Posts Tagged: ‘Abaya’

Abayas: The Fight & Fusion between Fashion & Function

August 5, 2012 Posted by Mgguzman

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

Conservative Chic: The Muna AbuSulayman Collection

June 22, 2011 Posted by Mgguzman

Article by Marriam M Mossalli


We have all met Muna AbuSulayman, the TV personality, and we’re all fans of Muna AbuSulayman, the United Nations goodwill ambassador. While most know her today as Muna AbuSulayman, the current secretary-general at the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, it is her newest hat — or scarf, in this case, that has us talking.

The muhajaba personality we’ve all come to love is quickly proving there’s nothing she cannot do. Allow me to introduce you to Muna AbuSulayman: the fashion entrepreneur.
“I love creativity,” enthused AbuSulayman, whose passion and energy is pleasantly contagious. “Whether it’s writing or drawing, I always need to have some outlet of creativity in my life or else I feel my world is somehow stagnant,” she confessed.
It was this marriage of her creative side and her proactive attitude that got AbuSulayman thinking that that she had to do something to fill a huge void in the retail market. Born out of her own frustration, AbuSulayman decided to create her own clothing brand when she found herself returning back from countless shopping trips unsatisfied and unfulfilled. “I couldn’t easily find clothes that were nice, elegant, mid-casual and modest!” she stated.

However, AbuSulayman allowed her idea to gestate for a year before she finally launched her line. “I did a lot of research and it was a huge learning curve,” she admitted. “I wanted to make sure that all the issues other women and I had been concerned over were addressed.”
From transparent chiffon blouses, which force modest women to layer, to embroidery on the neckline, which often gets covered when a scarf is worn, AbuSulayman found solutions to with her own line.
“Finding the right materials to use, like a silk that wouldn’t be transparent, took a lot of trial and error,” she revealed. “There was a lot of experimentation.“ She went on to discuss how she even tested different jerseys, omitting ones that were too heavy in the warmer climates of the Gulf. “I wanted my pieces to be light-weight enough so you’re not sweating in your clothes,” stated AbuSulayman, who as a resident of Riyadh, is obliged to wear an added layer in the form of an abaya over her outfits.

“I want my clothes to be practical, as well as timeless.”  With a loyal following of fashionistas aged between 25-45, it seems the vivacious designer has done just that. Her wrapped coveralls are a hit among all aged women, while other pieces are aimed at more specific demographics. “I have things that my young daughter wears and other pieces that my older sister and sister-in-law have in their closets,” she added.
“A big part was that these pieces be comfortable, and not require too much thinking, which is why I made matching scarves,” said AbuSulayman. “So often I would get an outfit and keep it in my closest for a year because I didn’t have a head scarf to match it.” Other practical concerns, like making sure the clothes don’t easily wrinkle and wash well, were successfully addressed.

Her pieces are often based on styles that she herself has worn over the years. “I basically molded the designs after cuts that worked well on my body type.” The result is a line of flattering cuts and elaborate finishings of hand embroidery and appliqué of semi-precious stones. “I have these bamboo scarves, which are stretchy and cool, plus they’re beautiful on,” she says so enthusiastically that you’re suddenly convinced you need to own one immediately! “And, the best part is that it doesn’t move!” she added.

The world’s best hands in India do the embroidery of her pieces, from the evening gowns to the feminine tunics. However, her clothes are produced in the same factories as some of the leading luxury labels, such as Valentino and Blumarine, which reveal how AbuSulayman spared no expense when it came to the quality of her garments.
Yet, what really sets AbuSulyman’s collections apart from others is her almost OCD attention-to-details. She goes through several samples–sometimes six for one design, until it each is perfected. “I personally test them,” she added, referring to the fact that she’ll often wear the samples before giving production the go-ahead.
The quality and aesthetic are providing an unmatched line in the market. The fact that AbuSulayman, herself, is one of her biggest fans reveals her belief in her brand, while also being a testament to its lure. “I wear my stuff a lot,” she admits. “I think I have one shirt I’ve worn like 30,000 times! I love it!”

Women seem to love them too. Currently, AbuSulayman’s collections can be found in Turkey and across the Gulf, including in Jeddah’s I Love Hishma boutique in Ana Special and Harvey Nichols in Riyadh. Her collections will also be available for purchase online in the coming months.

Arab News article