedioun areas of the UAE.
A Gashwa or Gishwa is not a niqab, it is the hood part. As other websites incorrectly suggest.
What is the history of wearing all black?
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 the UAE traditional clothes also include a colourful dress called a Jalabiya that typically 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 woman wants to go out, she just takes the Abaya and Shayla to cover over the Jalabiya. It is common in the UAE to buy as a pattern with the fabric and take it to a tailor to be made.
Now in modern times, many women 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.
I wear Jalabiyas pretty frequently and they’re so comfy to wear around the house. Plus it’s an easy choice if you’re working from home or a stay-at-home Mum. The perfect house dress!
If you’re wanting to buy a Jalabiya to wear around the house, check out Sivvi and use code DANNI for up to 30% off
FAQs about traditional dress in Dubai
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 Emirati traditional dress 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 UAE women dress like this today, particularly older women.
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 national dress for girls?
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 that incorporate this part of their cultural history too.
What is the UAE national dress for 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. You may see them wearing the ghutra with the agal but it’s more common in the style above.
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, abayas are ready-made and sold at various shops throughout 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.
Dubai men dress modest however this isn’t necessary for tourists visiting the UAE. To find out more about what it’s permissible to wear in Dubai, check out my article on the UAE dress code and what to wear as a tourist
Want to learn more about Dubai and the UAE? Don’t forget to check out my other articles after you’ve finished this one:
Learn even more about Dubai and it’s country with facts about the UAE
Where is Dubai? Why is Dubai so rich? The ultimate Q&A!
What is the UAE traditional food and where can I eat it in Dubai?
The Dubai Dress Code for tourists and how to dress when visiting Dubai
I hope you’ve learnt some more about the traditions and the culture of the Emirates through the UAE clothing! If you decide to try on some of the local clothes. Make sure to experience some of the Emirate culture during your time in Dubai with this amazing 7 hour tour in the desert which features Emirati traditions plus a camel ride and desert safari
Read more Visit Dubai Guides
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