Despite the passage of time, Yemeni women in most areas continue to wear their traditional costumes, to which only a few modern improvements have
been made. While these costumes, which are practical and made to last, constitute an enduring symbol of the past, they are nevertheless animated
with a modern spirit and continue to thrive. As resilient as these traditional garments are, they are equally diverse across the country. Garments worn by
women in mountainous areas differ completely from those worn by women in coastal areas, which differ from those worn elsewhere.
By Najla Al-Shaibani
Costumes from each region have their own distinguishing characteristics. In the mountain areas, women’s costumes are hand woven with great skill. Generally woven from cotton, in primary colors- especially red, green, blue and yellow, with simple overlaps of white, there are usually embellishments in silk yarn, and especially gold and silver thread.
These costumes are decorated with coral beads, sequins, coins, and precious and semi-precious stones, including pearls. According to Amat Al-Razzaq Jahaf, a researcher of Yemeni traditional dress, in mountainous areas the women’s costumes are only decorated in the front and at the end of the sleeves. In the central highlands, costumes are characterized by dense embroidered areas that involve most of the dress, with simple decorative elements such as contiguous straight lines that are embroidered with cotton and silk yarn. Wool, cotton, linen and silk textiles as well as modern synthetic fabrics are used. The dress covers the whole body, with buttons for the opening at the chest and the long sleeves may end with closed cuffs.
Sometimes the sleeves are extremely long and reach halfway down the leg in length.
This is typical of a wedding dress; though the sleeves of a normal dress generally reach only the wrist. Costumes in coastal areas feature a lot of straight, parallel lines and are characterized by light colors, usually white. The dress is light and soft, owing to the extreme heat along the coast, and is embroidered on the front and back.
A second dress, made of mixed cotton and linen is worn over this dress, for occasions when the woman want to leave the house. This second dress is basically a large square piece of cloth, the width of the woman’s “wingspan” with sleeves as wide as the first dress is long. A head covering made of cotton and dyed red and black completes the outfit. Intricate embroidery is a major feature of practically all traditional Yemeni costumes. These days, garments are increasingly embroidered by machine; however, the practice of hand embroidery with needle and thread continues to this day. Most Yemeni women are keen to use colorful silk threads, either exclusively, or alongside metallic threads in gold and silver hues. The quantity of embroidery depends on the type of the costume and, more importantly, where it comes from. Using cotton yarn in embroidery is the norm in clothes worn in daily life–especially for women with lower income. Embroidered patterns vary widely and are unique by region, due in no small part to the practice of basing geometric patterns on the geographical environment where women live.
Women in desert areas are distinguished by a lack of embroidery. Instead, their black dresses are relatively plain, though their headpieces are elaborately decorated with small cowry shells that are affixed in intricate patterns. In the hills, silk, cotton and imported velvet fabrics are frequently worn.
Women’s dresses are shorter in the front reaching down to just below the knee, and are longer in the back, reaching to the ground. These dresses are embroidered with silvery lines overlapping with simple shiny lines that give the dress a wonderful faint shimmer. The costume is embroidered with shiny metallic strips around the neck, cuffs and chest, with a circularpattern in the center of the chest, from which a variety of lines that resemble intertwined branches emanate in all directions.
Sequins and shells are used as decoration, as are colorful cloth strips attached to the dress in different ways, creating a beautiful and unique patchwork effect. The wealth of Yemeni culture and tradition is beautifully reflected in the diversity of traditional costumes found in all regions of the country. It is encouraging that these costumes continue to be worn and are able to withstand the abundance of colorless, featureless garments that flood the market in every part of the world. Valuing this diversity and cultural heritage will help to ensure that Yemen maintains its unique character and flavor.