The traditional black loose overgarment known as the abaya has been revolutionised in recent years, thanks to a growing number of fashion-conscious Emirati designers. Originally a way for women to hide their hair and curves, the garment is now increasingly regarded as a garment of high design. Local designer Huda N, 30, who runs edgy abaya label Malaak, is one woman at the forefront of the industry. She explains that while patterns and cuts may change, it’s always important to remember the purpose of the garment.
‘There are certain areas that have to be covered at all times. You change the pattern and work with different techniques, fabrics, and bring in embellishments – just as long as you stick to the guidelines. It’s there for a purpose – to protect modesty – so certain areas cannot be exposed.’ And while many believe that the garment denotes religious beliefs, Nasif Kayed at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding sets things straight. ‘Abayas are totally non-religious. Traditionally, they were used to cover yourself from head to toe, apart from the face and hands, in order to hide your figure and financial status – a little like a school uniform’.
And what of the full face coverings often worn by older women? ‘The abaya is the cloth that is used to drape around the body, while the face cover, an Emirati invention, is known as a burkha,’ explains Kayed. ‘This is traditionally made from leather and was worn as protective gear to shade the face, nose and mouth from the weather. This has since evolved into the niqab, which is cloth similar to the abaya, also worn over the face.’
Huda N says she was able to update the abaya without straying from its traditional function by focusing on silhouettes and shoulder accessories. ‘This season I’m bringing in high shoulder pads to change the silhouette and make it more modern and contemporary. It’s really refreshing the style.’
Unlike men’s dishdashas, styles are not specific to certain nationalities. ‘The abaya has always been made of plain black cloth. There are no styles specific to a single nationality – it’s about what labels people choose to wear now,’ says Kayed.
As well as abayas, Huda N also produces a ready-to-wear line that includes spike-shouldered blazers and harem pants. But is it offensive for a non-Muslim to don an abaya? ‘No, of course not,’ says Huda N. ‘As long as it doesn’t reveal flesh and you’re wearing the right outfit underneath, such as a turtleneck, it’s not offensive at all.’ So what trends will we see next season? ‘For winter we’ll see softer tones as well as wool, suede and leather,’ she says. We’ll be keeping them on our radar.