Aisa Martinez, Project Curator at the British Museum, presented an interesting and enjoyable talk on Dress and Identity in the Sultanate of Oman to a large audience at the MBI Al Jaber seminar room on Thursday 28th April. Her presentation focussed specifically on men’s national dress and identity, as this symbolises and embodies Omani identity, while Women’s dress has evolved to include modern western influence. Aisa also demonstrated how, throughout the different regions of Oman, there is clear diversity in traditional styles indicating transnational connections and influences.
The styles, material and colours tell the stories of those who wear the clothes and who made them, as well as whether they were locally produced or imported. There is also visible evidence of Oman’s historic Indian Ocean Trade Links. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman (as it was then called) was the apex of a trading empire attracting connections and influence from outside the immediate region. It is only since the latter half of the twentieth century, however, that a person’s regional or ethnic origin has been recognised as an important marker of their identity. The impact of oil discovery and wealth, combined with increased western influences, have contributed to Gulf citizens feeling a need to reassert a united identity, distinguishing between citizens, non-citizens and nationals from each of the different states. The most visible product of that is the wearing of national dress.
The influence of African, Indian and Arab can clearly be seen in the traditional Omani ‘uniform’ of dishdasha and kuma. A dishdasha is a long, usually white, robe traditionally worn by men in the Middle East and a kuma is a form of headdress and a large part of Omani men’s national dress. Omani men working in the public sector wear the white dishdasha but men working in the private sector may choose to wear white or another neutral colour. Embroidery in silk and cotton threads decorates the neckline and brighter bolder colours of dishdasha can be worn for formal occasions.
With reference to the Sultan of Qaboos, a creator and leader of modern Omani national identity, Aisa explained that Oman is the only country in the Arab Middle East to incorporate the kuma into their national dress. The kuma is a specifically sized hand-embroidered cap that has small holes throughout the embroidery which help keep the head cool in the hot Omani sun. Each man has a signature style of design, which is usually developed while still at school. Beautifully embroidered materials are used, both machine and handmade, mostly of cashmere wool, which is surprisingly practical and a good insulator against both heat and the cold.
Women’s dress, Aisa informed us, also reflects the country’s geographical and cultural diversity. As with men’s dress, there are differences in colour and style with influences from Africa and South Asia. Women’s outfits appear in a variety of colours but their dishdasha are never white and the main decorative areas are on the chest, sleeves, hemline and ankle cuffs. The women’s dishdasha is shorter than the usual full-length men’s, allowing for tapered trousers to be worn underneath.
Aisa Martinez’s presentation was extremely interesting and certainly whetted everyone’s appetite for learning more about fashion and identity in Oman, the social lives influenced by men’s and women’s choices, as well as Omani cultural and historical connections.
The next lecture in the 2015/16 MBI Al Jaber lecture series is on Thursday 26th May, when Professor Michael Kerr will be speaking on Understanding Syria’s Civil War.