Garment and Adornment

Expressions of Spirit and Belief in Oman, Somalia and Zanzibar

By Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

National Museum of African Art

Scene from the ballet Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears (2014) by Timm BurrowSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A Collaboration Brings Fashion To Life
From 2012-2016 the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art teamed up with the The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC), an organization dedicated to educating Americans and Omanis about each others cultures, to create an original play, an operetta, an app, two short documentaries, and a museum installation.

Throughout the collaboration fashion—including clothing, costume, and jewelry—was an important element in conveying the style and culture of the Omani people, as well as those of Somalia and Zanzibar.

- Scene from the ballet Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears at Howard University.

Costumer: Timm Burrow.

Hamdan: Through the Gate of TearsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Bringing Hamdan to Life
The narrator here wears a beatiful abaya, or head covering, as she introduces Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears, a modern ballet celebrating one man's journey from his homeland of Oman to Zanzibar. Many styles of clothing appear in this colorful ballet, set to a pulsing beat with modern dance and contemporary Afro-Arabian music,

- Hamdan video excerpt, 1.5 min.

Breathtaking Oman
Oman, Hamdan's home, lies on the southeast coastline of the Arabian Peninsula. The country encompasses magnificent landscapes such as seasonal, water-filled wadis like this one in Quriyat, as well as deserts, beaches, and mountains.

Hamdan: Through the Gate of TearsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Trading Stories, Ideas, and Fashion
Ideas about fashion, taste, and culture traveled up and down the entire east coast of Africa with traders in their dhows laden with goods. Here, Hamdan wears a traditional thobe, a long robe often worn by Muslim men.

The ballet tells the story of Hamdan's momentous decision to leave his homeland of Oman and set sail aboard a dhow headed to Zanzibar, for a better life. This ballet presents modern dance styles as it explores the folktale of Hamdan's journey, steeped in the cultural traditions of Oman and East Africa. Ray Mercer's choreography brings this impassioned tale to life.

Hamdan was a special commission from the National Museum of African Art, created by the Howard University's Department of Theatre Arts. Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears had its world premiere on April 11-12, 2014 in Washington, DC.

- Hamdan video excerpt, 5 min.

Stone Town Waterfront
In the distance, two dhows sail past the Sultan's Palace along the waterfront of Stone Town, Zanzibar, Hamdan's destination.

Hamdan Cast in Costume (2014)Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Designing Danceable Fashions for Hamdan
Designing the costumes for the ballet was a challenge. Our aim was to be culturally sensitive, yet accommodating to the movement of the choreography. Costume Designer Tim Burrow and Choreographer Ray Mercer had in-depth conversations on how to respect cultural relevancy while properly presenting dynamic movements.

The male dancers were outfitted in traditional Omani menswear: the long white Dishdasha (traditionally these garments would not have a split neck opening) with accessories including the Wazar waist wrap, usually made of cotton, and the Kasmir wool turban called Massar. Due to some of the choreography, not all dance sequences with males featured the Wazar, which allowed for increased movement.

The women dancers' costumes had to be designed modestly; colorful yet still allowing room for movement. The Abaya head scarves had to be tightly secured. Some of the Dishdashas had more of a silhouette while the trousers or serwals were loose fitting, allowing for movement.

A Visit to the Mosque
A family poses in front of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. They are dressed in garments reflected by the performers in Hamdan.

Qadar Operetta | I Wish to Tell our TaleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Voice and Costume Bring a Culture to LIfe in Qadar
Qadar, or Destiny, is an operetta produced through our collaboration. The male characters in the chorus wear taqiyah, a tight cap, while the lead wears a turban wrapped around a cap, known in Arabic as a kalansuwa.

The opera, by award-winning composer, playwright, and pianist Tony Small, is the fictitious tale of two young musicians from different places and their journey of cultural discoveries from Oman to Zanzibar. It was commissioned by the museum and features the artistic direction of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

- Quadar video excerpt, 2 min.

Abaya Costume from the Opera Qadar (2014)Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Abaya Costume from the Opera Qadar
For the drama of the stage, a rhinestone adorned black colored full Abaya, a "cloak" sometimes also called an aba, is a simple, loose over-garment, essentially a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world including in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Traditional abaya are black and may be either a large square of fabric draped from the shoulders or head, or a long caftan. The abaya covers the whole body except the head, feet, and hands.

It can be worn with the niqāb, a face veil covering all but the eyes.

Some women also wear long black gloves, so their hands are covered as well. This niquab was worn as a costume for the Opera Qadar in 2014. This style of abaya has become popular with young women in these regions and has trumped the colorful traditional khanga coverings that we will explore next.

Visiting Bimmah Sinkhole
Qadar takes place in Quriyat, Oman. Here, at the nearby Bimmah Sinkhole, a woman wearing a traditional abaya and niqāb takes her family to visit this breathtaking natural attraction. The men were taqiyah caps.

Omani-influenced Bodice covered by Dishdasha with Sarwai trousers (2014) by Timm BurrowSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Modern take on Omani women’s traditional clothing
The bodice covered in a dishdasha piece is accompanied with the Sarwal loose fitting trousers. Both designed for modesty and comfort, yet still glamorous in their colors, fabrics and details. Notice the intricacy of the bodice and cuffs on the sleeve.

Designer: Anisa Mossa Al Zadjlai, Oman

Woman khanga shopping in Stonetown, Zanzibar (2014-09)Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Versatility and Meaning in Traditional Dress

A Zanzibari woman in a colorful kanga shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Woman in khanga at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival (2014)Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

A Never Ending Variety of Kangas
During Portuguese colonization of the east African coast, kangas were fashioned out of handkerchiefs by women. Today these rectangular panels of brightly dyed cotton cloth are worn by women and men as wrappers and serve a variety of household uses.

Here a woman poses in her kanga in a tent full of Kenyan designs at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

KhangaSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Factory-printed kanga
Found particularly in Tanzania and Kenya, kangas feature popular sayings and proverbs in the Swahili language.

These ornate adornment are comprised of three essential parts:

the pindo, which is the border that runs around all four sides;

the mji, which is the central part of the fabric;

and a strip of text called the jina. It is the jina that gives a kanga its name.

In this instance Wawili wakipendana adui hana nafasi translates as “The enemy has no chance when two are in love.”

Zanzibar Natural History Museum
A few blocks down the road from the Stone Town establishment where the khanga was manufactured is the Natural History Museum, where historic styles of clothing are on display.

Door-motif Earrings (2000) by Izwa, Omani Artist, Ailv, and ilSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Filled with religious meaning, and often designed to be heard as well as seen, Omani and Somali jewelry is alive with symbolism. Like dress, jewelry can project both style AND substance.

Door-motif Earrings
Oman is well known for its silver craftsmanship. These earrings manifest the floral and arched lintel motifs found throughout the region and attest to the Omani presence in and around the Indian Ocean communities.

Silver alloy
Omani Artist, Nizwa.

Themes in Fashion and Architecture
Here, an arched lintel like that adorning the earrings sits atop the door to the Beit-El-Ajaib; The House of Wonder, now the National Museum of Zanzibar, and the 1880s palace of Sultan Barghash. This is the first building in East Africa to have electricity and an electric elevator, in place by 1903.

This carved wooden door of an antique store in Zanzibar also displays the familiar arched lintel with floral motif.

Omani Necklace with Amulet case (hersi) ("mid 20th c") by Somali artist, Mogadishu, SomaliaSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Fashion and Belief
In and around the Indian Ocean community “hersi” amulet necklaces are used as a form of adornment and protection.

The necklaces features simulated amber beads,

and a silver alloy amulet box embellished with floral and leaf designs with three conical studs. “Hersi” means protection and it’s the purpose of these necklaces to promote health and well-being through the Quranic verses they carry.

Somali Necklace with Amulet case (Hersi) (1900/2000) by Somali artist, Mogadishu, SomaliaSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Somali Necklace with Amulet case (Hersi)
This Hersi necklace of carnelian and silver features hanging rattles or bells and is believed to be inspired by Arabian and Indian prototypes.

silver alloy, carnelian

Somali Artist - Mogadishu, Somalia

Like other amulet necklaces this one would have contained tightly scrolled parchment with verses from the Quran, used to protect the wearer and promote well-being.

Amulet (dugaagad) (1900/1930) by Somali artist, Mogadishu, SomaliaSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Amulet (dugaagad)
On ceremonial occasions women often wear gold amulet jewelry not necessarily for protection but as a symbol of status. While silver is the preferred metal of eastern Africa, gold is often used by people who can afford it.

gold alloy

Somali Artist - Mogadishu, Somalia

Connecting the Gems Mobile App Available Now!Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

If you'd like to learn more about the cultures of the Indian Ocean, download our app, Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean on Android or iOS.

Credits: Story

Project Management by

Nicole Shivers
Education Specialist, Author, and Cultural Producer
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African Art

James Parker
Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African Art

Glenn Ojeda
Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African Art

Exhibit Synthesis and Layout by
Marc Bretzfelder
Smithsonian Institution
Office of the Chief Information Officer

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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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