Dressing for Others: Lawrence of Arabia’s Sartorial Statements


Arts & Culture

Left: T. E. Lawrence; Right: Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

In the southwest Jordanian desert, among the sandstone mountains of Wadi Rum, there is a face carved into a rock. The broad cheeks and wide chin are framed by a Bedouin kaffiyeh headdress and ‘iqal, and beneath the carving, in Arabic, are the words: LAWRENCE THE ARAB 1917.

If you are visiting Wadi Rum with a tour guide, you can expect to be brought to this carving. You may also be shown a spring where Lawrence allegedly bathed, as well as a mountain named after his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, whose rock face has been weathered into a shape that does, from some angles, look a little like a series of pillars.

I am familiar with the legend of T.E. Lawrence—fluent Arabist, British hero of the Arab Revolt of 1916, troubled lover of the Arab peoples—as well as with the ways the Jordanian tourism industry has capitalized on this legend. Nevertheless, I am still surprised when I hear someone mention him with admiration. The image of Lawrence as AN adventuring Orientalist, galloping through the desert in flowing robes at the head of a Bedouin army, has endured in the imaginations of the British and American publics at the expense, arguably, of an accurate understanding of Lawrence’s role in the events of the First World War and its aftermath. Despite the fact that, to date, Lawrence has been the subject of nearly fifty biographies and scores of critical works, it is the image of Lawrence in the film Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole and a heavily made-up Alec Guinness as the Arab Prince Faisal, that has stuck. Lawrence was blond and blue-eyed, and yet, by his own account, successfully “passed” as an Arab—to which he attributed his expertise in both the Arabic language and Arab customs. Not to mention that kaffiyeh he wore.

In 1917, in a magazine circulated among officials and military personnel, Lawrence published some advice on how to blend in with the Arabs:

The beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs, is unremitting study of them … Hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, read their characters, discover their tastes and their weaknesses, and keep everything you find out to yourself. Bury yourself in Arab circles … so that your brain shall be saturated with one thing only.

Lawrence is said to have been a man divided. On the one hand, he was a loyal British citizen acting on behalf of his government. His military career began in the intelligence services in Egypt at the start of the First World War, and within a couple of years he had relocated to the Hejaz, where he collaborated with Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his son Faisal to launch the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans—all in the name of British national self-interest. He was “handling” the Arabs, which apparently required an espionage-like infiltration of their society. On the other hand, he began to feel he was, if not one of them, then at least very close to them, and in Seven Pillars, he expresses regret and shame that in the postwar negotiations he was unable to facilitate the independence of the Arabs under a single nation.

I do not doubt Lawrence’s feelings of guilt. In the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the British had pledged to help create a united Arab state under Sharif Hussein’s rule in return for his alliance against the Ottomans, with Lawrence acting as liaison. This agreement ran contrary to a series of other promises the British were making around the same time to the Zionists and to the French. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 mapped a new Middle East divided into French and British protectorates, leaving no space for Arab sovereignty, while the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised to facilitate a Jewish national home in Palestine. It’s unclear exactly when Lawrence became aware of the contents of Sykes-Picot but, in the end, ascertaining whether or not he acted in good faith is beside the point. To my mind, it follows that if a person performs a role for a long time, if his brain is “saturated with one thing only,” then some blurring will transpire between that person and the part he is playing. Living with the Arabs day in, day out, some confusion was bound to arise. In his advice to prospective Arabist adventurers, Lawrence cautions:

The strain of living and thinking in a foreign and half-understood language, the savage food, strange clothes, and stranger ways, with the complete loss of privacy and quiet, and the impossibility of ever relaxing your watchful imitation of the others for months on end, provide such an added stress to the ordinary difficulties of dealing with the Bedu, the climate, and the Turks, that this road should not be chosen without serious thought.

E. M. Forster called Lawrence a “joy for experts,” and all the experts who have written about him—political, psychological, biographical, literary—have sought to explain the heart of his dilemma. Second only to the image of Lawrence gallivanting in billowing robes, it is this complexity, this internal war, that is central to the Lawrence of Arabia legend.

A few years ago I came across a passage concerning Lawrence in the memoirs of the Palestinian statesman Awni Abdul al-Hadi. In 1919, before it was clear that the Arab claims to their territory would not be honored by the imperial powers, Emir Faisal came to France for the Versailles Peace Conference. Abdul al-Hadi was one of his cohort. He describes Faisal’s reaction on seeing Lawrence dressed in Bedouin clothing.

When the Emir Faisal arrived in Marseille on November 26th 1918, Colonel Lawrence was attracting the attention of the French: he had arrived from London to greet his Highness, wearing on his head a kuffiyeh and ‘iqal, and a gold dagger on his breast: the clothing of an Arab prince. It seemed that Lawrence’s Arab appearance did not please Faisal.

Note that Lawrence was not dressing up as any old Bedouin. He was dressing up as a sharif: in other words, as royalty. As he had written in his advice column, “If you wear Arab things, wear the best … Dress like a Sherif, if they agree to it. If you wear Arab things at all, go the whole way.”

Faisal may have been offended, but he held his tongue. He had come to France to negotiate for Arab independence. To his dismay, he discovered that no place was reserved for him at the actual peace conference. He had come for an audience so his sovereignty to be recognized, but since he was not yet recognized, he could not get an audience. Somehow, Lawrence managed to wrangle two seats on his behalf, and Abdul al-Hadi tells us that this incident confirmed Faisal’s view that Lawrence was his only real conduit to the powers that were. Faisal bore the insults in silence.

It is one thing to wear Arab clothes in the desert, where their practicality is clear. They keep out the elements, and, as Suleiman Mousa explains in T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View: “From an Arab viewpoint, these clothes were nothing but a means of facilitating life among the bedouin for a foreign officer who had declared his goodwill towards the Arabs and his desire to be one of Feisal’s retinue.” Mousa does not suggest that dressing in this way meant Lawrence “passed” as an Arab; rather, he was participating in a social code. It is quite another thing to wear a kaffiyeh, ‘iqal, and ‘abaya in Europe. To see this Englishman in France dressing up in his image, and apparently for his benefit—one can imagine Faisal’s consternation. Did Lawrence think Faisal would be unable to communicate with him unless they were dressed the same way? If not, then for whom was he dressing? The French public? Himself? Or was this kaffiyeh, rather, an expression of the psychological aftereffects of his time in the Hejaz, of having had his brain “saturated with one thing only”? We know that in other contexts Lawrence wore his ordinary uniform; Faisal was surprised, on one occasion, to come upon Lawrence in the French president’s office dressed as an Englishman.


The kaffiyeh is the traditional headdress of both the Bedouin and rural Arab farming communities, but not of Arab townsmen. During the period in question, male town-dwellers wore the tarboosh, known commonly in the West as a fez: a brimless red hat made of felt or cloth with a black silk tassel. The tarboosh, or fez, had first spread across the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century when, in a modernizing measure, Sultan Mehmet II banned the wearing of the turban. The Arab population rapidly adopted the tarboosh, and, by not distinguishing its wearer according to wealth or creed, this hat soon became a symbol of a particularly Middle Eastern modernity.

The tarboosh did distinguish between city dwellers and peasants, however, and in this way became a kind of class signifier. In the mid-’30s, the kaffiyeh-clad Palestinian peasantry led an uprising against the British forces in concert with a general strike. Until then, the British had been negotiating with the Palestinian educated elites—the tarboosh-wearers—and one can see in this peasant uprising an expression of class struggle within Palestinian society.

Underestimating the force and organizing skill of these peasants, the British were taken off guard. A report in the Colonial Archives from July 1936 says that the “heavily booted British soldiers are no match in the hills for lightly clad natives who, at any moment, can drop their weapons pro tem and become peaceful ploughmen and goatherds until the military have passed by.” Toward the end of that year, the British enforced martial law and pulled approximately twenty thousand troops from all over the Empire into Palestine. Nevertheless, it would take them three more years to crush the uprising successfully. With few tactics at their disposal, they soon began arresting anyone with a kaffiyeh on his head.

In 1938, at the apogee of the revolt, the rebel leadership commanded all Palestinian townsmen to remove the tarboosh and put on the kaffiyeh. This would obstruct the British by making it impossible to tell who was a rebel and who was not. It could also be read as a collective act of solidarity: if everyone is wearing the kaffiyeh, everyone is a rebel.

How much was this solidarity coerced, and how much voluntarily undertaken? I think it varied. I know that my great uncle, Haj Hassan Hammad, was very attached to his tarboosh and refused to take it off. Instead he compromised by winding the kaffiyeh on top of it. Hassan was not, however, one of those who publicly objected to the rebel leadership and sought to compromise with the British; he was simply attached to his class standing. Those who did object were known as the Opposition, and wore the tarboosh to demonstrate this. The tarboosh fast became an insignia of treason against the nationalist cause.

Ever since the thirties, the kaffiyeh has remained a symbol of Palestinian national feeling. In the Western popular consciousness, this has been most memorably embodied by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who was rarely photographed without his black-and-white checkered headdress, sometimes accompanied by a pair of Persol sunglasses.

In 1988, the First Intifada broke out in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Around the same time, kaffiyehs were taking off as a fashion accessory in the West, mostly worn as scarves. The genesis of the trend can probably be traced to the sixties and seventies, when anti-imperialist activists were donning the kaffiyeh as a conscious expression of Palestinian solidarity. Later, the headdress-cum-scarf became a bit more like a Che Guevara T-shirt: emptied of any real signifying content, left with only an aroma of subversiveness, some nonspecific hints of danger and the exotic, which in the language of mass fashion can translate into a kind of cool.

After the film Lawrence of Arabia came out in 1962, a comparable fashion phenomenon occurred. Vogue labeled it “Desert Dazzle.” Elizabeth Arden released a series of “Sheik” beauty products, and McCall’s magazine published a spread on the “Lawrence look” titled: “How to Be Sheik on the Sand.” The caption reads: “Shades of Sahara! Shades of Lawrence in Arabia! Look sizzling on the sands this summer in one of the sultry new bathing suits topped off, if you dare, with an eye-catching, desert-inspired headdress.”


There is a proverb in Arabic which translates roughly to “Eat for yourself and dress for others.” My father usually recites this to defend what he is eating, though really it is meant to point in the other direction, toward the idea that clothing has a social function. What we wear is always poised somewhere between dressing for ourselves and dressing for others, and depending on the society and the strength of its collective dress codes, the balance may be tipped further in one direction or the other. In the end, I believe Lawrence had begun dressing for himself. It was in Europe that he became “Lawrence of Arabia.” In today’s embattled parlance, we might call this a move from solidarity toward appropriation.

When Emir Faisal began wearing tailored Western suits, the Imperial powers in Paris and London began to treat him with respect. He did not pass as a European, however, and in any case dressing like one did not get him very far in his ambitions for Arab independence (although the British did install him as the first king of Iraq). In the Lawrence legend, by contrast, the ability to shape-shift is a power fantasy: passing as an Arab did not undermine, but instead reinforced, the superiority of his original culture. Lawrence’s story is a dream of mastery—a story of fluency, of freedom, of absolute knowledge over “the sweep of the open places, the taste of wide winds.”

Awni Abdul al-Hadi, however, insists that Lawrence did not speak Arabic particularly well, and that he was often “unintelligible.” By this account, the illusion of “Lawrence the Arab” was propped up by a combination of Arab politesse and an imbalance of power between the two operating parties. Even in the desert, Lawrence was still an Englishman wearing a kaffiyeh.

In 1919 in “War in the Land of the Arabian Nights,” Lowell Thomas, early propagator of the Lawrence legend, describes seeing Lawrence in Jerusalem in early 1918:

My attention was drawn to a group of Arabs walking in the direction of the Damascus Gate. My curiosity was excited by a single Bedouin, who stood out in sharp relief from all his companions. …  The striking fact was that the mysterious prince of Mecca … was as blond as a Scandinavian, in whose veins flows Viking blood and the cool tradition of fjords and sagas. My first thought as I glanced at his face, was that he might be one of the youngest apostles returned to life. His expression was serene, almost saintly, in its selflessness and repose.

I laugh every time I read it.


Isabella Hammad was born in London. She won the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction. The Parisian is her first novel. Hammad will appear in conversation with Emily Nemens on April 16 at McNally Jackson in SoHo.