‘Made in the GCC’: Dressing abayas around the world - myth or reality?

Diana Galeeva
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While the world is witnessing the second month of the GCC crisis (between Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the other), it is worth remembering the Italian slogan during World War II, la vita continua, or ‘life must go on’, identifying the resilience of people working in the fashion industry.

Everyone hopes for a positive solution to the tensions of the GCC crisis, but this crisis cannot stop thoughts of development and prosperity, gaining advantages from soft power and economic prosperity.

Fashion as an industry

Fashion is a vital industry in globally promoting national identity, a state’s values, and its soft power, and gaining economic advantages.

As soft power can be implemented through it, fashion serves both political and economic purposes for states.

While discussing soft power, Joseph S. Nye Jr., did not pay attention to the role of fashion in promoting a state’s identity, only mentioning that jeans identified American identity and becoming popular around the world promoted American soft power as a result.

Nonetheless, other scholars developed the idea that fashion serves states’ national and political interests.

Fashion and Culture

Around the world, consumers identify ‘Made in Italy’ with elegance, taste and quality.

Eugenia Paulicelli (2004) believes that fashion and dress are essential parts of culture, and ‘the downplaying of the incredible potential inherent in fashion for a historically based analysis of the question of national identity and its politics’. As a result, her main argument is that ‘fashion has been one of the privileged vehicles which Italy has sought to create, promote and define a national identity for itself’.


Fashion: Historical Overview

The study focuses on the years of the fascist regime, when the role of fashion became particularly visible in national economic development. Before governments began paying attention to this subject, a huge role belonged to designers of the period, who believed that fashion demonstrated the identity of the state.

Identifying a national role, the author suggests that in the example of Italy, the nation has exercised the unique attraction to foreigners of its complex identity embodied in cuisine, language, arts, urban centres, architecture and fashion.

Before this conceptualizing by scholars, Italian designers expressed their thoughts about the importance of fashion in promoting a state’s values and economic advantages; and their ideas and inspiration made Italy’s national brand one of the most known, admired and desirable worldwide.

For example, Rosa Genoni suggests that at the beginning of the 20th century, in the pre-Fascist liberal period, fashion was viewed as an economic and political phenomenon, and undoubtedly a leading force in national and local economies.

Manzini and Genoni both consider fashion a serious business, with a history bound up with the self and national identity.

The dressmaker De Liguoro even views the creation of a national fashion industry as a tool to combat the hegemony of French fashion.

The role of designers who believed in developing the fashion industry and promoting it in other countries was key in this. The historical example of their beliefs and passion is admirable.

Despite the shortage of material during World War II, the creativity of both designers and consumers was undiminished. New styles were produced based on any available material, even the fabric of discarded parachutes, which Giorgio Armani remembers his mother sewing into raincoats.

Despite the enthusiasm and passion, Italy was hampered by its lack of industrialization relative to France or Great Britain, states which could count on resources, particularly from their colonies.

In order to create a revolution in the fashion industry it was essential to achieve steady growth in the Italian textile industry (Tremelloni, 1937). A lot of companies launched experimental research and chemical laboratories to develop their knowledge in new spheres, including into artificial fibres.

This division of the industry was at the edge of a global technological revolution in the manufacture and consumption of style and fashion.


Artificial fibres played a vital role in global manufacturing. Because of their efforts, the total production of artificial fibres increased from 600,000 kilograms in 1896 to 11,000,000 in 1913 and 25,000,000 in 1920.

It then increased massively to 350,000,000 in 1934 and 890,200,000 kilograms by 1938. Thus, new materials and methods demonstrate a clear ambition of established ‘Made in Italy’ as a global concept.

Today, because of all these initiatives, the passion and belief of Italian designers, and support at the governmental level, the ‘Italian Look’ dominates the fashion industry, with well-known Italian brands such as Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace, and international brands, such as Benetton and Diesel.


Region-specific designs

It is noticeable that today designers have started to broaden the industry and create specific lines for particular regions.

In 2016 for example, Dolce & Gabbana launched the first–ever collection of hijabs and abayas, called Style Arabia.

The collection was presented in one of the new boutiques in Dubai. Moreover, other famous fashion houses, such as DKNY, started to release special collections for Ramadan.

Thus, while Italian designers may have contributed to Arabian soft power, they have gained economically and benefited from Arabian national costume.

Government Intervention

Before Italian and international designers further occupy the important niche of the production of clothes for the Muslim world, it is essential that governmental-level support is put in place for local designers.

Some steps are already being taken, in the UAE for example, where Dubai is supporting young designers by offering tax breaks.

With these initiatives, local designers can develop fashions for the wider Muslim world, such as abayas and hijabs.

The market is not only limited to Europe and the Middle East, but has potential in northern and eastern Africa, Central Asia, China, India, and Russia.

Moreover, these clothes can be made for people of different social groups, and thus, with a range of sale prices.

While today the label ‘Made in Italy’ is globally meaningful, might ‘Made in the GCC’ be one of the most recognizable slogans tomorrow?

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