The daraa or boubou du sahara, a long, loose robe, and the tagelmusts, a cloth veil used as a turban, are two essential items of clothing for the traditionally nomadic men of the Sahara.
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Dressed for tough conditions
The North African origins of this garment go back hundreds of years, to the 7th and 8th centuries, when trans-Saharan trade began between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. And while some locals argue that this garment symbolizes people’s shyness and modesty, most agree that its primary function is to protect against the sun and the region’s frequent sandstorms.
“The style and shape of our daraa not only allows good air circulation in these harsh environments, but also helps Sahrawi men conserve body water in the middle of the desert,” says local Mauritanian guide Dahid Jdeidou (pictured).
With more and more people moving to the big cities and fashion moving west, the clothes Saharan men once wore to cross the hot desert have become a relic of the past. But in Mauritania, where most men wear daraa and tagelmusts in captivating shades of blue, this outfit is still very much alive – and looks like it’s been around for a while.
Fashion is born of commerce
During the era of trans-Saharan trade, new centers of trade sprang up on the fringes of the desert, and various ethnic groups traded items in high demand in North Africa, such as spices, minerals, animals and textiles. Over the centuries, trade drew many different groups to Mauritania, including nomadic Tuaregs from the northeast, Haratins from the southeast, and Haalpulaars from the south. When these various groups settled alongside the Berbers (known locally as Amazighs), who had lived in Mauritania since the 3rd century, Muslim faith and the Arabic language took over, but new cultural traditions emerged.
Architectural designs change, books from the Sahara enter local libraries and fashion trends from across North Africa converge to create a new style in the form of a long, flowing, wide-sleeved tunic.
A melting pot of the Sahara
Like other tunic-style garments, such as the kimono of Japan or the caftan of ancient Mesopotamia, the daraa finds its place in fashion history. The first versions of this garment are said to come from the Haalpulaar, who lived along the Senegal River, between present-day Senegal and Mauritania.
After that, people of all social status wore daraas, but the colors depended on one’s social position. Wealthy merchants wore chalk-white daraas and tagelmust because they could afford to clean their clothes every day, while slaves usually wore black because they often worked in dirty environments and often had to wear the same clothes.
Due to the lack of natural dyes in the Sahara, colored daraas did not appear until after the Haalpulaar started trading in natural indigo dye and indigo dyeing techniques became popular. These dark blue colored daras were perfect for people who couldn’t afford white daras, but also didn’t want to wear black daras.
The “blue men” of the Sahara
If the Haalpulaar is at the origin of indigo daraas, it is the Tuaregs who have adopted and popularized this fashion. They are considered the “blue men of the Sahara”, a name they got because the color of their clothes showed on their skin when they were in the hot sun.
According to Dr Anja Fischer, Sahrawi studies researcher at the University of Vienna, the Haalpulaar’s influence may have led to major changes in Tuareg fashion. “The Tuaregs once wore leather clothes and at some point they switched to the blue fabrics they are most known for today.”
Today inhabiting a vast area stretching from Libya to Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, the Tuaregs were historically one of the largest nomadic populations in the Sahara and played an important role in the spread of Islam in Africa. They were known throughout the Sahara and the fashion style they adopted in Mauritania was recognized throughout North Africa and then around the world. Even today, their fashion styles express their nomadic culture and traditions.
A new standard in blue
In recent decades, the arrival of chemical dyes from Asia and Europe and inexpensive dyeing techniques such as bale dyeing (a simple process in which fabrics are passed through a bath of cold water) have created a wide variety of shades of blue. And with the rise of the middle class in Mauritanian cities, people are increasingly choosing light blue daras because of their resemblance to traditional white daras and the social status they symbolize.
“A light blue daraa is similar to the white daraa, but only needs cleaning every three or four days,” says Jdeidou.
A world colored in blue
The central market of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is a true blue world. Many sellers only offer blue clothing and at least one in four men wears a blue daraa. In Mauritania, the color blue extends beyond clothing and is found in stable covers and parasols, as well as in architectural elements such as doors, ceilings and fences.
While the color blue represents the sky and the divine in the Quran, local Mauritanians have a more practical reason for using it: it’s the perfect color for sun protection.
Dress to impress
The very first daraas were made of silk, but are later considered haram, an Arabic term meaning “forbidden” in Islamic law. Today, in shops in Nouakchott, it is common to see daraas made of polyester, chiffon, and camel and goat wool, alongside silk versions for non-Muslims. Many daras in Mauritania are also decorated with gold and white embroidery, and some even have multiple inner and outer pockets – details that were rare centuries ago, but are useful in today’s modern, urban world.
There have been attempts to introduce more western clothing into Mauritania, but most have failed. According to Hademine Ahmedou, a local guide in the city of Zouerat, teachers in the country were told not to wear daraa while working and to adopt the chic clothing culture of Europe or America. Yet many Mauritanians could not bear to leave behind their traditional daraa and its cultural significance.
Proud of their nomadic heritage
While elements of traditional dress have been lost in most Saharan cities, men proudly wear their blue daraas in Nouakchott. They have become such an integral part of Mauritanian culture that even businessmen dressed in smart suits wear a personalized daraa instead of a blazer.
“It’s comfortable, easy to clean and it’s beautiful,” says Jdeidou (pictured) with a smile.
A trend for future generations
While most Saharan countries are now looking to the West for fashion trends, change in Mauritania still seems a long way off. The younger generations are also proud of their traditions and regularly wear them.
There are also hints of the appearance of these clothes in the modern fashion world. Recently, versions of the tagel musts from the Sahara have inspired fashionable scarves in Europe. And this year, luxury Italian fashion house Valentino took inspiration from the traditional Saharan daraa to design its Spring/Summer 2021 collection.
As more and more cultural traditions make their way into today’s ever-changing world, the blue daraa and tagel must — and the long traditions they represent — continue to radiate from the Sahara to the rest of the world.
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