From Palestine’s famous thobes to Egypt’s galabiya and the Iraqi charghad, the Middle East boasts an incredibly rich and diverse history of fashion, intersecting with sociopolitical and cultural changes that it has both impacted and been impacted by for centuries.

Documenting this bounteous heritage of ethnic textiles, bodily ornaments, and traditional costumes is non-profit organisation, The Zay Initiative, which currently boasts over 700 articles of dress from across the region.

Burghu, a type of face cover with unknown origins; some trace it back to Persia, while others believe it has Sanskrit origins. Photo courtesy of Zay Initiative.

Founded by Dr. Reem El Mutwalli – a published author and private consultant in Islamic architecture, interior design, Islamic and Arab art, and UAE heritage – the Zay Initiative launched in 2017, and has collected items that date back to the 1950s up until the present day.

The digital archive, which launched yesterday, is divided by country, colour, date, and several other categories, making it an accessible platform for research and academic purposes, while the accompanying blog on their website delves deeper into the historical contexts of certain forms of dress and how they have evolved over the years, as well as the culturally symbolic meanings they hold.

It started with the Sultani collection of traditional UAE garments, which El Mutwalli had curated many items for, including Emirati royalty’s dresses, as the core of the archive, and since then, the Initiative has been gathering items from beyond the UAE, reaching as far as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria & Egypt.

An Egyptian bridal robe from Siwa, circa 1960s. Photo courtesy of The Zay Initiative Digital Archive.

Exploring the history of fashion in the region offers a significant insight into the fabric of society and its evolution over the years from an often overlooked perspective – that of women, many of whom dedicate their lives to the art of sewing and tatreez, even in times of social upheaval and diaspora.

You can find The Zay Initiative's digital archive here, and read their blog here.