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Kiswa al-Kabira

Skirt of a kiswa al-kabira, Morocco, acquired in 1969. Skirt of a kiswa al-kabira, Morocco, acquired in 1969. © Trustees of the British Museum, London, acc. no. Af1969,04.1.

The kiswa al-kabira is an elaborate outfit worn until the mid-twentieth century by wealthier (Sephardic) Jewish women in the Maghreb (Northwest Africa). The term kiswa al-kabira means ‘great dress.’ The outfit was decorated with gold braids and gold thread embroidery. The outfit appears to have originated in Andalusia, where it was called the traje de berberisca.

During the Reconquista and ensuing exodus of Jews and Muslims to North Africa, the use of this outfit started to appear in what is now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Traditionally the father of the bride gave the kiswa al-kabira outfit and after her wedding it was worn at important festive and ceremonial events. The use of the kiswa al-kabira generally stopped in the mid-twentieth century with the general migration of Jewish families to Israel and further afield.

A basic kiswa al-kabira has six elements:

Ktef: a breast piece or plastron (ktef) in velvet. Gold thread embroidery is used to embellish visible portions. Designs used include animals, birds, and floral and geometric patterns.

Gombaz: over the ktef a short jacket (gombaz) is worn with half sleeves, open down the front. It is often decorated in various techniques, including gold braids and gold thread embroidery. A common motif associated with the gombaz is the spiral, symbolising the ‘spiral of life and death.’

Kmam tchmira: an important, but separate element of the jacket is a pair of long, wide sleeves (kmam). These were originally part of the long, thin chemise (tchamir). Later these sleeves were made independently and attached to the short sleeves of the jacket. They were often made of fine cotton and decorated with gold braids.

Zeltita (meaning ‘wrap-around’) is a long, wrap-around skirt made from three panels. The main, end panel is bell-shaped and worn in front. This panel is normally elaborately decorated with braids and embroidery. The other two panels are worn over the hips. Often these are decorated with a star motif. The zeltita is worn over a series of underskirts called sayat.

Panwelo de manila: richer and higher class Jewish women used to cover themselves in public with a white silk scarf. It was elaborately decorated with white silk embroidery.

Rihiyat al-kbar (muquwara): this is a pair of shoes in the same material and colour as the main outfit. They are normally decorated with gold thread embroidery. Most of the gold thread embroidery (terz-d-es-sqalli) decorating the kiswa al-kabira garments used a couching technique with a card template.


  • BESANCONET, Jean, 1990. Costumes of Morocco, London, Kegan Paul International Limited, London, 1990 (first published as Costumes du Maroc, Editions des Horizons de France, Paris, 1942).
  • JANSEN, M. Angela, 2005. ‘Keswa kebira: The Jewish Moroccan grand costume,’ Khil’a 1, pp. 79-105.
  • JOUIN, Jeanne, 1936. ‘Le costume de la femme israélite au Maroc,’ Journal de la Société des Africanistes, VI, pp. 167-185.
  • LENZ, Oskar, 1892. Timbuktu, Reise Durch Marokko, Die Sahara und den Sudan, Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus.

British Museum online catalogue (retrieved 9th July 2016).


Last modified on Thursday, 25 May 2017 16:09