Friday, January 7, 2011

CYL: The Magnificent Maghreb

A velvet Amazigh kaftan from Morocco... I want it
The Maghreb is an Arab moniker that literally translates to "the Land of Sunset", which explains its westerly position from the center of the Muslim world at the time. The modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania all fell within this zone which was won and lost more times than a gambling fortune before the contemporary period. Within the region are a bevy of places that summon up the very essence of exotic and mysterious to the Western ear: Marrakesh, Casablanca, Algiers, Fez, Tangiers, The Barbary Coast, and Tripoli. But what were the people like- and most importantly, what did they wear? And why?

Three men drinking coffee in Kairowan, Tunisia c. 1915

Historical Background
There are two contrasting geographic features of North Africa: the Sahara Desert and the fertile coast. The Atlas Mountains, which run fairly close to the coast from Morocco to Tunisia form a barrier between a lush Mediterranean climate in the north and the arid desert to the south. Over the centuries it has proved an attractive area for various civilizations (and their invading armies) with its combination of fertile coasts (perfect for growing grapes, olives, and citrus) and bustling trade ports. This of course has not pleased the locals, who were of a relatively cosmopolitan stock: North Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Jews (as Maghrebi ports actually welcomed them because of their status as merchants), and local tribespeoples such as the Berbers . (Note: Berber is the French name for these people derived from the word 'barbarian', therefore in the article we will be using their preferred name- Amazigh.)

In the 19th century the Maghreb was managed by governors of the Ottoman Empire, who had held the area (except for Morocco, as we have painfully learned) since the 16th century. By the 1820s however, Ottoman authority has crumbled, from a mixture of inability to keep up with industrializing Europe and the constant headache of Barbary pirates, leaving the region open to (to quote author G.D. Falksen) "that most prolific of afflictions, the French." (Chers lecteurs français, c'est une farce historique, pas une insulte contre vous. Désolé.)

But not without a fight: in the spirit of girl power Lalla Fatima N'Soumer, an Amazigh holywoman, sticks it to the French.
The French took Algiers in 1827, so they wouldn't have to pay the Dey (ruler) of Algiers back for grain and other commodities needed during the French Revolution (which is one way of not paying your bills, I suppose... I wonder if it works for student loans...), but also because of the region's nature as a potential colonial cash cow. Tunisia and Morocco didn't prove to be as easy to fall as Algiers because of heavy resistance movements, but ultimately they were all under French control by the 1910s. Despite this colonization, many local groups retained their traditional styles of dress (particularly outside of Algeria, which was the epicenter of the French cultural campaign of 'Europeanization').

Daily Dress
Morocco, Tunisia, and many branches of the Amazigh retained a very Muslim structure to their clothing- adhering to the principal of 'awrah, or modesty. Women typically went veiled (note: that their heads were covered, the veiling of the face was a matter of personal, regional, or familial preference) for respectability and protection from the sun. Linen and cotton were preferred for most daily garments since they were lightweight and cheaper than silk or wool- which were used for more formal garments or outerwear. The burnous (or burnoose) was one of these common forms of outerwear: a long, voluminous, hooded cloak made in a variety of colors. Burnouses were also often decorated with rows of trim, embroidery, or tassels on the hoods.

"A Game of Krouta" by Etienne Dinet, of two Ouled Nail girls- the one on the right is wearing a burnous.
 At first glance the clothing of the Maghreb may seem identical to the structure of Turkish clothing, but there are many subtle differences. In Morocco and Algeria the kaftan (called the takchita) was a woman's garment and tailored closer to the body than its Turkish counterpart and finished with a wide, embellished belt. Trousers (sirwal) tended to be cut shorter (to the knee or midshin) and gartered with cuffs or sashes, probably to offer a better range of motion for working. Both genders wore simple slip-on shoes (called babouches) that could be removed easily in a mosque or home.

Typically women wore loose shirt-dresses made of lightweight fabric under everything (or in hot weather or while working with simply wear that, belted. These were often decorated with rows of smocking, beading or other embellishment down the front to the waist. Jewish women wore embellished jumper-like dresses that tied over their shoulders. Frimla were harness-like vests made of sturdy fabric that were worn for light breast support.

A blue velvet frimla decorated with silver embroidery and thread-covered buttons.
Men wore a lightweight tunic made of cotton called a thawb, which often featured short sleeves and a round neckline which was either worn long or tucked into trousers. Short, smartly-trimmed jackets were also popular in Algerian (and were later worn by Zouaves- who are so awesome that they'll be getting their own article in the future). Fezzes and turbans protected the head from the sun.

A Max Tilke illustration of a Tunisian jacket, vest, and drawstring sirwal.
Amazing Amazigh Arts
The Amazigh people of the Maghreb are famous for their aesthetic traditions: from fine textiles with geometric motifs, to embroidery, to jewelry, to harquus (cosmetic tattooing). While predominately Muslim, there was also a preponderance of Jewish Amazighs, and all records I've encountered have them regarded with great tolerance despite their minority. Women were regarded in high esteem in Amazigh society as the cornerstone of the familial and village unit- they were the only ones allowed to weave or dye textiles and sometimes became holymen.

Amazigh men wore iconic garments that linked them to Islamic piety- hooded tunics called tajellabiyt (usually kept white to denote the man's piety), woolen cloaks, and wrapped turbans. Both genders wore jewelry, most prevalent of which was the fibula- a pair of brooches connected by chain that fastened cloaks across a person's chest, allowing better movement. Headwraps and veils were also unisex, as sand and sun are irritating no matter your gender...

An Amazigh woman bedecked in jewelry and facial tattoos.
Putting Their Best Faces Forward
Despite being forbidden by the laws of Islam, many men and women of the Maghreb had facial tattoos- as they had for thousands of years. Still, many people were squeamish about the idea, so painted tattoos called 'harquus' were popular. Dark, long eyebrows (sometimes extending to a unibrow) were considered attractive, as were tattoos on the neck. The chin, cheeks, and forehead were also commonly marked. Kohl (eyeliner) was also worn by both genders for protection from the sun and it's been proven that some of the compounds in the minerals used in Maghrebi makeup contained a substance harmful to strains of bacteria!

A Tunisian woman with made-up eyebrows, cheeks, and lips
Why should you make the Maghreb your steampunk inspiration? 
- Ever hear of Barbary corsairs? These marauding pirates were infamous in the European and Muslim worlds alike- so in a steampunk setting wouldn't it be possible for there to be airship corsairs prowling the same territory (or beyond?).  The clothing is fun, Islamic firearms are pieces of art, and it's something I've never seen done... oddly enough.
-The burnous is a garment still worn today and looks good layered over Maghrebi or Western clothing. Plus they're just so dramatic! Folkwear carries an excellent pattern.
-Turbans are simple to do, comfortable to wear, and can be made in a variety of colors (and accessorized with jewelry, stickpins, and veils)- but you've heard me gush about them before. (Did I mention when you wear a turban you don't have to do anything with your hair?
- Ward off the evil eye and look good doing it wearing kohl and harquus. Harquus can be recreated using temptu (a resin-based liquid that I recommended for kirituhi tattoos) or plain old liquid eyeliner (admittedly, when I'm broke... which is often... this is the route that I use. Just powder over it!)
-Takchitas are being revisted by fashion designers in Morocco and elsewhere abroad, take a look at these beautiful examples that would look great in a steampunk outfit.
-Algerian or Moroccan resistance fighters could make an interesting alternative to a wierd west gunner or bounty hunter. Think burnouses, hooded tunics, and jackets. (Note: zouave uniforms used by the french, and later the American Confederacy, were based off of Amazigh rebels.)
-Frimla are similar to the harnesses I see many steampunk girls running around in- just more colorful!

An urban Algerian man wearing a jacket, sirwal, and fez with a burnous draped over his shoulder
Helpful Links
-The Paintings of Etienne Dinet- as I expressed in my previous post, I trust Dinet above most other Orientalist painters of the time because he spent years living in the Maghreb, particularly with the Ouled Nail tribe (who were allegedly very fond of him, they attended his funeral in droves) and even converted to Islam. His works are full of affection for this people, which is visible in his use of warm colors and the expressions of love and care on their faces.
-Desert Jewels is an exhibit of North African jewelry and photography presented by the National Museum of African Art. The jewelry in particular is breathtaking!
-An in-dept essay about Amazigh textiles and their connection with motherhood.
-As far as I'm concerned, THE source about harquus by the magnificent Catherine Cartwright-Jones, whose scholastic specialty is henna and other cosmetics.
-Again, here's that link with so many beautiful haute couture takchitas.

An Ouled Nail woman with harquus and kohl.
A newlywed Jewish couple from Rabat, Morocco.
A bridal kaftan in the Turkish style from Fez, Morocco. Note the vibrant red dye.
An Algerian Jewish man.
An Amazigh fibula in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Another frimla, fastened in the front with brass buttons.


  1. oh, thank you for your latest post---i've been in love with the art, music & especially clothing & jewelry of this region since childhood!

  2. Oh...I'm drooling over the embroidery...

  3. great job. Keep it up

  4. Thanks for all these interesting informations :)