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