Sunday, 30 December 2012


As I posted about Farida Fahmy and the Reda Troupe last week, I thought I’d use a (fairly tenuous) link to post about assuit this week.

Detail of an assuit dress

Also known as Assuti cloth or tulle bi telli, it is made in Assuit, in Upper Egypt. It consists of a mesh fabric of cotton or linen, with thin metal strips, 1/16" to 1/8” (1.5mm to 3mm) wide, woven through the mesh to form a pattern. Although the work is done with a long ‘thread’ of metal strip, each ‘stitch’ of metal is made separately, as can be seen in this close-up.

Image copyright Vintage Fashion Guild

In a talk I went to several years ago about the Reda Troupe, Farida Fahmy mentioned that by the 1960s the production of assuit had greatly declined, but when the troupe came under government control, President Nasser ordered that some of the cloth be specially made for their costumes.

Certainly assuit was still being made during the ‘golden era’ of Egyptian film, as can be seen from this 1930(?) photograph. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to identify the film to get an exact date.

Tahia Carioca in a stunning assuit costume

The 1920s seem to have been the high point of assuit in Europe however. In part this was due to the interest in all things Egyptian which followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. However it may also be that the simple, geometric shaped garments of the era were ideally suited to the fabric. Although assuit drapes well, the metal strips make it hard to work with; you would struggle to put darts in an assuit dress, for example.

These magnificent garments were in an exhibition I went to last year in the Palazzo Mocenigo, the Venice costume museum.

Coat and dresses from the Alexandre Vassiliev collection

The wool evening coat and the dress beneath it are both from Cairo, the coat from 1920-23 and the dress 1923-24. The silk evening dress is also from the early 1920s, but is from Istanbul.

The back of the coat, and the silk evening dress

With the amount of metal in them I would expect these garments to be very heavy, but in her book Costume In Detail Nancy Bradfield describes a similar black assuit dress, circa 1924, as weighing only 16 ounces (450 grams).

The textile historian The Dreamstress owns a beautiful, full length 1920s assuit tunic which she has posted about, with fabulous photographs, here.

I am luck enough to own a piece of assuit myself, a 1920s shawl.

Most of my shawl

One thing which immediately makes it different from almost all of the other pieces I’ve mentioned here is that it has figures woven into the design.

One of the many rows of figures

Most assuit designs are entirely geometric, in keeping with Muslim beliefs on human representation in art. However the city of Assuit has a large Coptic Christian population, so some pieces do include figures, and even camels! The shawl did not come with any background information, but this does at least give me a tiny clue to its history.

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