Clothing in al-Maghrib (the Muslim West)
in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

The term Berber derives from the Greek (barbáros) and Latin (barbarus) indicating an uncivilized person, a barbarian, and is rather insulting. The people's own name for the overarching ethno-cultural group is Amazight. I will use Berber because it is more commonly understood, but will occasionally interject Amazight.

Unfortunately the authors of much research speak of "Arabs"," Berbers", "Spanish", etc. as if they mean all people of these ethnic or cultural groups, then they mention women as if they are some separate group. I can only assume that in many cases where sweeping statements are made the authors actually just mean "men", but it is frankly quite unclear. I will insert [men?] where it is unclear to me whether the original authors mean all members of the group referenced or just the men.


I am unable to include all the usual diacritical marks of transliterated Arabic due to the limitations of HTML. Some vowels should should have macron, some consonants should have lines or dots under them, and there are two different kinds of "apostrophes" before or after vowels indicating specific Arabic sounds. If you would like to know about specific words:


"r" is flapped or rolled like the Spanish or Italian "r"
"gh" sounds rather like the German or French "r"
"kh" is rather like the Scottish or German "ch"


The information in this article has been taken largely from the article "Libas" in the Encyclopedia of Islam, 1986, pp. 742-746. I have re-written this to avoid copyright issues. And i have also written additional stuff.

Index of this page

  1. Introduction
  2. Pre-Islamic Foundations of Maghribi Costume
  3. Maghribi Costume in Islamic early and high Middle Ages
  4. Maghribi Costume under the Berber Empires and their Successor States
  5. Maghribi Costume Beyond the Middle Ages

Other Related Pages

Glossary of Maghribi Clothing in alphabetical order
Glossary of Maghribi Clothing organized by country


The Medieval Muslim West includes Spain and Sicily as well as North Africa. The standard basis of the clothing is rectangular tunics and loose outer wraps. However there is still considerable variation among regions, ethnic groups, and socio-economic classes.

The Maghrib has been noted since the Arab conquest in the late 7th century for its own particular styles, as the indigenous Berber/Amazight culture has always been strong. Muslim Spain has indigenous Iberian influence as well as that of Christian Spain. The lack of the Persian katib class and the extremely late arrival of the Ottoman Turks in Tunisia and Algeria and their complete absence in Morocco also keep Medieval Maghribi costume different from that in the Eastern Muslim world. While urban centers had a bit more influence from major Arabic politico-economic centers, they retained their unique Maghribi character.

Pre-Islamic Foundations of Maghribi Clothing

There were still active Punic and Byzantine influences in cities and towns when the Arabs conquered North Africa. While the countryside also probably still had Punic influence, it was predominantly Berber.

In Classical Greco-Roman times, North Africa was known for its distinctive style of dress. Greek and Roman authors noted that the locals wore animal skins draped over their left shoulders covering both front and back. Garments made of soft leather were also mentioned and some archaeological examples have been found. This leather may have been similar to the filali of the 19th and 20th centuries, made of goatskin which is also called maroquin or moroccan leather. Both this simple way of draping leather and the use of leather garments by Berbers continued into modern times.

To the Romans, the most striking feature of North African clothing was the short, flowing, unbelted tunic. Both Roman and Byzantine sources mention this as a distictive feature. In pre-Islamic times these tunics seem to have been no more than thigh length and sometimes shorter. Similar garments were worn in the strongly Berber Moroccan Rif and Algerian Mzab areas into the early 20th century.

A second distinctive North African garment, noted in the Islamic period, is the hooded cloak, called burnus in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and selham and akhnif (occasionally burnus) in Morocco. There was a similar Greco-Roman garment, the paenula, a travelling cloak to which a hood -- cucullus -- was usually attached. Whether or not this influenced the development of the burnus/selham/akhnif is unknown. In Arabia the term burnus refers to some kind of hat or head covering. The invading Arabs distinguished between two major Berber groups, the Baranis and the Butr. It has been suggested that this may have been a differentiation between those who wore hooded garments (baranis) and those who wore short garments (butr). It is fairly clear that in antiquity and in the first few centuries under Islam, the Berbers did not wear head coverings like the Muslim Arabs. Indeed, some Berbers [men] shaved all or part of their heads, which is mentioned in Classical and Islamic sources.

Third is the large rectangular wrapping cloth used as an outer garment by both men and women -- although in different ways -- from Libya to Morocco in pre-Islamic times, and continuing into the 20th century. Wrap garments have different names: in Berber (Amazight) they are a'aban, akhusi, afaggu, tahaykt, and others; in Arabic ha'ik, ksa', and barrakan. The Arabs associated these ancient Berber wrappers with similar Arabic garments, such as the izar, milhafa, etc. It is clear, however, that the method of draping these wraps is quite different in the Maghrib.

Pre-historyAmazight/Berberindigenous people, speak a language in the Hamitic-Semitic family
12th c. BCEPhoenicianssail from the Levant, establish trading centers and Punic culture -- major city Carthage
6th c. BCEGreeksarrive, only in part of North Africa, competing with the Punic
2nd c. BCERomansform alliance with North African kings. After their destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE, control the Maghrib. 1st and 2nd c. CE Maghrib became primarily Christian.
429 CEVandalsmove the entire population of 30,000 from Spain to the Maghrib. Not very good administrators.
533 CEByzantinesdrove the Vandals out. Of a different Christian sect than the Maghribis, so friction
Pre-historyMisc. Iberian peopleindigenous people speak several different and often unrelated languages -- Basque, Ibero-Celts, etc.
12th c. BCEPhoenicianssail from the Levant, establish trading centers. There were many important Punic cities in Spain
6th c. BCEGreeksarrive, competing with the Punic towns. Not very strong influence
2nd c. BCERomans.
1st c. CEJewsmany forced out of the Levant, but because Judaism was a legally recognized religion, they were welcomed around the Empire. Over 1 million settle in Roman Iberia.
Early 4th c.Christianity all Romans became officially Christian by royal fiat of Emperor Constantine I, who also named Constantinople as the new capitol of the Roman Empire.
Early 5th cVandalsBribed by Romans in 429 CE to move the entire population of 30,000 from Spain to the Maghrib. They eventually sack Rome in 455, but lose out to the Goths, who sack Rome and take Italy in 470.
Later 5th c.Germanic Suevi tribe60 years of scorched earth policy.
456Visigothswho had a kingdom in France from 418-507, crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and soon defeat the Suevi. As followers of the doctrines of Bishop Arius, intense hostility between them and the orthodox Christians of Spain. Established Toledo as their capital. Extrememly hostile to Jews.

Maghribi Clothing in Islamic early and high Middle Ages

The invading Islamic Arabs considered the Maghrib to be a colonial territory. To them, there was little or nothing worthy of respect in the North African or Spanish cultures. Therefore, the Arabs did not adopt anything from the local costume during the first couple centuries of their rule.

A child's tunic found in Tunisia dating to this period is similar to an Egyptian child's tunic of the same time period. The 10th century geographer al-Mukaddasi observd that Maghribis dressed like the Egyptians. Certain distinctively Maghribi items include the kisa' (mentioned in the previous section), the kurziyya (from the Berber takerzit) -- a simple winding cloth for the head, still worn today, and akrak (sing. kurk) -- cork soled sandals.

Early Umayyad emirs in Spain tried to maintain the culture of their native Syria, so it is likely that the elite classes emulated the styles of the Damascus caliphate. This outside influence expanded when the Iraqi singer Ziryab arrived at the court of Córdoba in 822. He became the arbiter of taste and fashion, suggesting the cut, color, and fabric of clothing and what was to be worn in which season. He established the djubba, a tunic with narrow sleeves, as the standard robe to be worn by both sexes.

The turban, however, was never firmly established in Spain. Red or green wool caps -- ghifara -- or bare heads were commonplace among the Spanish [men] of all classes. For example, men on Umayyad Spanish carved ivories generally appear bareheaded. Whether this indicates the difficulty of showing details on such a small scale or that most men went bareheaded is uncertain. The kalansuwa (some kind of close-fitting cap -- could also be some kind of cowl) and the taylassan (some kind of hat -- originally a Khaybari Jewish hat) came into fashion after the arrival of Ziryad.

Over time there was a mingling of styles between the Spanish Christians and Muslims. The Spanish peasant's tunic -- sayo, from the Latin sagum -- was commonly worn in the country side and called in Arabic shaya. Soldiers wore a scarlet cape -- kaba', derived from Spanish capo or capa -- similar to that worn in the Christian north. By the 13th century "an Easterner in the turban and robes of the Levant was regarded as a curiosity".

While women in Spain are mentioned in poetry as wearing various veils, such as the khimar, burku' (a harness suspending a lower face covering from the forehead), mikna'a, and izar, it is also apparent that they were often not very strict about it. That women of all classes went about in public unveiled is also mentioned in poetry. Jurists frequently complain that women are unveiled in the presence of men other than an immediate male relative. Women in mourning would also frequently unveil their faces. This may have been due to the influence of the non-Muslim population, the Berbers, or both.

circa 675 CEArabs arrivedefeat Byzantines gradually.
late 8th c.Idrisid Dynastyruled for 150 years.
10th c.Fatamid Dynasty972 conquered Egypt, then moved capital there. Basically relinquished rule of the Maghrib by this action. al-Maghrib operates independently.
early 8th c.Arabs and Muslimshad already begun to raid Spain's southern coast. By 711 there was a full invasion, and within about 5 years had conquered most of Spain.
755Ummayad DynastyAbd al Rachman, the last prince of the Ummayad dynasty in Syria, flees the murderous Abbasids and becomes emir of Spain, establishing Córdoba as his capital
10th c Abd al Rachman III reunites al-Andalus in a Golden Age, and declares himself Caliph -- thus creating a kingdom separate from the rest of al-Islam

Maghribi Clothing under the Berber Empires and their Successor States

What Middle Eastern influence there was in dress declined sharply from the 11th century onward, while local Berber and Spanish incluences came to the fore with the rise of extensive Berber empires that united the Maghrib with what remained -- during the gradual Spanish Reconquista -- of al-Andalus. This was also a time of growing isolation, as the Arab East came under the rule of Turkish military regimes -- the Seljuks, for example -- who brought their own language, customs, and styles, thus communication between the Maghrib (west) and the Mashrik (east) became unreliable or intermittant. In addition, the urban centers of much of Ifriqiya (mostly Tunisia) had been destroyed by the invasion of the Banu Hilal Bedouin. However, Morocco remained a center of power while Spain a center of culture and they were soon to be united, a focal point for the rest of the Maghrib.

The Almoravids rose to power. Of Berber origins, they dressed in Saharan Berber fashion and were described as having no Mediterranean influence. A chief distinguishing feature that set them apart from their subjects was that they [men] wore a litham, face veil covering the lower half of their faces, similar to modern Tuaregs. They were therefore nicknamed al-mulaththamun. Other Berbers [men], even if in the service of the Almoravids, were not permitted to wear the litham. The Almoravids were also noted as wearing the 'imama and bernus. The formerly stylish Andalusians found little to emulate in fashion from the Almoravids. Under the Almoravids, however, Andalusian culture spread into North Africa, including aspects of dress.

The subsequent ruling dynasty, the Almohads were very strictly "puritanical" and this included aspects of dress. The Mahdi Ibn Tumart criticised the people of Bidjaya for wearing sandals with gilded laces, turbans not in the Muslim fashion, and futuhiyyat, apparently considered a feminine style tunic in the East. He was especially disturbed by the fact that women of both laboring and noble classes went unveiled. The Almohads, like all Berbers, including the Almoravids before them, wore the bernus and the kisa'. They wore a form of turban called kursiyya.

Not long after ascending to power, the Almohad simplicity gave way to the luxuries of al-Andalus. Rulers and men in power bestowed maginificant robes of honor upon their favorites. However, from the Almohad period onward women more commonly went veiled in North Africa and Spain.

The Almohads also instituted a particular application of the laws of ghiyar. Because Jews who had converted to Islam were suspected of being insincere, Caliph Abu Yusuf ordered that they should wear blue-black garments (thiyab kuhliyya) with exaggeratedly wide sleeves that reached to the ground (akmam mufritat al-sa'a) and odd caps that resembled pack saddles which extended below the ears, called kalawtat 'ala ashna' sura. His son and successor Abu 'Abd Allah changed the uniform to yellow garments and yellow turbans. Ultimately Morocco became a place with one of the most strictly applied dress codes for Jews in the Muslim world up until modern times.

After the Almohads, the Hafsids of Tunisia, the Zayyanids of Algeria, and the Marinids of Morocco did not change dress greatly. In the literature the local names for garments become more common than the Arabic. Leo Africanus noted that learned doctors and gentlement wore short jackets with large sleeves "like upper-class Venetians" and that women's trousers for outdoor use covered the entire leg (which suggests that indoor trousers were shorter). He also mentions that women wrapped their head and entire body in the all-enveloping ha'ik.

With the end of Almohad rule in Spain, Muslims there abandoned the wearing of the turban. Multi-colored garments were popular. The wealthy wore garments of fine gilded silk produced in Almería, Murcia, and Málaga or special silk garments made in Granada and Basta called mulabbad mukhattam ("felted", "checked" -- although just what they looked like is uncertain). The Spanish sayo/Arabic shaya was worn not only by the peasants but by the noble classes. The Spanish marlota/Arabic malluta, a sleeved outer garment whose other details are unclear, and the Spanish capellar/Arabic kabillar, a hooded cloak shorter than the bernus also spread among the Spanish Muslims.

1062-1147Almoravid Dynastya strict Islamic Berber tribe, arises in southern Morocco, then moves into al-Andalus.
1147-1258Almohad Dynastyeven stricter Islamic Berber tribe. United the region from Spain and Morocco to Libya.
13th-17th c.
13th c. to 1494
Merinid Dynasty
Hafsid Dynasty
Warred with Hafsids, eventually won
Warred with Merinids, were defeated
1031al-Ta'ifa PeriodAfter the decline of the Ummayad dynasty, al-Andalus split into many small kingdoms, not politically strong. Nonetheless, the arts flourished, and Muslim Spain was a center for music, poetry, literature, and the sciences.
1062-1147Almoravid DynastyBerbers from southern Morocco eventually moved into al-Andalus
11th c.La ReconquistaSpanish Christians outside al-Andalus with help from other European Christians begin to retake Spain from the Muslims. In 1085, the Spanish retook Toledo. Then made no significant inroads for another 125 years.
1147-1258Almohad DynastyMuslim Berbers even harsher and stricter than the Almoravids. By 1159 unite al-Andalus and al-Maghrib all the way to Libya.
1232Nasrid DynastyRules from Granada, a thriving state, rich with trade, particularly silk, and the arts. Al-Hamra begun in 1248, completed about one hundred years later, is now the oldest Islamic palace in the world to survive in a good state of preservation.

Maghribi Clothing in the Renaissance and Beyond

The basic features of Maghribi costume remained more or less the same after the Middle Ages and even well into the Colonial period. Certain elements of costume were brought to the region by Muslims and Jews fleeing Spain in the very late 15th century through 17th century, and by gradually increasing Ottoman Turkish influence after the 17th century. Most of these different styles remained common only among the ethnic or cultural groups who brought them.

The Spanish giraldetta/Arabic djaltita, a "whirling skirt", was worn in Morocco only by women of Andalusian origin, particularly Jews. The Spanish djabador/Arabic djabaduli, a short coat brought by Andalusian Jews and Moriscos became widespread in cities of Morocco and Algeria -- in fact, in Morocco it was made exclusively by Jewish tailors.

The high brimless hats called tartur and tartura in Algeria had been part of the Ottoman Turkish military elite uniform. Even as late as the 18th century the Ottoman Turkish style dulband (turban) was not permitted to native North Africans. Eventually the jaleco/ Ottoman Turkish yelek became popular in urban centers in Argeria. The "high, split cone, metal head piece" called sarma became general fashion for women in Algeria and Tunisia.

Nonetheless, typically Berber elements remain common even until today. Certain items of men's clothing have barely changed since Antiquity -- the babouche -- leather "slippers", the bernus/akhnif, and the djellaba. There is also the widespread use of fibulae -- pins -- to fasten garments. These are similar to, but more elaborate than, the more commonly known Celtic penannular brooches. Called in Berber/Amazight tabzimt, tizerzay, and tazersit and in Arabic bzima, kitfiyya, and khellala they go back at least to Antiquity.

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s many women in Morocco gave up the cumbersome and all-enveloping ha'ik and began wearing the hitherto men-only djellaba. The djellaba is worn like an overcoat by both men and women over other garments, often Western. Some women began wearing a tiny rectangle of sheer chiffon over the end of their nose and lower face, but this is not common. Many women tie a large scarf over the heads and wrap the ends in various ways about their necks and shoulders.

end of 15th c. Spanish begin attacking the Moroccan Coast
15th-17th c.Spanish ReconquistaPersecuted by the Spanish State and the Catholic Church, Jews and Muslims flee to al-Maghrib.
Following continued and relentless persecution, thousands of Conversos, people of Jewish and Moorish descent who had become Catholics, flee to al-Maghrib.
There are at least tens of thousands of these immigrants. Morocco flourishes and prospers, becoming a center for the arts, entering its Golden Age.
Ottoman EmpireFinally establishes firm foot hold in Algeria
Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire
Constant friction and rebellion in the Maghrib against the Ottoman Turks, as there are only outposts of Jannissaries, no Ottoman Turkish settlements
NOTE: Morocco never becomes part of the Ottoman Empire and clothing shows minimal Ottoman Turkish influence.
mid 17th c.More Ottoman Turks into the Maghrib, more influence on costume and other cultural aspects of Maghribi city life.
late 17th c.EuropeInternal political instability encourages the English, French, and Danish to attack. They "liberate" the Maghrib from the Ottoman Turks, and begin to colonize. The English and French dominate, while the Spanish control sizable regions. The Maghrib will not be free of them until the 2nd half of the 20th century.
1236La ReconquistaThe fall of Córdoba to the Christians
Mudéjar Periodthe Christian Spanish conquerors continue to use Muslim craftsman for their important arts. Much of their architecture, gardening, music, textile arts, etc. is Moorish in style.
La ReconquistaGranada survived because the Christian Spanish states of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon, who had defeated the Muslims at Córdoba, spent a couple hundred years fighting each other
1469 The marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinando of Aragon unites two of the major kingdoms of Spain.
1481 Isabella brings in German and Italian artillery to destroy the protective outposts on the hills surrounding Granada.
1492 Granada falls; the Reconquista is at last successful.
Beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, largely to root out Jews and Muslims. Many are murdered by the State and the Church working together. Many convert to Catholicism and are murdered anyway. Many Jews and Muslims flee to al-Maghrib. The Jews, known as the Sephardim, also flee to other countries around the Mediterranean.
end of 15th c. Spanish begin attacking the Moroccan Coast
15th-17th c. Continued and relentless persecution of Conversos, people of Jewish and Moorish descent who had converted to Catholicism. Many flee Spain or are murdered by the State and the Church working together. Sephardic Jews continue to flee to many countries around the Mediterranean.
While the Reconquista signaled the end of al-Andalus, nonetheless Andalusian culture continued to survive in small pockets, especially in isolated areas, for well over one century. It exerted and continues to this day to exert an undeniable influence on Spanish culture.

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On to a Glossary of Clothing organized by modern country

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