Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion



Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents


Meriem Chida

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch1030
Pages: 202–210


Tunisia lies on the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Libya and Algeria. The earliest inhabitants, called the Imazighen, spoke Berber languages and predated the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, and the Arabs. Until the early seventh century, Imazighen women wore a draped dress like the Greek chiton and the Roman toga, fastened with silver fibulae, with a woolen or leather sash wrapped around the waist. In the seventh century, Arabs brought Islam to Tunisia and influenced local dress and life; Islam carried notions of equality, justice, and modesty, and dress reflected this. In 1576, the Muslim Ottoman Empire annexed Tunisia, but in 1881, the Bardo treaty was signed, which gave France total control of the government and full managerial rights of the economy of Tunisia. The French maintained control until independence in 1956. By the time of French colonization, cheap imitations of Tunisian items of dress and textiles flooded the market. All of these shifts in Tunisia’s social, economic, and political environment had a dramatic impact on traditions of dress.

Tunisia has a population of ten million, lies on the Mediterranean Sea, and is bordered by Libya and Algeria. The earliest inhabitants were the Imazighen, who spoke Berber languages; predated the Phoenicians who founded Carthage; and were followed by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs. In 1576, the Muslim Ottoman Empire annexed Tunisia, but in 1881, the area fell to the French, who maintained control until independence in 1956. All of these shifts in Tunisia’s social, economic, and political environment had a dramatic impact on traditions of dress.


Earlier evidence concerning dress of the Imazighen provides skimpy data from sparse archaeological discoveries or scattered passages by writers such as the Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484–425 b.c.e.) describing Imazighen life. Links to Greece are indicated in Jerba, southern Tunisia, where Imazighen women wear a dress like that on a statue found in Tanagra, Greece, from the classical Greek era (fourth century b.c.e.) along with a pointed straw hat, found in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains as well as commonly worn by Imazighen women in Jerba, southern Tunisia. Until the early seventh century c.e., Imazighen women wore a draped dress like the Greek chiton and the Roman toga fastened with silver fibulae and a woolen or leather sash wrapped around the waist.

In the midst of all these successive occupations, the Imazighen, wanting to regain control of their land, made a strategy of allying with the enemy of their enemy—for example, with the Carthaginians against Rome or vice versa. By the end of the third and last Punic War, Carthage was annexed to Rome, thus creating the province of Africa (or Ifrykia, the name later given to the continent by the Arabs). The Arabs brought Islam to Tunisia and influenced local dress and life. Islam carried notions of equality, justice, and modesty, and dress reflected this. Modesty dictated that men avoid gold, silk, and velvet and required that both inner garments and loose-fitting outer ones cover the body. The Arabs also introduced royal embroidery schools called tiraz, where elaborate stitched patterns from the Arabian peninsula were taught. For centuries, these embroideries gave Tunisian and North African clothing a distinctive look.

These embroideries were enriched with the influence of other empires that conquered Tunisia. The Ottomans conquered all of North Africa, interspersed with fierce Berber outbursts and even Ottomans fighting among themselves. Finally, the Ottomans gained control for more than three hundred years, until the French took over in the early eighteenth century. In general, the various subregions of North Africa share a common history related to dress from the prehistoric era until the period of Ottoman domination. An important influence on dress occurred during the sixteenth century, when Muslims and Jews fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Textile and clothing production became Tunisia’s second-largest industry after agriculture during the late nineteenth century. Both men and women produced clothing—men, for commercial sale, and women, for domestic use (usually a wife clothed her family, and a bride-to-be prepared her own trousseau, embroidering wrappers and blankets). Most textiles and garments were locally consumed, but some were exported. By the end of the nineteenth century, Imazighen, Turks, Arabs, Moors from Spain, and Europeans dressed distinctively but borrowed designs and techniques from each other. Rural women made wool garments for household use, beginning with carding wool to spinning, dyeing, weaving, and sewing. An exception was in the production of chechia, a headdress for men produced for sale in other northern African countries and Europe. Another exception was that urban women excelled at making fine embroidery on both silk and cotton using a technique called chebka, which was in great demand in Europe. Urban men wove and sold silk and cotton textiles and sold wool products.

A man wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a chechia, worn throughout Tunisia from before the 1800s into the twenty-first century. Manufacture of chechias, largely for export, continues into the twenty-first century. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

Male Dress

Scholars have paid very little attention to the dress of Tunisian men, focusing on women’s wedding dress because of its richness and diversity. Young boys, young men, and older men all dressed alike based on their cultural heritage. A male ensemble consisted of head cover, outer and inner garments, and shoes. The chechia, a hat for men made of fine red wool and usually featuring a black tassel, was produced locally or imported from Spain. It was dyed red with cochineal and kermes. Usually the tassel, falling to the shoulders, was of deep blue or black silk. Tunisian production of this item greatly increased with the arrival of Muslims from Spain and the Turkish rulers’ encouragement of production and export to enhance the economy. In 1865, exports of chechia were second after olive oil, with wool and cotton third. Markets in Europe and Asia looked for the Tunisian trademark as a sign of quality. In fact, many “Turkish” fezzes were produced in Tunis and sold in Constantinople and were called “Tunsy” to distinguish them from those produced in Turkey or southern France (where cheap knockoffs were mass-produced). Islamic and Jewish traditions decreed that men’s heads be covered, and Tunisian men followed the practice , which varied only in the different styles of wearing the chechia: Muslims centered it on the head, and the Jews tilted it back. Both urban and rural Muslims wrapped a turban around it as a sign of religious piety, imitating the style popular among religious leaders or educators. Another head cover, the arrakya, is smaller, crocheted of white cotton, and worn for prayer inside the house or under the chechia in winter when in public. In summer, men wear an arrakya made of woven cotton, similar in size to the chechia.

The mdhalla, a straw hat, also differs in shape depending on geographical area and tribal affiliation. In the west and on the island of Jerba, they are often round and simple. Oversized examples decorated with short woolen tassels of different colors are worn by men in cities bordering Libya to the south and Algeria to the west. Short tassels are hallmarks of Imazighen dress for both men and women. Farmers only remove their mdhalla when going inside. As a symbol of hard work, the mdhalla was placed by farmers on top of their chechia or arrakya. In general, this head covering was synonymous throughout the country with the word fellah (farmer), a term later used by French settlers to suggest ignorance and backwardness.

Outer garments included the barnous, a cloak made of fine wool, camel hair, or a mixture of both. The finest wool ensures easy movement. The Tunisian scholar Ibn Kalhdoun, (1332–1406 c.e.), contrasted the Baranis (“wearers of the barnous”) with the Butr (“wearers of short dress”), who showed their legs. To make a barnous, a rectangular hood is fashioned from two woven pieces, and the body of the garment shaped in a semicircle to allow draping. The sides are loose and are either kept simple or are accentuated with subtle, intricate embroideries indicating social status or the cultural heritage of the wearer. Known for centuries as a typical North African Imazighen item of dress, the barnous is usually light beige or dark brown and falls from both shoulders or drapes across one shoulder to cover the body fully. Wrapping it under the left arm and over the right shoulder means that the wearer is of Libyan descent, often the case of Tunisians living near the southern border. Another outer garment is the kashabya, worn exclusively during cold, snowy winters and mostly in western cities. Made of heavy, dark (usually brown) wool, this sleeved and hooded garment has eyelets or a zipper in the front for easy wear. It is decorated with short, round, black woolen tassels along the gathering.

An Imazighen woman wearing a separate head shawl, a houli (the red undergarment covering from the shoulders to midcalf, secured with two silver fibulae), and a fouta (a smaller cotton cloth) tied at the front over her houli. Southeastern coast, Tunisia, 1970s. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

The jebba is a shorter version of the African boubou sewn from silk, cotton, or linen, depending on the season and social occasion. The front opening is embroidered using silk thread, and only by men. The design and extent of the embroideries define the cost of this item. If it is made of linen, the jebba is called kamraya; if a mixture of silk and linen, it is called sekrouta. Both types were seen at formal social ceremonies; otherwise, men wore a wool and silk jebba in winter or a cotton jebba for everyday wear. Predominant colors were white in summer and dark beige or dark maroon in winter. From the capital, this fashionable item traveled to the interior of Tunisia and became a status symbol because of the workmanship (and thus cost) involved. However, nomadic men from the furthest south did not wear the jebba because it was not convenient for riding horses.

Reserved for working men, the kadrun is worn over other clothes for protection from dirt; it is easily categorized as work clothes. Constructed from cotton or wool, usually gray, it has either buttons or a zipper on the front. It originated in the cities of the Sahel and the south and became prevalent in the northern and western cities when rural southerners migrated there for work. Because of distinctive cultural meanings carried through dress, in the city of Tunis and in the west, a kadrun wearer would usually be referred to as Jerbi or Sahli—that is, a Tunisian from Jerba or Cap Bon. As a garment underneath the jebba, Muslim men both in cities and rural areas wore the Arab sarwaal, a white pantaloon of cotton cloth with extra room between the legs, allowing not only for everyday comfort but also an easy fit for horse riding. The tailor adjusts garment ease by increasing or decreasing the number of pleats in the pants, which are finished at the calf with subtly embroidered eyelets. Men fastened the sarwaal with a belt about three centimeters (slightly less than one inch) wide that they wrapped around the waist. The belt was made of the same fabric and was usually covered with a beautiful, thick silk sash about half a meter (twenty inches) wide and at least two meters (six and a half feet) long. This silk sash usually shows when men are in public, when they lift their jebba to get ready for prayer or when lifting their barnous. Once in the house, men normally remove the jebba and remain in the sarwaal. Other urban men of European and Turkish descent wore Western-style pants. Tunisian Jews in the capital also strayed from Tunisian ethnic dress and adopted European-style clothing, except for the southern Jews, who kept their ethnic dress.

The fermla is a vestlike garment, usually of silk or cotton, embroidered with silk filaments and with eyelets down the front, that is worn for everyday use or special occasions. The back can also be embroidered when the farmla is meant for a groom or the father of the bride at a wedding or for a young boy at his circumcision. It is worn on top of a long-sleeved linen shirt underneath the jebba. Young boys also imitate men’s dress, especially during formal religious and social ceremonies. Men’s dress was never embroidered using gold or silver; instead they preferred silk in the same color as their garment to ornament it, due to religious modesty. In winter, men would wear a farmla and over it a sadrya (a long-sleeved, waist-length jacket with embroidered eyelets on the front).

Bolgha are flat leather slip-on shoes with no back that complete a man’s outfit; they are typically worn by both urban and rural men from North Africa to the Middle East. Leather work was so prominent in Tunisia that each market had an area dedicated to selling bolgha. Southern Imazighen men as well as rich western land owners wore knee-high leather boots called sabbat that had intricate embroidery on the sides and/or the front and were fastened around the leg by securing side hooks onto the gaiter (spats). This footwear was reserved for adults as a symbol of membership in the cavalry. Shorter ankle boots and moccasins (made from a single leather piece) were for men’s everyday wear and for boys.

As previously mentioned, Islamic law encourages modesty in dress in general and discourages men from accessorizing to the point of attracting attention. For this reason, Muslim men wear a silver (not gold) wedding ring and a silver watch. Similarly, they use amber and floral essences rather than strong perfumes, which are reserved for women. Some southern men use kohl to line their eyes, mostly as protection from the harsh Saharan weather. Also in the south, men wore leather belts that sat high on the chest and the back; these were originally brought to Tunis with the coming of Islam but then filtered into the rest of the country. The leather work resembles that of the sabbat. Horsemen place their swords and knives in the front side pockets for easy retrieval.

An Imazighen woman wearing a bridal wrapper and headcover of synthetic fibers. Tunisia, 1970s. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

Urban Female Dress

Before the Treaty of Bardo was signed in 1881, giving the French full control over the Tunisian economy and government, women were seemingly worlds apart from men. Urban women and young girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, were not expected to work and had to be accompanied on those rare occasions when in public by men or by another (usually older) woman. Muslim women in Tunis generally came from two cultural backgrounds: they were either descendants of Andalusian refugees who had fled the Spanish Inquisition or were of Turkish origin and had resided in the capital since Tunisia’s annexation to the Ottoman Empire in 1575. Customarily, urban women did not leave the house except to go to the public baths, to visit relatives for mourning, or to visit cemeteries early on Friday mornings. Clothing differences between these urban women and their Imazighen counterparts were obvious, given that Imazighen women did not veil. They also worked side by side with their husbands on the land, dyeing fibers or warping heavy looms, often located outdoors, for weaving. Europeans and Tunisians lived in the same cities, but the women from these groups did not socialize. When European women went to the market, however, they interacted with Tunisian men, and they could interact with upper- and middle-class Tunisian families when hired as tutors for their daughters. Dress for women during the late nineteenth century distinguished women into the categories of Imazighen and non-Imazighen.

There is little distinction between urban Muslim and Jewish women’s dress, except that Jewish women were expected not to mix animal fibers with vegetable fibers. These groups of women shared clothing practices before fleeing the Inquisition in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. When in public, urban women were covered from head to foot in a silk garment called safsari, either white or beige for Muslims or with yellow or maroon stripes for Jews, that is believed to be of Spanish origin. Social status was displayed by the type of fabric from which the safsari was made. The safsari and a’ajar (a face cover that obscured the face completely) worn by wealthy women was made of silk; middle-class women wore a woolen safsari and a black face covering (tchertches) that left only the eyes showing. Religious distinctions were exhibited when Muslim women covered their faces with the safsari or used an additional rectangular piece of silk called ajaar embroidered with motifs that resembled those found in both Turkey and Andalusia. Jewish women wore a conical hat under the safsari.

In general, most urban women wore some type of a head cover. Jewish women wore the duka, a pointed skullcap finished with a rectangular panel about half a meter (twenty inches) wide that was folded and used to fasten the duka to the head. Muslim women, on the other hand, used a different style of hat called kufya. These varied from jewelry crowns fitted to the skull to somewhat rectangular embroidered fabric hats. Women’s hats had back panels called k’fa (literally “the back”) embroidered with designs using silk, gold and silver, tassels, fringes, and sequins. Fabrics varied but were usually of silk, satin, or velvet. The kufya is believed to have originated in Syria and traveled to Spain, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews all wore it but with each group displaying distinctive designs carefully chosen to proclaim their particular religious affiliation.

Muslim and Jewish women dressed somewhat similarly. Both women wore the Arab sarwaal, whose amplitude increased with the woman’s wealth. While doing housework, women wore a fouta, a rectangular piece of cotton cloth wrapped to protect their sarwaal and usually tied in front—similar to a twenty-first-century apron. When not wearing the sarwaal, women wore different types of pants for ease. These house pants were more close-fitting and made of cotton knit, similar to twenty-first-century leggings. Customarily, women covered their heads while doing housework by folding a scarf in a triangle and tying it at the front of the head. This style was called takrita (tie) or takrita asfour (a bird-style tie), because the front knot mimics the wings of a bird.

With the fouta, women wore either a cotton sweater or a chemisette. The sweater, called maryoul fadhila, came in different colors and had distinctive vertical black stripes. Its colors ranged from white to violet, yellow, and green. It had long sleeves, a round collar, and three flat buttons in front. The chemisette (surya), made of silk or linen, was hand-embroidered and had long, wide, transparent sleeves. It was worn underneath a bralike vest called hassara, which was embroidered with gold and/or silver.

Women adopted slip-on shoes of wood, fabric, leather, or a combination and of different heel heights. At home, women wore elevated wooden sandals (kobkab) that were equally high in the front and back, as if having a heel on each end. When dressing to go out, women would wear either beshmak (slip-on shoes with closed toes made of embroidered satin) or a tmag (a slip-on with a wooden base and a leather upper).

Imazighen Female Dress

In the nineteenth century, Imazighen women continued to wear wrappers, but no longer were they made of linen. The wrappers changed from Matmata in the south to El Kef in the west, not just in color but also in style and material. Differences correlated with the type of fiber used, the season, and the region. Usually wrappers were made of a cotton and wool mixture in winter, cotton in summer, and silk for special occasions. The garment was formed by wrapping a piece of fabric (four to five meters [thirteen to sixteen feet]) long fastened by two silver fibulae on the shoulders and a woolen sash at the waist that created a Greek chiton effect. Colors varied from deep blue, using indigo dye, to deep maroon, using pomegranate skins. The wrapped dress differed from one region to another by its distinctive embroideries made either by women (in the south) or by men (in Mahdia and Jerba).

Inner garments changed more than outer, but regional and cultural differences persisted in embroidery. The inner garments consisted of the shirt worn by urban women, with maryoul fadhila underneath their wrapper.

Imazighen women also covered their heads but never their faces. Their distinctive style ordinarily included two to three scarves. One square scarf was folded in a triangle and tied on the head, while the other one, usually a rectangle, was folded around the head turban style, tying it in the front over the first scarf. Alternatively, a shawl (the head and shoulder veil) was woven by women using cotton or wool and embroidered by men. It is believed that women wore their veil the way the Punic goddess Tanit and the Egyptian goddess Isis were depicted as having worn theirs, as a symbol of femininity and fecundity. These shawls were white for young girls, red for young women, and black for older women. Embroidery was in white, green, yellow, and red. Some shawls were decorated using a technique called Berber batik. When visiting cities for trade or looking for work, Imazighen women adopted the urban fashion of adorning the safsari but wore it Imazighen style, folded in half and worn on the head and the shoulders, more to stay true to the Imazighen way of life than to follow urban fashion.

The most striking trademark for Imazighen women was their tattoos. Even though Islamic law forbids body marking, Imazighen women kept the practice, believing that tattoos protect from evil and black magic and ensure longevity and good health. Women chose designs of different sizes and for different places on the body. Some women tattooed entire arms; some, only their ankles; and others, their faces.

A woman from southern Tunisia wearing an Imazighen embroidered wrapper, ca. 1970. There is evidence to suggest that Imazighen women wore a wrapped style of dress from as early as the first few centuries b.c.e.) In the nineteenth century, the style of Imazighen women’s wrappers changed to incorporate new fabrics and colors. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

Wedding Dress

Tunisian wedding ceremonies typically lasted seven days and seven nights, and brides wore a different ensemble for each day; in the early twenty-first century, most families no longer do weeklong weddings. Women’s wedding dress varied by city and cultural group but was similar in that all variants involved layering several items of different types of fabric together. For instance, several cities adopted the inner wedding garment called kmijja. This garment was made of silk, linen, or both and featured embroideries selected by the bride; it was typically ankle length or calf length and A-shaped. Both the bottom of the kmijja and the edges of its sleeves were embroidered in point lace. Typically, the front of this garment was also embroidered with gold thread, depending on regional fashion, to protect the bride from the evil eye. Some of the frontal embroideries had designs with talismanic significance that dated as far back as Phoenician times—including fish, hands, and horns—while other motifs came from the Islamic era—such as flowers and animals. Most important, this garment, and any other item of dress the bride would wear during those seven days, was to never be tied with a belt, because tying was believed to magically hinder her ability to bear a child. In addition, all wedding garments were oversized in order to fall loosely on the bride and cover her body entirely.

The country’s heritage in wedding dress is as rich as the history of the country itself. In El Kef, once the Roman trade capital, the bride wears one wrapper over another, a style called the peplum, which dates back to the fifth century b.c.e. The outer wrapper, which is wider and blue, is worn on top of the inner tunic, which is often red or yellow. In El Kef, the bride wears this double wrapper on the seventh day of the celebration. On this day, the outer wrapper typically is green, and the inner one, red or orange. At times, a third wrapper that is narrower and usually yellow is worn. Under the wrapper, the bride wears the kmijja and a pair of pants finished with needlepoint embroideries. Jewelry, vests, and shoes complement the ensemble.

Women of the capital display their cultural and religious backgrounds through subtle differences in wedding attire. The Turkish bride’s oversized sarwaal, gathered at the ankle, has gold embroidery on black or deep maroon velvet with a bolero-style vest, or fermla, also embroidered with gold. The ensemble is complemented with a kufya on her head and a silver-plated pair of tmaq on her feet. A Jewish woman wears a duka on her head, gold and silver embroidered bolero or fermla, satin tmaq on her feet, and gold and silver embroidered silk pants with heavier embroideries on the fitted calves. These are called “pants with legs” and emphasize the shape of the leg rather than hiding it under fabric as with Turkish pants. These two groups of brides are similar in their wearing of a chemisette of finely embroidered silk with wide sleeves finished with point lace underneath their bolero. In cities, there are more shared traditions than differences. For instance, on the day the bride appears in public unveiled for the first time and shows her henna and makeup for an audience of women, she wears a shorter version of the kmijja. In other Tunisian cities, she would have a longer, loose, untied kmijja, on top of which she would wear either a short bolero with wings on the shoulders or a longer, fully embroidered, oversized stiff chemise. Both groups also shared similarity in adorning their dresses with gold jewelry.

The wedding week is a revelation of sexual life for the young woman. Her body is bathed, waxed, and treated with baruq, a soothing mix of chalklike powder mixed with rose water; her teeth are bleached with walnut stain; and her hair is treated with oils of olive, almond, and walnut and colored with henna, thought to have protective properties. Henna also decorates her hands and feet. Because the prophet Mohammed dyed his beard with henna, its use implies his blessing and is always found on a bride, applied over three days. On the first day, her hands are dyed in designs that indicate both cultural affiliation and current fashion. Because her hands are tied while the henna is drying, the bride is fed by the woman who beautifies her, called hannena (she who applies henna) or mashaata (she who brushes her hair, or hairdresser). The second day, after applying a second layer on the hands to obtain a darker, blackish color, henna is applied to the feet. The third day, after returning from the hammam (Turkish-style bath), the henna is then decorated with a black, scented dye obtained via a chemical process involving acorns, cloves, and copper sulfate. The black mixture is applied around the henna using a needle. Brides’ faces are also decorated with this mixture by drawing a straight line across their forehead and a vertical line on their chin, directing attention away from their beauty to protect them from envious eyes, which are believed to transmit evil. To finish the facial makeup, the bride decorates her eyes with kohl. Women attending the ceremony wear their ceremonial dress (wedding dress) and also display all their jewelry. Similarly, they dye their hair with henna or by using a homemade mixture called mardouma, which colors the hair black. In preparing their faces, women cleanse with essence of rose.

A young Tunisian girl dressed in a bridal fouta-ou-blouza, ca. 1970. This wedding dress is composed of a wide sarwaal and a bralike bodice. Traditionally, both are heavily embroidered with sequins, gold or silver filaments, or a mixture of both. Her hat shows Turkish influence. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

Beyond issues of fashion, jewelry in Tunisia throughout the centuries has served at least two main functions: economic display and protection. The relative prosperity of the groom and his family is demonstrated by the jewelry offered by the in-laws to the bride on an ongoing basis until the wedding day. Gold was as highly regarded in urban areas as silver was for the Imazighen; however, among the latter, silver was plated with gold for urban families of limited income. On her wedding day, the bride was expected to wear her entire jewelry collection, and creativity was essential to putting together an aesthetically pleasing ensemble. Some items were worn as received, and others were altered to suit her style. Unaltered items included round jewelry such as earrings, bracelets, anklets, and fibulae for the draped dress. The bride would, however, create her own design for necklaces, tiaras, and jewelry for the temples and chest. Brides also added coral, pearls, and glass beads of white, red, or dark blue. Jewelry stays with the woman her entire life and is her savings account, her wealth. She continues to buy more jewelry as she can, to display and possibly to redeem for money during difficult economic times for the family or in case of divorce or widowhood. But jewelry also wards off bad luck or misfortune. A woman always wears her circular jewelry; bracelets, fibulae, and anklets are never left behind, no matter what her social status. This tradition may date as far back as the Punic era. Although Islam prohibits belief in the power of spirits, for there is no power but that of God, for many Imazighen, the belief in spirits known as jnun (plural of jinn) continued.

Silver was highly regarded in Imazighen culture, with some geographical differences. For instance, women in Jerba preferred gold and gold-plated silver, but most others preferred silver, such as in two large fibulae to fasten wrappers that were attached to a necklace (sometimes made of more than two chains) that covered the chest. Bracelets, earrings, and anklets were also important jewelry. The latter were wide and weighed up to half a kilogram (one pound) if solid. As a symbol of wealth, the anklet was given by the husband to his bride.

Tunisian Dress and Fashion under French Rule

In 1881, the Treaty of Bardo was signed, which gave France total control of the Tunisian government and full managerial rights over the country’s economy. In short, this agreement guaranteed France advantages such as low import taxes for French settlers while also securing low export taxes on goods produced by French settlers for the French market. On the other hand, the treaty limited exports of handicrafts produced by Tunisians by increasing the taxes on their exports. Just before French colonization, cheap imitations of Tunisian items of dress and textiles flooded the market.

The loss in revenue from exports could not be replaced locally because the displacement of farmers, in conjunction with the increase in population, intensified poverty and deprived buyers of cash needed to purchase locally produced garments and textiles. Local production also diminished due to the lack of purchasing power of the increasingly poor population. Producers of handmade garments and cloth slowly disappeared and with them the distinctiveness of Tunisian fashion. The native ethnic clothing that remained was too ragged to carry any meaning except that of poverty. Few rich families continued to wear traditional dress, and most Tunisian men slowly adopted European pants and jackets. Women stayed at home and dressed in ethnic apparel made from cheap synthetic fibers (such as the wrapped dress of the Imazighen). Others incorporated European fashions along with everyday Tunisian styles. New terms appeared such as banouar, a cut and sewn dress of jersey knit worn a few inches below the knees with long or short sleeves.

Tunisian handicraft was controlled by rich French settlers who opened technical schools designed to produce laborers for all export-led industries. Some schools trained men to be machinery workers, and schools for females focused on handicraft skills. These schools were established in each region of Tunisia according to the regional specialty. They varied in focus or emphasis from embroideries of fine lingerie (handkerchief, chemisette, chemise) to embroideries of gold and silver and to the weaving of carpets and blankets. Outside of these schools, local handicraft industries waned, and sartorial differences started to diminish, except for subtle differences between Muslim Tunisians and French settlers.

From Colonization to Independence

With poverty, unemployment, and civil unrest at their highest point ever during the 1930s, the French government was eager to settle problems by inviting Tunisians to assimilate French culture—theoretically, of course, and without social benefits, given that they were not considered full citizens and that all administrative jobs were taken by French and European settlers. In addition, the French saw a great value in encouraging Tunisian women in the cities to remove the safsari and in rural areas, the wrapper, as they saw that garment as symbolizing backwardness and ignorance. To suggest that Tunisians were emancipated and fully civilized, the French wanted women and men to dress like them, Western style.

By the mid-1930s, Tunisian dress had changed dramatically. Older men and women wore Tunisian dress in cheaper versions using cloth that was industrially produced in France or Tunisia and that imitated local handmade goods. Younger women donned a gown called bannoir along with the safsari in public. The ajaar that was worn in the late nineteenth century as a face covering was replaced by a rectangular black piece of cloth covering the face from the nose down. This new face veiling, the lahfa mesri (an Egyptian oval-shaped drape or wrap in black silk, also called tchartchef) appeared around this time. As guardians of culture, women were still expected to cover themselves in public. Tunisian Jews had moved out of their Arab quarters and into French areas, where they adopted Western styles to the fullest, except for those living in the south, who continued to wear Tunisian ethnic dress. Younger boys dressed in Western styles and wore chechias. Educated older men who returned from Cairo or France wore suits—some with the Turkish fez and others with the chechia, declaring themselves the generation of Habib Bourguiba, the resistance leader and first president of Tunisia (from 1957).

Changes in Meaning

Teaching French values to women was seen as a way to transform Tunisian society in the 1930s, but these French initiatives were countered by Bourguiba, who, like other educated nationalists, found himself in a country governed by political descendants of the revolutionaries of 1789 who preached freedom for France but practiced otherwise in his own country. Downtown Tunis was segregated to a point that on Avenue Jules Ferry, Café Lorraine had printed on its windows, “Dogs and Arabs are not allowed.” The resistance came through Bourguiba, who used both religion and culture to define Tunisian identity and protect it from being supplanted by French culture. Bourguiba saw women’s emancipation no longer as a question of equal access to education but more as a matter of safeguarding Tunisian identity and asserting Tunisian sovereignty. Between 1929 and 1933, Tunisian dress became part of the rhetoric of the independence movement. Definitions of identity were set, and violating them attacked the well-being of the nation. This link between protecting Tunisian identity and preserving Tunisian dress traditions pervaded Bourguiba’s career as a resistor. Dress, in his view, was a symbol of the country’s ideals and customs, good or bad. It did not matter whether Tunisians agreed with the customs; what mattered was the fact that, for the time being, given that Tunisian identity was on the verge of disappearance, ethnic dress suddenly was very important.

In light of the civil unrest, Tunisian ethnic dress grew in importance and more than ever carried political and religious significance. According to Bourguiba, sociocultural values could not be borrowed from outside and inculcated by force on a group of people who shared a different set of values. He mocked the French, who believed that by changing Tunisian dress (a symbol of backwardness and savagery), Tunisians would ascend to the status of a civilized people.

Postcolonial Tunisia and Tunisian Dress, 1956 to 1987

Tunisia was declared self-governing in 1954, after guaranteeing to France that the trade agreement signed in 1881 with the Ottoman Empire binding Tunisia to France economically was left in force. Full independence was granted in 1956, and Bourguiba assumed power of the new republic in 1957. His most ambitious policy was the passage of the Code of Personal Status, which gave women full social, economic, and political rights that were unheard of in the Arab world. The state of the country was deplorable, the poverty rate was at its highest ever, and the literacy rate was extremely low. The country had no skilled labor to manage administrative positions, because most of the Tunisian labor force worked in the agricultural sector, with only a small percentage in manufacturing and mining.

Bourguiba feared that resurgent Arab nationalism in Tunisia’s neighboring countries due to the problems in the Middle East would split Tunisia apart. All his speeches after 1956 mentioned women, equal access to education, and, most important, modernizing his country and its people. He needed to find a strategy to overcome the differences between Tunisia and its neighbors and unite Tunisians behind their government. One way of doing that was by modernizing dress throughout the country—a reversal of his prior position. He wanted every Tunisian to have access to modern, presentable clothes. And to implement that policy, thousands of bales of used clothes from the United States entered the country, killing what was left of the local garment industry.

A Tunisian woman wearing an evening dress in a two-part fouta and blouza style of hand-embroidered silk with a crocheted shawl, ca. 1970. Photograph by Mary Eastman.

This newly elected African president believed in mind over matter and had a vision that all Tunisians would have access to free education, a health care system, and a stake in the economy. It was his view that, in order to achieve such a goal, a new identity needed to be shaped—one that would speak of modernity. In doing so, he established a dress code for Tunisians. Gaining respect and restoring dignity, in his view, went hand in hand with appearance, and reforming dress customs was thus the first means of crafting a new Tunisian identity. For him, Tunisians were poorly dressed because of penury and traditions that, in his mind, needed to be fought. Bourguiba was very driven, and no doubt he loved his country and its people (whom he referred to as his children). To him, dressing the part was a matter of national advancement, and therefore the government had to clothe its citizens.

He fought ethnic dress and strongly believed in the correlation between European styles and evolution toward a modern culture. He argued that ethnic dress was undignified and not conducive to hard work, because it carried meanings of old traditions and old ways of thinking, that could hinder economic and social advancement.

As a result, people strayed away from ethnic dress for fear of its symbolism. Almost all Tunisians by the end of the twentieth century wore Western-style clothing, except for wedding dress. In addition, a few Imazighen women, mostly in the south, kept their wrappers and became such an attraction when seen in public places that tourists photographed them. Women with tattoos became an embarrassment to the point that, in some Tunisian weddings at the eve of the twenty-first century, brides or grooms of urban cities did not want to be photographed with an in-law wearing an Imazighen dress and displaying body tattoos. Slowly, the many Tunisian dress styles, with their symbols, meanings, and shared values, vanished, making room for Western fashion.

The Twenty-First Century

Twenty-first-century Tunisians dress like many citizens in major cities around the world, and clothing no longer portrays regional identities. Even the white wedding dress has become common in Tunisia. Although ethnic dress continues during some or all days of the wedding ceremony, the bride may not have internalized its significance. She adopts such a style because of fashion dictates, aesthetic appeal, or family pressures. Similarly, ethnic dress items from different parts of the world have become highly fashionable in wedding ceremonies. For instance, Indian saris have been sold or rented at a high premium. When bought as cloth, the sari can be cut and sewn in a fouta and blouza style (sarwaal and short bolero) and not necessarily worn as a sari per se.

After the coup in 1987 and the election of the second president, Zin El Abidin Ben Ali, in 1989, traditional dress started to regain value. Embroidery schools were reopened, studios were subsidized to produce handmade items of dress, and the Office National de L’ Artisanat gained full legal power to control production of such items and to authenticate them. Similarly, the new president and first lady always dressed in Tunisian ethnic dress on formal cultural and religious ceremonies. Re-instilling pride in ethnic dress has encouraged new waves of creativity in young fashion designers. Samya ben Khlifa, for instance, has designed fashionable wedding dress with influences from Tunisian cultural heritage. Other fashion designers have won international acclaim, primarily designing world fashion rather than drawing on ethnic styles. Some remained in Europe and worked for couture houses, while others developed their own brands, such as Azzedine Alaya, known worldwide for his knit designs.

Similarly, by the late twentieth century, the country had a strong cadre of graduates from renowned schools in textile engineering and fashion garment production. Along with Western-style apparel exports supported by foreign investment, Tunisia started developing its own fashion trademark, primarily for local consumption and not yet reaching export status. Fabric availability is also being addressed, as Tunisia has maintained its rank as the fourth-largest supplier of textiles and textile by-products to Europe since 1997. Tunisian fashion faces stiff competition from international brands such as Max Mara, Coach, and Armani, but nevertheless, the Tunisian dress industry has its own famous designs, such as Mabrouk and Blue Mountain. The Tunisian government is even beginning to sponsor pan-African fashion competitions to increase world awareness for young Tunisian and African designers.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Bakalti S. La femme tunisienne au temps de la colonisation (1881–1956). Paris: Edition L’harmattan, 1996.

Find in Library Bertholon L., and Chantre E. Recherches anthropologiques: berberie orientale. Lyon, France: A Ray Imprimeur Editeur, 1913.

Find in Library Brett M.a.E.F. The Berbers (The People of Africa). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Find in Library Cayci A. La question tunisienne et la politique ottomane (1181–1913). Conseil supreme d’Atataurk pour la culture, langue et histoire. Ankara, Turkey: Société Turque d’Histoire, 1992.

Find in Library Courtney-Clark M. The Vanishing Tradition of Berber Women. New York: Clarkson Potter Publisher, 1996.

Find in Library Fontaine J., and Gresser P. Tunisie carrefour des civilisations. Courbevoie, France: Acre, 2000.

Find in Library Gabous A. La Tunisie des photographes. 2nd ed. Tunis, Tunisia: Ceres Editions, 2005.

Find in Library Gargouri S. Les bijoux de Tunisie. Tunis, Tunisia: Dunes Editions, 2005.

Find in Library Institut National du Patrimoine. L’Art de la coiffure traditionnelle: Musée National du Bardo. Tunis, Tunisia: Institut Nationale du Patrimoine, 2000.

Find in Library Kraiëm M. La Tunisie précoloniale. Tome I and Tome II: Etat, gouvernement, administration. Tunis, Tunisia: Société Tunisienne de Diffusion S.T.D., 1973.

Find in Library Le Centre des Arts et Traditions Populaires. Les costumes traditionels feminins de Tunisie. Tunis, Tunisia: Le Concours du Ministère des Affaires Culturelles, 1985.

Find in Library Lee M.Constru(ct)ing Gender in the Feminine Greek Peplos.” In The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, edited by L. Cleland, M. Harlow, and L. Llewellyn-Jones, 55–64. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books, 2005.

Find in Library Perkins K. A History of Modern Tunisia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Find in Library ““Revue du Centre des Arts et Traditions Populaires”.” Centres des Arts et Traditions Populaires 7, no. 9 (1968): 187–188.

Find in Library Robichez J. Maroc centrale: cent-vingt-trois photographies commentées (1937–39). Grenoble, France: B. Arthaud, 1946.

Find in Library Salem N. Habib Bourguiba, Islam and the Creation of Tunisia. Sydney, Australia: Croom Helm, 1984.

Find in Library Spring C., and Hudson J. North African Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Find in Library Stillman Y. K. Arab Dress: From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times, a Short History. Koninklijke, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

Find in Library Sugier C. ““Survivances d’une civilisation de la laine chez les Jebalia du Sud Tunisien”.” Cahier des Arts et Traditions Populaires de Tunisie 4 (1971): 35–48.

Find in Library Tanfons A.Noces Tissées Noces Brodées: parures et costumes féminins de Tunisie.” In Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, edited by Bernard Dupaigne and Jean Hubert Martin. France: Joël Cuénot, 1995.

Find in Library Temimi A. Habib Bourguiba & l’établissement de l’état national: approches scientifiques du bourguibisme. FTERSI Série 6: Monde Arabe, Turquie et Afrique L’Epoque Contemporaine, 10. Zaghouane, Tunisia: Fondation Temimi pour la Recherche Scientifique et l’Information, 2000.

See also North Africa; Snapshot: Libya.