Abaya gets a colorful makeover as designers test limits

Considering the point of the abaya is to be dressed modestly, and to avoid undue male attention, is there a “red-line” in abaya design?

Saffiya Ansari

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They say the ‘little black dress’ is every woman’s wardrobe essential. In the Gulf region, that translates as ‘the little black abaya’ – and some fashionistas are giving the traditional garment a serious makeover.

Modesty, religious beliefs and cultural norms may have shaped the abaya as we know it. But, new styles are seeing the traditional black dress getting more flamboyant twists, employing materials like ribbon, lace and leather.

There are abayas embellished with Swarovski crystals and ribbed-lace edges; some have shoulder studs more suited to a leather biker jacket; and others come adorned with an array of colorful fabrics.

As some designs become more daring, one question begs to be asked: Considering the point of the abaya is to be dressed modestly, and to avoid undue male attention, is there a “red-line” in abaya design? Is there a certain point where designers must tone down the neon colors, lengthen the hemline, and call it a day?

As the abaya became an everyday garment for many women in the Gulf, “there has been a desire to personalize it, to use it as a fashion statement rather than just a robe,” said Reina Lewis, professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion and author of Re-Fashioning Orientalism: New Trends in Muslim Style (2013).

This has led to a variety of fabrics, cuts and embellishments being used to construct many of today’s abayas. Although the majority of all abayas are still predominantly black, color is creeping in and designers are finding new ways to experiment.

“I remember about three or four years ago, there was a whole wave of sheer abayas. People were really commenting, and even people who were quite adventurous with their abayas [were asking] if you wear something transparent, why are you wearing it as an abaya?” said Lezley George, lecturer in Fashion and Textiles at Sharjah University in the UAE.

The rule of thumb, she states, is that the abaya should not cling to the body; it should not be tight. However, there is a growing trend for “waisted abayas” – garments that create the illusion of that oh-so-elusive tiny waistline many women seek.

“There is a degree of tolerance” with regards to the waisted abaya, George tells Al Arabiya News, suggesting that any “red line” in the world of abaya design is a blurred one.

Nazek al-Sabbagh, an Emirati fashion designer whose collection was shown at Rome Fashion Week last year, says that the very essence of the abaya is about modesty, not flamboyance.

“Abayas are there to cover; if it’s not going to be modest, why wear it?” asks Sabbagh. “I’m not asking that the abaya be backward, but to make it up-to-date doesn’t mean that we forget about our culture of modesty.”

Lewis adds that “a number of Muslim women will say that Allah has no objection to beauty and so, dressing in a way that is beautiful is not inherently immodest.”

The desire to look presentable drives the development of abaya designs, she says. “The Gulf is one of the biggest markets for high-end couture. So it isn’t surprising that the other part of their wardrobes is something that women are looking to see change,” said Lewis.

According to a 2011 report by Euromonitor International, the sale of designer clothing represented 42 percent of overall luxury goods sales in the UAE, recorded as the year’s biggest buyer of such goods among the Gulf states.

The changing abaya

International designers have taken note of potentially lucrative Arab markets, targeting those consumers prepared to spend extensively on high-end clothing.

Abayas have been featured in Vogue Italia in the past, while many designers, including Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, have based whole collections on traditional Arab robes and headgear.

The Gulf has seen a very rapid change in lifestyle and consumer culture, says Lewis. “With increased wealth and increased opportunities to travel, it is not surprising that a garment which has a special importance in terms of religion and in terms of local culture is also going to be changing in relation to that,” she said.

Driving the diversification of abaya designs is a burgeoning array of talent competing to bring their creations to the market.

“There’s an awful lot of abaya designers now. The growth in the market is driving innovation, creativity and difference because people need to produce something different so that customers will come to them to buy it,” states George.

Indeed, in 2010 Bloomberg estimated the global Muslim fashion industry could be worth $96 billion if half of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims spend just $120 a year on clothing. Although not all Muslim women wear the abaya, there is still a clear potential for designers.

History of the abaya

The religious argument given for wearing the abaya is often based on a quote from the Quran that suggests women should “draw their outer garments around them.”

When tracing the development of the abaya it is easy to get lost in “muddy history,” says George.

During the 1950s, and before the Gulf oil-boom, the region’s residents were largely rural. “The population wasn’t urbanized and women didn’t really interact in the wider public sphere,” George explains. “They were very much at home so the need to cover could be sufficed with a garment that could be taken on and off.”

During this time, women of the privileged sections of society started to adopt the men’s aba’a dress, a black cloak-like garment known today as a bisht.

The aba’a would be worn by women, but with one small difference: They would wear it over their heads, thereby covering the entire body, rather than just the shoulders down, says George.

As some countries in the Gulf region began exporting oil during the 1970s and 1980s, people started to gain wealth. This economic progress triggered a change in women’s fashion across society’s strata.

“As people started to gain wealth, the wearing of the abaya spread and became more popular,” George explains. More and more women wanted to emulate fashions that had previously been exclusive to the upper echelons of society.

As society became more urbanized and linked to increasing economic activity brought about by the oil boom, women began to move outside the familial space more often.

“They started going to school. Jobs came later, university came later, but certainly women needed to be covered more permanently in more of a fixed way and the abaya did that for them,” said George.

What is important now, adds George, is that the abaya continues to be worn by young women, it is important to breathe new life into abaya design “because if young people stop wearing the abaya it will lose its significance.”

Emirati national Maitha al-Haleed, 28, tends to agree.

“I love fun abayas,” she told Al Arabiya News, the candy-colored stripes on her abaya trailing behind 6-inch Jimmy Choo heels.

“It’s important for us to look fashionable. We want to dress decently, but we still want to have fun. If women can do this while staying within the boundaries of our culture, why not?”

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