The American Journey of the Afghani Dress
by Suzanne McNeil
posted December 19, 2013
Since the 1970s (and still today), I have always had an intense fascination with the Afghani dress. Its brilliant colors, intricate embroidery, and lush fabric combinations made it one of the icons of the 1970s . If the number of vintage Afghani dresses available on eBay today is any indication, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in collecting these gorgeous dresses.
My first exposure to the Afghani dress came as an indirect result of studying belly dance. There were no stores for belly dance costumes, and therefore we made everything ourselves. This was not a foreign idea due to the huge interest in handcrafted clothing at the time. Thus, we found ourselves pouring over books about the traditional clothing of the Middle East for inspiration.
A traditional Afghani dress is made of mostly rectangles consisting of a highly decorated raised bodice, long gathered skirt, and elaborate wide sleeves. Dresses are usually pieced together as patchwork using various fabrics like printed cotton, silk, challis, and velvets. Embellishments are embroidery with silk or cotton threads, beading, coins, beaded tassels, and ribbon trims.
Afghani hand embroidery is famous for its intricacy and vibrant hues.
None-the-less, there was a huge number of variations available based upon different region’s ethnic styles and the uses for which a dress was made. Some were specifically for weddings and celebrations, and others were created for everyday use.
Hand-made dresses for personal use were rarely sold. They were passed down from generation to generation, repaired and embellished as time passed. Families only sold dresses like these if there were hard times and money was needed. Vintage hand-made Afghani dresses are very expensive and are sought out by collectors of fine vintage clothing.
As demand grew, machine embroidery began to replace some of the hand embroidered designs. There was a distinct difference between the hand-made dresses made for personal use and the dresses made by sewing machine for export.
Because machine made Afghani dresses became more and more prevalent and available, they began to be used by the people of Afghanistan, and not just for export. Dresses that combined both hand worked embroidery and patchwork with machine embroidery became common in the 1970s and continue to be available today.
Interest in Afghani folk clothing and designs began in the late 1960s due to the influence of the hippie generation. As this fascination with folk arts developed, mainstream America took notice. Along with the granny dress, maxi dress, and peasant dress, the Afghani dress was a perfect addition to our wardrobes.
By the 1970s, and some historians say even earlier, dressmakers and manufacturers of clothing in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries took notice of America’s interest in all things folkloric. Suppliers began to commission dresses to be made especially for export or for tourists. In the US, even small boutiques commissioned these dresses.
Once the Folkwear Pattern Company introduced the Afghan Nomad Dress pattern during the mid-1970s, Americans started to create their own versions. My mother, Samira (Sarah Munro), a very well known vendor of belly dance costumes, made the Afghani Nomad Dress one of her main items for sale. Her designs became a favorite of dancers across the US, and dresses with the Samira Costume Maker label are considered very valuable today by vintage collectors.
Photo 1: (top of page) Dress for Annella
Photo courtesy of Sarah Munro. Model: Annella Frantz. My mother considers this one of her best Afghani dresses. This dress was custom made for Annella Frantz in 1982. Its rich patchwork colors, pyramid designs, embroidery and trims shows off her talent as a designer. The scooped neckline was an American adaptation used both by my mother and other designers and manufacturers of the dress to appeal more to American tastes.
Photo 2 and 3: The Balouch
Dress made for a boutique in Hollywood, California, in the late 1970s called “Balouch“. Balouch is a variation of the name “Balochistan”, a province in Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan.
Photo 4-5: Old Dress
This Afghani dress is from the city of Quetta, Pakistan. The seller stated that this dress was at least 80 years old. Upon inspection, I suspect that parts of it are original and additions were made over the years, as is the custom. Dresses like these were for weddings, celebrations, and dance performance. This dress is a fine example of a type that has both machine and hand embroidery. This dress is extremely heavy with lots of metal coin across the bodice. This variation has a pocket on one side of the velvet skirt embellished and framed by beads and embroidery.
Quetta is located in northern Balochistan province near the Durand Line border with Afghanistan and close to the province of Kandahar. Quetta has served as a trade and communication center between Pakistan and Afghanistan for a very long time.During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 through 1989, many refugees fled into Pakistan by way of the mountains into the city of Quetta, which may be the reason why many vintage Afghani dresses found today come from this region.
Photo 6: Everyday Dress
Vintage ‘70s dress made in Afghanistan with lots of patchwork. The patches are squares, diamond, and triangle shapes embellished by machine embroidery. Lovely hand embroidery decorates the front of the bodice. This dress was made for everyday use. The seller told me a woman from the US who worked and traveled throughout the Middle East for 40 years originally purchased the dress. The dress is estimated to be at least 40 years old.
As with most fashion influences that become mainstream, the interest in folk clothing faded after about 10 years. The Afghani designs were adapted into dresses made here in the US, then re-designed again, and finally so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable to the observer in the dresses that followed in the early 1980s.
As for today, the interest in the beautiful Afghani dress is on the rise again. There are many opportunities to buy a vintage dress on eBay, Etsy and other websites. The cost of one of these can range from $59 up to many thousands for a museum-quality piece. These dresses usually come “as is”, needing repair and difficult cleaning. One of my own recent purchases shown in Photo 4 and 5 came to me reeking of perfume, smoke, and sweat.
There is a deep and satisfying feeling from creating hand made embellishments. If you are interested in making your own, a lot of books from the 1970s and beyond are available to inspire your creativity and many include instructions on sewing and making your own patterns.
My book recommendations:
- Exotic Needlework with Ethnic Patterns, Techniques, Inspirations by Donna Z. Meilach and Dee Menagh. C. 1988
- Embroidery from Afghanistan (Fabric Folios) by Sheila Paine. C. 2007
- Ethnic Costume – Clothing Designs and Techniques with an International Inspiration by Lois Ericson and Diane Ericson. C. 1979.
- The Afghani Nomad Dress pattern itself has lots of suggestions for embellishments that come with the pattern. In addition, there is a “recommendations” section on the website with hints to make your experience go smoother. See Folkwear.com.
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