Why Did Never-Married Lawrence of Arabia Wear Bridegroom’s Robes?
T.E. Lawrence’s life story lingers some 100 years after the Arab Revolt (1916–18) and is intertwined with legend and myth. He is remembered for leading Bedouin tribesmen on raids to dynamite Turkish trains in the desert. He was also an Oxford-trained archeologist, a diplomat and a gifted writer. Detractors call him a publicity-craving poser who claimed credit for Arab achievements. Some of Lawrence’s public story is true, some is not, and some is a matter of opinion. But the white silk robes were real, and the improbable story of their origin is true.
A Gift from Emir Feisal:
The white silk and gold-threaded robes were a gift from Emir Feisal, one of the leaders of the Arab Revolt and the future king of Iraq. A great aunt had gifted the robes to Feisal, perhaps with a particular bride in mind. But why did Feisal give them to Lawrence?
In 1916, Lawrence had traveled from Cairo, after talking his way onto a reconnaissance mission to assess the abilities of the Bedouin army — to see if they were capable of opening a second front with the Ottoman Army on the British flank. During this trip, he first met Emir Feisal at Rabugh, north of Jeddah. Lawrence was favorably impressed with the man’s capabilities as a leader and with the largely-Bedouin force’s potential as a fighting force. Lawrence then recommended to the British military that they support the Arab fight for independence. Following Lawrence’s endorsement, British ships delivered rifles, ammunition, high explosives and tons of food — just in an initial supply delivery. Moreover, the British made Lawrence their official liaison with Feisal.
Needless to say, Feisal welcomed Lawrence’s return to his Bedouin camp. It was then that Feisal presented Lawrence with the Arab robes, which were much more than a lavish gift. As Lawrence explained in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Feisal’s intent was to allow Lawrence to “slip in and out of the emir’s tent without making a sensation.” The British officer’s uniform Lawrence wore had an offensive resemblance to the hated Turkish uniform and had caused a stir whenever Lawrence tried to gain admittance to Feisal’s tent.
But these weren’t just any Arab robes. Indeed, the bridegroom outfit, now on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, is exquisite. Wearing it, Lawrence wouldn’t have blended in. Rather, the princely clothes would have labeled him to everyone as a wearer of Feisal’s own clothing and, as such, a prized and trusted advisor. Professor Eugene Rogan, in the Ashmolean video below, puts it like this: “Lawrence must have stood out among the tribesman with their uncoloured robes like a pearl among oysters.” As the war continued, Lawrence acquired other Arab robes, some also white silk, but according to Professor Rogan, the bridegroom clothing must have been Lawrence’s favorite.
In 1919, the visual contradiction of Lawrence’s blond Englishman physique clothed in a sherif’s flowing white silk robes caught the eye of American journalist and entertainer Lowell Thomas, who was touring battlefields in search of a story worthy of a major lecture series. And so, Thomas gave a war-weary world a new hero — a modem-day knight in white robes romantically blowing up trains for the underdog Arab tribes fighting their Turkish overlords. It was the story of a lifetime, making Thomas a major media star and Lawrence a reluctant celebrity.
Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Complete 1922 Text). Independently published, 2020.
“Thinking With Things: Professor Eugene Rogan.” YouTube, uploaded by Ashmolean Museum, 16 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze06M2y0aeE.