Last year at the Museum of Modern Art (moma) in New York, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibited 111 pieces and accessories from around the world that proved influential in 20th- and 21st-century fashion. Among them were three examples of a square cotton cloth from the Arab world: the kufiya.
With origins as a plain headdress meant to protect from the sun in summer, from cold in winter, and from wind and dust in the desert, the kufiya is traditionally woven in black or red thread in several well-established patterns. Called kufiya
(kuh-FEE-uh) mainly in the Levant, it is known by other names in other regions—ghutra
, most commonly. (See “Names,” sidebar below.)
Across the Arab social spectrum—from hinterlands to capitals, from shepherds to software developers, revolutionaries to royalty, the kufiya has long been a sign of Arab identity. With fashion’s insatiable appetite for fusion, and especially since the proliferation of social media, the kufiya has been crossing historic cultural and geographical boundaries to step—confidently, it appears—into the lexicon of global cool.
Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design, and director of research and development at the moma, says the kufiya was chosen for the exhibit because “it has had a profound effect on the world at both global and local levels over the last century and, indeed, over millennia. It has been used as a practical accessory that helps people navigate local climates and environments,” she continues. “It has also become imbued with deep political significance. It has also become a fashion accessory that is, in some iterations, completely divorced from its original context and used for its esthetic merits alone.”
To Lebanese architect Salim al-Kadi, who designed the trio of kufiyas that the moma displayed, the kufiya “is transformative.” It “speaks to different geographies, different people and different issues. Depending on how it is worn, it can be a symbol of resistance and protest, or a disguise. [Today] there is no demonstration anywhere in the world where there isn’t at least one person wearing a kufiya. But it also indicates the strength and power of the downtrodden. Like a Wonder Woman bracelet for Arabs, it feels like it protects.”
To make his point, al-Kadi gave literal form to his metaphor with a kufiya made out of Kevlar body armor—painted gold. It was flanked on the gallery wall by traditional cotton kufiyas, one black and white and the other red and white.
The breakthrough into high fashion began a bit more than a decade ago. In 2007 the Spanish fashion house Balenciaga included in its collection French designer Nicholas Ghes’s black-and-white kufiya-designed scarves with pink flowers and frills imposed on the fatha design. (See “Reading a Kufiya,” below.) Brazilian supermodel Flávia de Oliveira wore it on the runway, Vogue Japan featured it on its cover—spurring record sales of kufiyas in Japan—and former InStyle Accessory Director Meggan Crum put the scarf on her “Top Ten Accessories.”
That same year, upscale us label Urban Outfitters featured kufiya-styled scarves and shirts in a variety of colors. Though criticism for cultural appropriation on the one hand and being “pro-Arab” on the other forced the store to pull the line, they were all back the next year with price tags up to $115.
At the lower end of the spectrum, “street kufiyas” have hung for sale in shops selling jeans and T-shirts in many western capitals as well as across the Arab world, priced usually between $10 and $20. Many of these are imported from China and made of synthetic cloth with printed, not woven, patterns.
More recently, French fashion powerhouse Chanel in 2015 used both red-and-white and black-and-white kufiya designs for a range of garments and accessories, including dresses, jackets, shirts, skirts, blouses and clutches. Fabrics comprised silk and wool, and leather accents appeared on some items. Models showing them on the runway included us supermodel Gigi Hadid.
Reina Lewis, who teaches cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, dates the first appearances of kufiyas in trendy shopping areas of London to the early 1970s, where “they would be part of ensembles that included Afghan sheepskin coats.”
By the 1990s, when other fashion items started to be made in the uk from kufiya-patterned cloth, “some people were offended. They felt it was the commoditization of a garment that for others was a marker of cultural, political, or national authenticity and pride—cultural appropriation.” But fashion, Lewis points out, “constantly plunders cultural symbols,” and “what some designers call inspiration others will see as cultural appropriation.”
Lewis says that while the garment has cultural and often political connotations to many, this is partly generational. “Millennials are completely unaware of its cultural and political associations and see it simply as a scarf,” she says. For many youth in London, multicolored kufiyas are “part of their fashion essentials, like a leather jacket or jeans.”
Kufiyas came later to the us, says Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas who studies identity and symbols in Arab cultures, including kufiyas.
“I first began seeing the kufiya in the United States around 1983, without fully understanding its context,” says Swedenburg. “In the last decade, kufiyas, in all colors, are being worn by actors and celebrities.” He goes on to namedrop Mary-Kate Olsen, Kirsten Dunst, Cameron Diaz, Colin Farrell, David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, “and even [us Senator] John McCain’s daughter,” Meghan McCain.
For many, however, wearing kufiyas was largely “a matter of trendiness,” says Swedenburg. “I think we have to ask why the kufiya became trendy, or edgy. That relates to the growth of antiwar sentiment in the us in the 2004 to 2008 period.” It also coincides, he explains, with the moment low-cost kufiyas became more widely available.
“You can’t draw a straight line, but that was an important part of the context,” he says. “People with progressive politics began to wear them as part of their statement.” Now, “maybe the kufiya need not choose between being a political or a fashion item. It can be both, and it can be educational, a conversation starter.”
Far closer to the roots of kufiyas are the designers and textile artisans of the nonprofit Social Enterprise Project (sep) in Jordan. Their designs are pushing toward what kufiyas might become while holding to the cloth’s traditions. sep kufiyas often include embroidery—a traditional art especially in the Levant—and thoroughly nontraditional but trendy and seasonal colors—grays, beiges, oranges, reds-on-blacks and more.
What makes these designers distinctive is that they all work out of refugee camps, explains Roberta Ventura, a Geneva-based investment banker who supervises the design and production of handmade kufiyas in the Jerash Camp in northern Jordan. To start, women use the traditional red- or black-and-white designs on cotton, linen and cashmere, before combining them in a series of different colors with the distinctive, fine cross-stitch embroidery used in traditional Palestinian dresses. The crafted kufiyas then sell in high-end stores across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
The kufiyas, Ventura says, are among more than two dozen fashion accessories made in the camps for sep Jordan and sold to support the women workers, who are paid middle-income salaries. “The kufiya is our bestselling item,” says Ventura.
“They go like hotcakes, and they’re sold to middle class, to wealthy people, lawyers, managers, from anywhere between $65 to $100. They’re sold to people,” she continues, “who are usually aware of the political and cultural association, but who are also clearly willing to make a statement that they are wearing it for its beauty.”
Ventura is thrilled at the success of the kufiyas, which is poised now for a next step: After years of selling online and in select stores, this year it is producing an exclusive, top-end kufiya for the department store Boutique 1, where it will sit alongside scarves by designers such as Missoni, Rochas and Elie Saab. While the design is not yet finalized, Ventura says, “there’s more embroidery.” The price is set to hover around $280.
Ventura adds that Boutique 1 “already sells our kufiyas, and they wanted to go onto the next level. They are selling them as a fashion statement. They are aware of the political symbolism, but they are also fully buying into our concept, our brand concept, which is, ‘forget the political statement, this is beautiful’—and you buy it because it is beautiful.”
Working from an Amman penthouse studio, Palestinian Serbian architect and kufiya designer Rashid Abdelhamid is similarly fusion oriented. He dismisses talk of cultural appropriation, and his website, Made in Palestine Project, displays kufiyas in an abundance of colors and combinations of fabrics. Original black-and-white or red-and-white fatha fabrics are incorporated, but more frequently they are being replaced by other colors and styles. The original kufiya designs are always present and visible, but always fused, combined, highlighted and sometimes only exist as accents that gives a thin root to the designs, gentle nods of recognition.
Abdelhamid asserts that while indeed his kufiyas reflect his own Arab European hybrid identity, they also symbolize contemporary historical context.
“I was born in Algiers and studied in Florence and Grenoble [France]. I travel between Dubai, Ramallah, Tunis and Amman. What I wear reflects these multiple cultures and identities—and many people are like me,” Abdelhamid says.
He handpicks the fabrics, including cloth from areas and communities not traditionally associated with the kufiya. “I include Tunisian velvet, Egyptian cotton, Turkish brocade, Anatolian peasant designs, Caucasian linen and sheer silks, and I combine them with the fishnet kufiya in a multitude of colors,” he says. “Each piece is unique and handmade, like each one of us.”
From his studio, he creates two collections a year. Internet-based sales, he says, “are exploding at around $100 a piece, and I have orders from high-end boutiques in Florence and London, which sell them for $300 to $500.”
Fashion historians from the Arab world agree on several facts concerning the history of kufiyas. Both the concept of the ‘iqal and the original fatha design originated in Iraq; the cotton used to make kufiyas came largely from Egypt but also from the Indian subcontinent; kufiyas were initially produced on looms mainly in Damascus; and it was the nationalist movements of Palestinians that in the 1960s first made kufiyas globally famous.
According to the Hirbawi family, which owns and operates the only kufiya factory still working in Palestine, three factories in Damascus began to flourish in the early 20th century when the use of the Ottoman tarboosh among men declined along with the empire that had popularized it. Rural men began to change the manner the kufiya was worn by no longer wrapping it like a turban but wearing them more loosely like headscarves.
Swedenburg points out that in the 1920s and 1930s, as Syrian and Palestinian opposition to European colonialism gained strength, urban men too began to wear kufiyas that, at the time, were only either black and white or plain white. This adoption of the previously rural headdress by urban elites as a marker of national unity signified, he says, a moment of “inversion of social hierarchy.”
The red-and-white kufiya has origins that are also military but relatively recent, says Widad Kawar, a Jordanian expert and collector of traditional garments. In the 1930s, Jordan-based British General John Bagot Glubb (also known as Glubb Pasha) sought to create a distinctive headdress among Arabs loyal to British rule. He is credited with ordering the production of red-and-white kufiyas.
These red-and-white kufiyas, mostly manufactured in British cotton mills, were of thicker cotton, and their pattern more densely woven, than traditional black-and-white kufiyas. They quickly became popular among men in the wintertime and in the desert, where the nights could be bitter cold.
“All the men loved the red-and-white one,” says Kawar. “Glubb Pasha could not control who wore it. The Syrians loved it, as did the Iraqis and the Saudis.” The red-and-white kufiya became standard-issue headwear for Britain’s colonial Palestine Police Force, Sudan Defense Force and Libyan Arab Forces.
In the 1960s, black-and-white kufiyas became synonymous with Palestinian nationalism, and thus “the last kufiya factory in Palestine,” Hirbawi’s, in the city of Hebron, has taken on an iconic significance. Founded in 1963 by Yasser Hirbawi, the factory is now run by his three sons.
“When my father founded the factory in 1963, there were no other kufiya-making factories in Palestine,” says 60-year-old Judeh Hirbawi, Yasser’s eldest son. All were made in Damascus. In 1963 Yasser bought two Suzuki mechanical looms made in Japan, which produced some 300 kufiyas a month, explains Judeh. They were all black and white—like the ones from Damascus.
By 1965 they started to make red-and-white kufiyas as well. Six years later the Hirbawis had six machines and were producing around 900 kufiyas of both types each month.
“By the 1980s the ‘salad’ design was introduced by my younger brother Izzat Hirbawi, who combined up to six colors to modernize the kufiya,” says Judeh. Today Hirbawi’s produces 42 different color designs, but the most popular is still the black-and-white classic, followed closely by the red-and-white.
It was not until 2000 that the Hirbawis began to export. Today the Hirbawis have 14 mechanical looms, still Suzukis, and 10 new ones were delivered last year. Annual production is around 60,000.
“Business is up, and we are exporting to new designers in Amman and Europe, says Judeh. “The kufiya is in fashion again,” he adds with a smile.