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The historical evolution of the traditional Saudi Thobe

Columnist Abdullah AlKhorayef asks when does evolution become change?

Contemporary Thobe, bespoke made by Reem Alkanhal. Photography by Adel Rashid for Esquire Saudi

Okay, it’s confession time. I’m a little bit obsessed with the origins of the Saudi traditional Thobe. Ever since I studied ‘History of Style’ at London’s KLC School Of Design some twenty (!) years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of how Saudi men’s style could (or would) evolve in this new exciting age of the Kingdom.  

As it turns out, it’s a mammoth task. After much searching, there are very few resources documenting the history of the thobe, and the thousands of years of Arab history make it nearly impossible to establish a starting point.

There were many times I gave up searching, content to simply accept that what we wear in Saudi Arabia has its roots in early human inventions of clothing. Looking at what we wear traditionally, for both men and women, the silhouette has hardly changed for thousands of years—it is what Dr. Laila AL Bassam (the first Saudi professor to study the heritage of traditional Arab costumes and textiles in Saudi Arabia) calls “basic human design.”

In her research, she points to the Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332 –1406, 732–808 AH), who noted that over history humans developed two types of dress: one that is wrapped (‘Izar’) and one that is cut. The Thobe, which we still wear today, is the latter.

Obviously, over time these garments have been manipulated, changed, and morphed into different shapes, fabrics, colors, and sizes. They have become totally different garments in nearly every culture, whereas in Arabia, it has been less of a change and more of an evolution.

A drawing of Imam Muhammad bin Saud as envisaged by Manga Production in Riyadh.

We can trace what we think of as the traditional Saudi man’s dress back almost three centuries. In the book ‘History of Egypt under the Government of Mohammed Ali (1823) by Félix Mengin, he describes Imam Abdullah Bin Saud Al Saud—the last ruler of the first Saudi state— wearing what is not dissimilar to what we wear today. Should you want to see it, a mannequin of his dress is on display today at Turaif Palace in Diriyah—yes, the colors have slightly changed and the fit is more tailored now with the layers having been minimized, but this is not because of design, but rather modernization. Advances in technology has affected the functionality of our clothes—our homes are insulated, we have access to better quality fabrics, and we use washing machines to clean them—to a point of evolution.

That said, I still see the subtle evolution of the Saudi Thobe as less a physical one, but rather an emotional one. A need for identity. When you see a picture of the GCC’s modern-day rulers together, the layman will see them basically wearing the same thing. But we know each country’s subtle style of Thobe, Bisht, and Ghutra demonstrate the differences between them. These changes are not life necessities, they are identity necessities.

Trousers and shawl, both bespoke made by Reem Alkanhal. Photography by Adel Rashid for Esquire Saudi

As countries like Saudi continue to evolve so will its traditions. The recent uptake in how Saudi designers are reimagining female Abaya designs is already starting to find a footing in menswear. And while change in menswear has always been at a slower pace, the idea of modernizing is no longer seen as an affront to identity, but rather a celebration of it.



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