Abayas: The Fight & Fusion between Fashion & Function

While the abaya has become synonymous with everyday life within the Middle East, it continues to be debated outside the region. In the West, the perception of it has continuously oscillated between rejection of the garment as a tool for the suppression of women, to uninhibited fascination of the traditional garb, seen to possess centuries of history and proudly symbolize an enigmatic ethnicity. From Yves Saint Laurent’s experimentation of it in the late 1960s, to Tom Ford and Hermes’ current adoption and manipulation of its shapeless silhouette, the abaya is cementing its place as a universal garment of traditional roots.

Unveiling the History of the Abayat

The history of the abaya is rather lengthy and involuted, if allowed to go into its varied forms, which were born and evolved out of distant lands and spanned multiple centuries. Scholars and historians often disagree, even among themselves, on where and when the abaya was born. The truth is a thorough history lesson, would require a book or thesis at the very least, not a 1500-word article. But what is important to keep in mind is that the regardless of where or why the black, robe-like cover came to be, the abaya wasn’t always enforced, freeing conservative fashion at the time from the rigid, contemporary construct of the modern abaya.

In fact, many women omitted the abaya, and opted to dress modestly through loose clothing, or lightweight shawls and wraps, just like the modern Muslim woman of Turkey, Egypt or Lebanon. Our ancestral Bedouins wore more work-appropriate thobes rather than the oversized, square-cut abayas, while our grandmothers wore stunning strapless gowns covered with luxe mink shrugs to Um Khalthoum concerts in Cairo and Beirut. Women of the 50’s and 60’s were not chastised by the religious police to wear the demure black cloaks that contemporary women in many Gulf nations today are required—if not, at the very least, bullied by society into wearing.

During the oil boom of the 1970’s, which ushered in many foreigners to the region, the abaya was still optional, even in Saudi Arabia, where today it is notoriously an obligatory criterion of the public dress code. Both the local and expatriate women of Saudi Arabia speak of the colorful, conservative coverings they once sported during the pre-Gulf War years. Women in other Gulf States echo the same memories. The concept of the subdued, black concoction often seen today flashing on the TV screens of Fox News, CNN, and BBC, was not yet a mandatory uniform.

Contemporary Conservatism

The history of the abaya is nonlinear, and instead goes full circle. Today, the colored and stylized abayas often seen on women walking in air-conditioned malls is not a new concept. Women, like those of the Eastern city of Khobar, were envied for their colorful concoctions of the basic cut, while international designers had been inspired by Arabian fashion for many decades.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Moroccan-inspired “Lalanne” collection

Yves Saint Laurent’s Moroccan-inspired “Lalanne” collection in the autumn of 1969 included sensual versions of abayas, complete with headscarves and enriched by galvanized copper bodices and waist sculptures by Claude Lalanne. A few years later, Versace had already made bespoke abayas for the Saudi fashionista. Abayas became a part of fashion. The functionality of them wasn’t lost, more the attention to its design aesthetic and appeal increased. Abaya trends began emerging and regional “designer” labels were established.

How can any of us forget the regrettable trend of denim abayas of the 90’s, which still boggles the mind today—as if the summers of 40 degree Celsius weren’t hot enough? Thankfully, we learned from that and contemporary models, resembling kaftans and belted robes, cut from light, breathable fabrics like crepe, georgette, and chiffon, became customary.

But with the fashion angle came much debate, with many believing the manipulation and beautification of the abaya defied its fundamental purpose: to conceal the female form. Fashion, many argued, was triumphing over function. Albeit, the abaya has always been a cultural costume, rather than a religious one, it still serves the religious function of facilitating a modest appearance and concealing one’s beauty. The abaya works to cover the female’s awrah, which denotes the parts of the body that should not be exposed in public or in front of unrelated men. Thus, arose the incessant rhetoric of fashion versus function.

Amal Murad Abaya

When Emirati designer, Amal Murad unveiled her luxury abaya fashion line, REDAA, during Oriental Night—the prestigious closing show at 2010’s Alta Roma Fashion Week, she felt that her show symbolized something much more significant than benchmarking the first time an abaya designer had showcased a complete line in Europe. “My show had the message that being decent doesn’t mean, one can’t be stylish and trendy. The models were completely covered, yet still looked elegant, attractive and beautiful.” The sisters behind Dubai-based abaya label, DAS, Hind and Reem Beljafla agree. “To be able to design the abaya, you have to understand it,” stated Hind, whose preemptive reminders that DAS abayas are made for the woman who attend red carpet events, such as charity galas and horse races, where she would wants to look elegant, but also be covered in the traditional garb. Hind’s overly cautious comment reveals that the girls have been accused of moving away from tradition, a little more than once.

“An abaya designer needs to have a good understanding of the cultural and religious objective of the garment,” stated Murad, reiterating that while the abaya must be functional, it can still be fashionable.  “The abaya has changed over the years,” she added, “Abayas five to six years before were usually a classic line of jilabiyas, with works concentrating only on the sleeves.”

Cross (Cultural) Dressing

Today, its still exists. The irreversible schism between the traditional and contemporary abaya wearer has clearly defined and set the two apart, with many current abaya designers struggling to exist in the middle. “I feel that the abaya is part of our identity, so it’s important to retain its traditional elements,” stated Murad, referring to her abaya designs, which she keeps predominately black. “Yet the roles of women in our society are changing,” she continued, “And therefore, she requires her wardrobe to fit with her new role.”

Murad revealed that what surprised her the most about showing in Rome was the reception from the media and audience to her designs. “They really seemed to appreciate and understand the concept and technique behind each garment. They saw it as art rather than just a decorated, black robe and were able to observe that within the frame of our culture and tradition, I managed to do something trendy!”

But it’s not the first time the international fashion industry has seen abayas and in all its couture glory. In June of 2009, just four days after France controversial announcement that the French government was considering a ban on the full-face veil, Saudi Arabia’s Saks Fifth Avenue hosted a fashion show consisting entirely of designer abayas at the George V Hotel in Paris. Twenty models followed wearing abayas by some of the most prestigious fashion houses, including John Galliano, Nina Ricci, Blumarine, Carolina Herrera and Alberta Ferretti.
The opening up of the international fashion industry may signify much more than just financial promise, or cultural courtesy. Just like YSL in the 60’s, we’re again witnessing a strong Middle East influence in western designer collections. In its contemporary form, the impact is much more evident with signature abaya cuts being adopted and presented as a universal garment, proving a reciprocal relationship of influence in the western and Arab fashion worlds

Article by Marriam Mossalli published in July 2011 MADAME FIGARO ARABIA