Moroccan djellaba

Moroccan djellaba, gift of Carolyn Byrne, 2011. 2011/56/1

Over the years the Powerhouse Museum has actively developed its national and regional dress collection to reflect the multicultural nature of Australian communities and more effectively document their source cultures. We were very pleased therefore to acquire this beautifully made hooded robe or djellaba from Morocco.

Made from handspun and hand-woven natural brown wool harvested from local sheep, djellabas like this are of the type traditionally worn by Moroccan men during the winter. The cut is straight and fairly capacious to allow for clothes to be worn underneath. It covers the whole body, enabling the wearer to practise the modesty in dress required by Islam, while the pointed hood, known as a cob, provides vital protection from the winter cold. Lighter weight summer djellabas also have hoods which protect the wearer from sun and often sand.

Close inspection of the djellaba reveals how beautifully it has been constructed. The edges and seams are finished and decorated with narrow hand-made mauve silk braid. This type of braid is worked in place on the garment using a card-weaving technique intriguingly similar to that used to make the zeh edging common on garments and textiles from Central Asia. To make the braid, mauve silk warp threads were laid along the seam or edge and manipulated backwards and forwards around a continuous weft thread, which was passed between them and through the ground cloth, forming stitches perpendicular to the edge in the manner of buttonhole stitch.

This djellaba was made in the craft town of Chaouen (also known as Chefchaouen), situated in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco, just inland from Tangier. Chaouen was founded in the 1400s by Moorish exiles from Spain; it became part of Spanish Morocco in 1920, but was released back to Morocco on becoming independent in 1956. Chaouen is well known for its excellence in the crafts, which include brassware, pottery and leather work as well as weaving.

This djellaba was bought in Chaouen by the Australian woman who has now donated it to the Museum. When travelling in Morocco in winter in the early 1970s, she bought it to keep warm; it was only afterwards, on finding herself a source of amusement for local women and children, that she discovered her djellaba was of the kind worn by men. Generally speaking, women’s djellabas are of different materials, more close-fitting and decorated with colourful embroidery.

Finally, those readers who think they may have seen a hooded woollen robe like this before are probably Star Wars fans.  It was the design of the Moroccan djellaba that inspired the hooded robes worn by Alec Guinness as Obi-wan-kenobe and the other valiant Jedi Knights in the Star Wars films.

First published in Powerline, Spring 2011