Abaya trends in UAE constantly evolving in ‘clash’ between fashion and religious modesty

Researchers from the Lebanese American University in Beirut have studied trends in abayas.

The utilitarian robe held dear by Arab women is undergoing a change that reveals it as an elegant and graceful garment available in a range of colours and fabrics, while retaining its traditional appeal.

DUBAI // Emirati women’s intrinsic desire for change, integration, self-expression and need to stay up to date has transformed the abaya from a utilitarian garment to a “style statement symbolising grace, elegance and charm”.

That is the conclusion of researchers from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, who held focus groups and interviews with Emirati women to examine how the “clash” between contemporary trends and conventional religious modesty has affected UAE women’s fashion needs and influenced the evolution of abaya designs.

“The research has shown that a major transformation has taken place in the perception of fashion and, accordingly, abayas,” said Dr Zahy Ramadan, who co-authored the study along with Dr Mona Mrad.

“Given the changes in the needs and wants of Emirati consumers, understanding this market is of utmost importance for both academics and marketing practitioners from a fashion perspective.”

Dr Ramadan said the UAE is the largest country after Saudi Arabia in terms of Muslim apparel consumption and that, according to recent report by Thomson Reuters, the Islamic fashion market is expected to be worth US$484 billion (Dh1.04 trillion) by 2019.

“The UAE market was specifically chosen for this study as it is planning to become the centre of Islamic fashion,” said Dr Ramadan.

The study, Fashionable Stereotypes and Evolving Trends in the United Arab Emirates, was published in the May edition of the journal Customer Needs and Solutions.

“A set of fashion motivators emerged from the study describing Emirati women’s need for change, integration, self-expression, and need to stay up to date that this paper grouped under what we coined the ‘fashion motivator moment of truth’,” said Dr Ramadan.

Emirati abaya designer Alia bin Omair could not agree more with the study’s findings. Since the 27-year-old launched her Dubai-based label, Darya, she has witnessed the evolving trends.

“Before we used to wear only black, but about two years ago the ladies started wearing beige, white, grey colours,” said Ms bin Omair. Fabrics also evolved from silk or polyester to linen and even wool during the winter months.

“My mum used to only wear the same fabric for years – the same fabric. Even my aunt and anyone that I know, they used the same fabric. I feel it is better to change a bit and use other fabrics.”

As the researchers noted in their findings, the modern styles do not tend to “undermine the abayas’ local and traditional look, which UAE fashion designers still consider a symbol of respect and tradition that women in the UAE should maintain”.

For Fatma Al Mosa, the 38-year-old designer and owner of Folak Couture in Abu Dhabi, the abaya’s cultural roots and role in the UAE society will always be No 1 in guiding styles and cuts.

“This is our priority, it is our religion, it is our culture. For the Gulf Arabian ladies, it is part of their identity and religion that they need to wear abayas. This is how they have been identified,” said Ms Al Mosa. “But at the same time nowadays, we don’t just wear it for religious reasons, it is becoming for very fashionable as well.”

So much so, that for the past two years a growing number of expatriates have turned to Ms Al Mosa to purchase the latest abayas – mostly of the coloured and linen variety, she said.

“They feel it is very practical and something that they like to experience, even in their countries,” said Ms Al Mosa. “I think it’s very promising. For us, the abaya is part of our culture, part of our identity and I think it is a pride for all of us when someone non-Arab buys a piece and they find it very nice and comfortable and they like to have it, and they want to wear it even abroad.”

Dr Haifa Al Anjari, founding faculty member and assistant professor of fashion design at the College of Fashion and Design Dubai, said the abaya had come a long way from its utilitarian origins as a means of modesty and protection from the weather. Early abayas were black and made of goat hair, said Dr Al Anjari.

“If I’m using the original abaya – the first one that was invented in the Arab world – I would never wear it in my life,” said Dr Al Anjari, who is Kuwaiti.

Nowadays, the right modern abaya can create a look of instant appeal, she said.

“It is actually very elegant, especially when it brushes against your skin you feel so luxurious, you feel so feminine.rpennington@thenational.ae