Issue No.
152, December 2010 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Full-length dress, Al-Malak, circa 1885. Property of Jamileh Jacir (1872—1951). George Al Ama Collection.
Chest panel, Kabeh, circa 1887. The dress belonged to Sultaneh Mikel (1854-1925). George Al Ama Collection.
‏Bethlehem Woman: Photo attributed to Felix Bonfils – circa 1870. George Al Ama Collection.
Short jacket, Takseereh, first quarter of the twentieth century. George Al Ama Collection.

Bethlehem … An Icon of Fashion … The Paris of Palestine
By George Al Ama and Nada Atrash
Travellers and pilgrims to Palestine have admired and written of the beauty and style of Bethlehemite women, describing in detail their extraordinary costumes, one of which has disappeared and can no longer be seen. This article will bring to light the traditional fashion of Bethlehem ladies - a feast for the eyes of any visitor to this glorious town - and will take us back in time to discover the various components of these fascinating costumes.

Despite the controversy surrounding the origins of the Bethlehemite dress, the Byzantine, Canaanite, and Ottoman cultures have doubtlessly left their influences on Palestinian dresses, including the Bethlehem dress. This journey of evolution reached its peak during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a period that witnessed the flourishing of architecture and handicrafts, including mother of pearl, Dead Sea stone carving, and embroidery. During that period the art of embroidery and dressmaking had become a profession, and workshops started to produce various garments for visitors and locals as well; people from all over Palestine flocked to the town in order to buy these unique items of clothing that were produced by  Bethlehemite embroideresses. Also during this period an imitation of the Bethlehemite garments, rashek, became a trend to satisfy the desires of those who could not afford to purchase an original piece.

The uniqueness of the Bethlehem dress, which made it distinct from the rest of the Palestinian dresses that were famous for their cross-stitch embroidery technique, was the introduction of the couching technique that uses silver, gold, and coloured silk cords, tahreeri - a technique that involves twisting the cords into elaborate floral and geometric patterns, and that became known as Bethlehem Work, shoughul talhami. Chest panels, sleeve panels, cuffs, and side skirt panels were decorated with this embroidery and attached to festive dresses made from malak and ikhdari textiles. A veil, a headdress, a short jacket, and a dress were the four exquisite pieces worn by Bethlehemite ladies as they walked down the street, proud of their culture and identity. Each of the four pieces reflected their origin and social and marital status.

The Dress, Al-Thob: The first thing that comes to mind when the Bethlehemite dress is mentioned is thob al-Malak, or the royal dress: an A-shaped dress with long pointed triangular sleeves, tailored from locally woven textile (a mixture of linen and silk stripes). Taffeta panels were sewn to the sleeves and the skirt sides, which added to the royalty of the dress. The pièce de résistance of al-Malak is the square-shaped chest panel, al-kabeh, always embroidered separately and later sewn on to the dress. Composed of multi-layered taffeta pieces covered with embroidery, the chest panel is considered an amulet to expel the evil eye and protect the fertility of the married woman. The outmost frame of the chest panel always ended with a zigzag pattern, tashreefeh; the inner frame was always embroidered with either geometric or floral patterns separated by herringbones, manajel or sabalat. The internal square has developed from being totally empty to reaching its final form where the lower layers of taffeta can hardly be observed. The increasing density of embroidery over the chest panel reflects both the fine craftsmanship of the embroideresses and the prosperity of the panel’s owner. Religious symbols, such as the cross, were usually embedded within the pattern on the chest panels, sleeves, and skirt panels.

Al-Malak is the wedding dress, which was also worn on major religious feasts and special family occasions. A woman would always take care of her thob and store it in her trousseau chest. Bethlehemite women were finally buried wearing al-Malak, the dress that had accompanied them since their wedding day. While other dresses such as Ikhdari and Jiljili resembled other variations of the Bethlehem wedding dress, the Anbar dress was the most simple and the one that was used for daily life.

The Short Jacket, Takseereh: The waist length and short sleeves of this jacket were the source of its name, takseereh, meaning short in Arabic. The jacket was made at first from broadcloth or felt, but later on the velvet replaced the broadcloth even though the overall shape remained the same. The short jacket was decorated with heavy embroidery matching that of the dress, which usually reflected the prosperity of the groom who could afford acquiring it for his bride.

The Headdress, Shatweh: A crown that distinguished the Bethlehemite from the rest of Palestinian women, this fez-like headdress resembled a man’s tarboush and was worn by married women only. Densely embroidered and decorated with silver and gold coins given to her as a dowry on her wedding day, in addition to coral beads, the headdress was fastened to a woman’s head using a silver chin chain, znaq. Making the headdress required a group of women each specialised in making a part of the headdress, which was then assembled in its final form.

The Veil: In order to cover her head when a woman left her house, a veil was laid on top of the headdress hiding the fine craftsmanship and valuables. The earliest example of the veil, al-ghudtfeh, is a one-metre by three-metre cotton textile, heavily embroidered with colourful silk threads on four sides, and fringes hanging from the shorter ends of the veil. Unlike the development of the chest panel, the embroidery that framed the veil gradually became less ornate until al-tarbeeah became the common veil: a square plain white piece of cloth that contrasted with the dense embroidery of the chest panel.

The assembly of the four pieces together composed a harmonious symphony of rainbow colours, hiding in its folds the artistic touches of women competing with pride to reveal their talents, and reflecting both the beauty and prestigious status of the Bethlehemite woman, a dress that still lives in the memory and dreams of our grandmothers. The few pieces that survived, escaping burial with their owners, are either found in museums or kept in private collections.

The tradition of wearing al-Malak or the other forms of the Bethlehemite dress started to vanish in the mid-twentieth century and was replaced with European outfits. This article has hopefully served not only to bring back to the reader’s imagination the beauty of the traditional dress but also to encourage designers to re-introduce this beauty into the modern dresses of Bethlehem. 

All garments and photos are from the private collection of George Al Ama - Bethlehem.

George Al Ama and Nada Atrash are part of the Research and Training Unit at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem. Both George and Nada can be reached at
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