Oman has not been anything more than a small fishing and trading hub for long. Although historically a powerful port – crucial for the route between Europe and India – it only began to grow significantly this century with the discovery of oil and gas in commercial volumes in 1967.
Which is why the dress remains so refreshingly consistent; there hasn’t been the same exposure to frivolous or fleeting western tastes.
The men wear a white, ankle-length robe referred to as the dishdasha, which buttons at the neck, and a round, patterned cap on the head. They take great pride in both items. For white cloth in a dusty country, the dishdasha is remarkably clean and pressed. And the caps stick to a small range of geometric Islamic patterns that offer enough variation to encourage interest without being showy.
I was on holiday in Oman last week and was impressed with both this pride and consistency. Unlike Oman’s neighbours in the United Arab Emirates, there is a self-respect that comes with this costume that elicits an attachment to clothes largely absent in cosmopolitan Dubai or stringent Saudi Arabia. Men actively admire each other’s choices in material or pattern, without seeing the traditional dress as in any way constrictive.
Jump back a few decades, and this attitude is not that different from the passionate yet restrained attitude many British men had to their clothes – in the days when Victoria station was crammed every morning with dark suits, briefcases and bowler hats. It was the British love of a simple yet elegant style that created a love of good tailoring – fit was all important, cloth second and pattern a fair way back.
It is easy to assume that traditional dress, especially in a relatively conservative country like Oman, is an imposition, a stricture that is part of life’s implicitly religious framework. And indeed there are some aspects of dress that are forced on people: government employees have to wear a turban instead of a cap, and airport officials equally are controlled in what they can wear.
But there is a genuine attachment to this form of dress here – one that can be seen in the markets as men pick through potential materials for a new dishdasha, or select a new embroidered cap.
It is the kind of pride that is missing in much of British dressing today. If only there was the same recognition of the values of tradition, an interest in examining their heritage and a concentration on substance over form.