What exactly should be understood as Palestine is an extremely political question. The southern Levant was known as ‘Palaistine’ by Herodotus, while the Romans called it ‘Syria Palaestina’. One of the most important factors in the making of modern Palestine was the British Mandate of Palestine (1922-1948) and the subsequent designation of three-quarters of this area as the State of Israel. The ensuing Arab-Israeli War resulted in an exodus of Palestinians to surrounding countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where many were housed in refugee camps.
Violent clashes have marked the history of Palestine and Israel ever since. Since the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988, the ‘State of Palestine’ has referred to the West Bank and the Gaza strip, although many Palestinians feel this is only a small part of their country
The Palestinians have a rich dress tradition, especially when it comes to women’s clothing. Different regions, like Bethlehem, Ramallah and Bayt Dajan, had different traditions and more generally there was a distinction between urban, village and Bedouin styles.
Although other techniques of decoration were used, embroidery has been the most important since the second half of the nineteenth century. Little girls would learn their skills from their mothers, and embroidery was an important factor in a girl’s eligibility as a bride. The patterns and styles of the decoration on a woman’s dress reflected her background and social status.
After 1948, these traditions largely dissolved, but embroidery remained an important aspect of Palestinian identity. The 1960s saw the development of the six-branch dress. This dress, usually made from sateen or acrylics, was decorated with an embroidered chest panel and six embroidered bands running from the waist to the hem. These dresses were manufactured for the foreign market and tourists, but also became popular locally.
The same goes for the shawal dress of the 1980s, which consisted of pre-embroidered panels that were sewn together to form a dress with a sleeker silhouette than the traditional thob. Workshops set up in refugee camps by aid organizations played an important role in the rise of these new forms of Palestinian dress.
Embroidered dresses such as these have become part of Palestinian folklore and are now worn by older women, and by younger women forspecial occasions. During the first Intifada in the late 1980s some women incorporated signs of protest into the embroidery of these dresses, including the colours of the flag of Palestine, the Dome of the Rock, the dogtooth-check of the kufiya scarf, or the texts ‘Filastin’ or PLO. These dresses are also referred to as flag or Intifada dresses. They were not a widespread phenomenon, but forms of these are still produced, mainly to sell to members of the Palestinian community and Palestine-sympathizers abroad.
One other form of clothing closely tied up to the Palestinian identity is the kufiya scarf, especially the version with a black and white dog-tooth motif. The kufiya is worn throughout the Middle East, but has become associated with the PLO and the Palestinian cause since the 1960s, partly because Yasser Arafat made a point of always wearing one. It was worn to hide the faces of the stone-throwers of the first Intifada.
The scarf also found its way into Western fashion. First worn by anti-Vietnam protesters in the 1960s and Palestine sympathizers, it became a fashionable anti-establishment accessory in the 1970 and 1980s. It peaked in popularity just after 2007, when it featured on the catwalk as part of the ‘military chic’ trend. Subsequently it was adopted by high-street retailers – most notably (and ironically) by Urban Outfitters as an ‘anti-war scarf’.