Clothes shopping Somali style

Visiting the local tailor

One of the first things to get in order upon my arrival was clothing. As a woman living in Somaliland, I have to dress appropriately for a conservative Muslim country, so I went to the market to shop for traditional Somali clothing with the help of my female co-worker.

Unlike the western world, where almost all clothing save for wedding dresses is ready-to-wear, here in Somaliland almost all clothing is custom made. You go to the market to pick not a dress, but a fabric.

You then take the fabric to a tailor and indicate to him the style of dress you wish to have made; all of them are very loose-fitting and sack-like. This traditional type of dress is called a direh in the Somali language. A few days later, you go back to the tailor pick your dresses up. The cost of labour is so low, and the cut of the dresses so basic, that you only pay $1 per dress for the tailoring.  The fabric itself costs several dollars, depending on the quality.

Pick your fabric, pick your dress style

Because Somaliland is an almost entirely Muslim country, women must have their heads covered whenever in public. So women wear hijabs with their direh. I have learned how to cover my hair and head – first I tie my hair back into a low ponytail; then I tie a little bonnet over my head which keeps my hair in place; then I wrap a long, narrow, stretchy scarf around the bonnet for decoration; and finally I place a large shawl over my head, which covers my neck and shoulders.

When shopping at the market for dress fabrics, I also picked out matching scarves and shawls. Somali women are also expected to wear a petticoat underneath the direh, which is like a decorative slip. That way there is no chance of anyone seeing through your dress and catching a glimpse of your sexy legs. All of the dresses are, of course, down to the feet.

You see a large variety of dress and headscarf styles among the women on the street; I think it is a question of both religion and fashion. Many women also wear the abaya, a long robe-like over-garment that is draped from the head and drops all the way to the feet so that only the face, hands, and feet are exposed (some women even wear gloves to hide their hands). Like a nun’s habit, the neck and head are fully covered. Unlike in the Middle East, where the abaya are usually black, the women here are extremely colourful, so the drab dusty streets are decorated with bolts of swaying colour as the ladies walk past.

While it seems that so many layers would get quite hot in the 30 degree Celsius heat under the constant beating sun, from my experience it is actually quite comfortable and cool to wear such loose-fitting clothing; I don’t sweat that much at all. And your head, neck, and arms are protected from any chance of sunburn. So much for getting a tan.

My completed ensemble (and a random baboon)

8 Responses to “Clothes shopping Somali style”

  1. Flavia Cerrone Says:

    I love the picture above, but I can see your feet! Maybe I need to send you some Japanese stlyle socks to use with flip flops so you can cover those as well 😉 ?

    • africagrows Says:

      I haven’t seen any women here covering their feet. I think it is so hot and dusty that sandals and flip flops are the only option. Maybe I should get some flower-print socks to wear with my flip flops?

      • The “covering” does not extend to the feet so you’re o.k !

      • africagrows Says:

        I have noticed some Somali women wearing socks to cover their feet and, less commonly, gloves to cover their hands. I just wear my bare feet with flip flops!

  2. That is the most amazing outfit I’ve ever seen! Props to you for blending in so well.

  3. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog.
    Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?
    Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see
    a nice blog like this one nowadays.

  4. […] In Somaliland, a conservative Muslim country, I couldn’t leave the house without first fully covering myself with a long dress, shawl, and head scarf. In Tunisia, I wore western clothes to work, but always […]

  5. Kakachom Says:

    Hi.. i really enjoy your adventures, i was there last week and i must confess that things have really changed there though not much. wouldn’t mind sharing some more insights with you and probably pictures i took. Thank you

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