Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Prior to 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, Arab society in Palestine consisted of three main groups - the townspeople, a small percentage of nomadic or semi-nomadic bedouin tribes, and the villagers or "people of the land" who made up three quarters of the population. Over eight hundred villages were scattered from the coastal plains to the Jordan River. While costume in the urban regions historically reflected the current occupiers of the country (for example, Turkish styles during the Ottoman period, and European fashions under the British Mandate) Palestine's many villages were economically and socially independent, and difficulties in communication and environment produced strong individualistic traits within the communities: different dialects, different crops and food, and different clothing. From these villages developed the traditional styles of Palestinian dress that form the background of my paper today.
Before the events of 1948, traditional costume for village women in Palestine was regionally and stylistically diverse, with great emphasis placed on ornamentation. Designed from the finest of fabrics, both locally woven and imported, Palestinian costume was traditionally embroidered and appliqued, each garment becoming an individual work of art. Women's costume also contained an intricate communication system expressing the wearer's status, wealth and geographic origin by means of their style and decorative elements.
To fully appreciate the exquisite costumes worn in the first half of the twentieth century I must refer you to seminal publications such as Shelagh Weir's 1989 Palestinian costume (British Museum) and to the website and travelling exhibitions of the Palestine Costume Archive. Very briefly (and drawing primarily from Weir) historically both Palestinian bedouin and village fellahin women made their own costumes, learning to embroider as early as the age of eight. Embroidery played an important part in village life, and was thought to reveal a woman's character and personality as well as reflecting her economic status. Embroidery colour preference was primarily linked to regional identity, with Palestinian embroidery possessing a complex colour language. The main embroidery stitches used were cross stitch and couching, worked with floss silk. Each embroidery pattern was named, with geometric and abstract designs being supplemented by curvilinear and representational motifs introduced by European missionaries and educationalists after the 1930s. Embroidery motifs also reflected the political environment of the time. For example, the Pasha's Tent pattern first appeared at the time when the region was ruled from the Ottoman Court, while the Officer's Pips pattern was adopted during the British Mandate, imitating British military symbols of rank. Thus embroidery acted as a symbol of evolving Palestinian identity by historically recording individual interpretations of the political and cultural events that touched the lives of Palestinian village women.