At first glance, the abaya is simply a black cloth that covers a woman. But the piece has great cultural and religious significance to its wearers, and has done for decades.
However, over the past few years, while staying true to its roots, the abaya has gone through an evolution of sorts, transforming from a plain black swathe of fabric to a more elegant piece of attire that women can use to express themselves and show their personality.
“Of course, from a religious concept, the abaya covers the body of the lady. But if you see, we are local ladies, mainly wearing the abaya,” Fawzya Al Romaithi, abaya designer and founder of Black Secret Abayas, says. “To show that we are elegant and fashionable, you can only make this from the abaya, because regardless of what you wear [underneath], no one will notice; the abaya itself is representing the lady.”
Whether a result of Western influences or shifting perceptions culturally and socially that allowed a bit more freedom, the abaya began to gradually change in appearance. In contrast to the rapid development of the UAE, which seemed to happen overnight, the evolution of abaya design started slowly, as Fawzya observes: “Maybe in the last five years people started accepting different colours in the abaya, until now where it became fully coloured. Before we used to add a little pink, a bit of green, other colours than black. Now we’ve reached abayas with full colours – full grey, full pink.
“Before it was just a plain abaya; now there are more designs, different fabrics, more embroidery, more work [is put into] it and there are more concepts.”
Lubna Al Zakwani, cofounder of abaya collective Endemage, agrees: “I see the abaya as a cultural and modest way of dressing. It’s also a beautiful fashion piece that can be worn in so many different ways.
“There has definitely been an evolution in the abaya – from the over-the-head abaya to the loose cuts, also known as butterfly abaya, and now with the coloured abayas.”
With changing attitudes in the attire came more opportunities for abaya designers, who are reinterpreting the traditional design and playing with fabrics, shapes and lengths. Seeking inspiration, as many designers do, from international trends, seasons and local styles, many designers are eager to ensure that the abaya never loses its meaning as a modest cover-up while providing unique pieces for women.
“The abaya has its guideline like any other piece of clothing,” Lubna notes. “It’s just a matter of designing within those guidelines yet staying up to date with the trends.”
As a designer herself, Fawzya – who admits some people may be against the abaya as a trendy fashion statement – considers current styles, fabrics for the time of year, and even seeks style inspiration from abroad when she travels.
On the flip side, abayas are now providing inspiration for renowned international designers such as Dolce & Gabbana who are designing bespoke pieces as part of their own luxury collections – though admittedly, not everyone was thrilled with the attention this garnered, believing the world suddenly went from believing covered women were oppressed to wanting to dress like them. But there’s no doubt the garment has international appeal and it’s even evolving past its traditional shape and silhouette and being used as the inspiration for other types of clothing.
“The perception of the abaya has changed since we are seeing it worn by women from all over the world as a fashionable attire,” Lubna says.
“We have already seen abaya inspired capes and jackets being worn by celebrities and fashion icons on the streets of fashion week worldwide.”
Citing its feminine silhouette and elegant feel, Fawzya believes this is a trend that’s not going anywhere, any time soon: “In the future, I think everybody will wear an abaya!” Fawzya laughs. “I have some ladies who are not local buying from my boutique. Now it’s not like when the abaya was plain black; it’s like you’re wearing something that’s couture.”
Need to know
Endemage House of Fraser, Yas Mall, Yas Island. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, endemage.com
Black Secret Abayas Muroor Road, Al Nahyan Camp. Contact: 02 650 6555, instagram.com/black_secret_abayas
Shop the trend
Want to wear the trend? These online brands and retailers stock unique pieces from local, regional and international designers…
This luxury abaya collective also features unique pieces that blend traditional Japanese kimono garments with Arabesque abaya silhouettes. Shop online at chikacollection.com
Sew N Tell
Dubbed as a fashion movement, this concept is ever-changing with new and unique monochromatic, clean-cut designs. Shop online at sewntelluae.com/shop
This colourful boutique features international and regional brands from both established and up-and-coming designers with the occasional one-of-a-kind abaya popping up in store. Marina Mall. Sun-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Sat 10am-11pm. Contact: 02 681 8650, shopatsauce.com
Manaal Al Hammadi
This Dubai-based abaya designer has featured in pop-up events in Abu Dhabi like Festembr with some beautiful and elegant pieces on offer. Contact: 055 550 2199, email@example.com
WORDS Rachael Perrett