The Queen of Dresses: The Malak ثوب الملك‎

TIRAZ widad kawar home for arab dress

Explore the fascinating history and style of Palestine's royal dress

The beautiful colours of Bethlehem
Before 1967, any traveler to Bethlehem would have been struck by the rainbow-colours of women's costumes. In Bethlehem, the typical festive costume was called "Malak," meaning "royal." Described as the "queen of dresses," this costume became famous in Palestine for its colorful fabric, and ornate chest-panel. This exhibit takes you through the making and influence of the malak.

The Malak

The malak is a glamorous costume decorated with the couching tahriry stitch, which started in Bethlehem and nearby Beit Jala and spread to Beit Sahour and villages around Jerusalem. It is unlike the embroidery of any other part of Palestine. It is embroidered with geometric patterns, outlined in gold or silver cords on the chest and sides of the dress.

One feature that makes the malak dress special is its fabric, which is hand woven in Bethlehem, and comes in stripes of black, red, green and orange. The different pieces of fabric are connected with the manajel stitch in silk thread of many colors. It was customary to be married in this dress, not only in Bethlehem, but in many Palestinian cities. Women also saved one of their malak costumes to be buried in.

As a result, many of the finest dresses have been lost. In the second half of the 20th century, production of this style declined, to the point that at present, it is hard to find a woman in Bethlehem who wears the malak dress.

"Oh Little Town of Bethlehem"

The eternal town of Bethlehem has been a place of pilgrimage and importance for Christians, Muslims and Jews for many centuries. For Palestinians in particular, it is a homeland which recalls memories of a more peaceful and gentle time.

The town of Bethlehem was famous for its weaving, producing silk, linen, cotton and wool fabrics. Techniques, colours and motifs were handed down from generation to generation.

The Malak and the textile industry

The Malak dress sparked a textile industry, and influenced generations of village fashion, as villages near Bethlehem adapted parts of the malak into their own style. It was often worn as a wedding dress.

By 1920, making the malak dress had become a business; it had become a status symbol to order a trousseau from Bethlehem. Weddings like this one often combined white dresses and the malak.

The malak remains a testament to the individual lives of women who helped transform their traditional costume craft into a thriving industry and influencer of fashion across Palestine.

A materpiece: colours and embroidery
In terms of fabric, embroidery and style, the malak is a masterpiece. It was customary to be married in this dress. Women also saved one of the malak costumes to be buried in. As a result, many of the finest dresses have been lost.

Pattern

The distinctive patterns were applied to specific parts of the dresses, making them clearly recognizable as Bethlehem styles. For example, the sleeves were embroidered with a pattern called “watches” in couching technique, repeated three times. So were the side panels, which in addition had a pattern called ‘tree of life’ in cross-stitch evolving above ‘watches.’

The technique

Bethlehem became the fashion center of Palestine due to the development of the technique of couching embroidery, which resembled styles found in Turkey, Greece and Persia.

Bethlehem Textiles Fragment

Originally from the side of a woman's Malak dress.

Embroidery threads for Bethlehem couching stitch

The tahriry

Or couching stitch - is the main form of embroidery in Bethlehem.

Thob Ikhdari

It can be seen on this Thob Ikhdari. Gold thread is attached to the fabric by tiny stitches made with silk. The space between is filled with satin stitch. Women of all religions wore the malak.

On this chest panel, you can see round designs typical of the malak, and three crosses, one in the middle and two smaller ones to each side.

Thob Itafi

The malak influenced fashion in the villages around Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

You can see the influence in this dress from north of Jerusalem, called Thob Itafi because of its couching embroidery.

Khaddameh vs. the Malak

This dress, called khaddameh, was made for daily use in Bethlehem. The main differences between this dress and the malak lay in the fabric and embroidery. While the malak is made of silk and linen striped fabric specific to Bethlehem, the khaddameh uses plain linen without stripes.

Similarly, the malak is embroidered on the chest panel and sides with an ornate couching stitch, while the khaddemeh’s chest panel is embroidered with the simpler and less costly cross stitch. The sleeves of this dress are done in the kumm ‘irdan style in which the sleeves are long, pointed, and triangular. The wearer of this dress would tie the two sleeves behind her back while working to make movement easier.

Taksiri Jacket, Headdresses and The Chain of Seven Souls
The malak remains a testament to the individual lives of women who helped transform their traditional costume craft into a thriving industry and influencer of fashion across Palestine.

Taksiri Jacket

Over the malak dress, women wore exquisite taksiri jackets. This veltet jacket uses couching stitches and similar motifs can be found on the chest panel of the malak.

Headdresses

Traditionally, beneath their white headscarves, married women wore headdress adorned with their gold bridal coins and coral.

The Chain of Seven Souls

These sisters wear just such felt jackets, as well as a white shawl typical of Bethlehem.

Jewelry was an important part of women's attire, but in Bethlehem the most important piece had a practical purpose. The Chain of Seven Souls ties under the chin and holds the girl's or woman's headdress in place.

The malak remains a testament to the individual lives of women who helped transform their traditional costume craft into a thriving industry and influencer of fashion across Palestine.

Credits: Story

Dresses from the collection of Widad Kawar
Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress Director:Layla Pio
Artistic Director: Salua Qidan
Assistant Curator: Asma AlAbazi
PR: Shaden Kawar
Curatorial help: Lindsey Bauler and Emily Robbins
Text: Tiraz Team + Google Culture, with portions taken from brochure on the Exhibition "The Golden Threads of Bethlehem."
Photo of Bethlehem from the Latin Convent by Frank Mason Good, 1860. Taken from the Dr. Hisham Al-Khatib Collection
Photos from the Library of Congress and the collection of Hisham Khatib.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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