HRH Princess Basma bint Majid bin Abdul-Aziz AlSaud’s Art of Heritage initiative reinvigorates Saudi traditional dress while empowering women to earn incomes. Danna Lorch uncovers the Art of Heritage initiative under Her Royal Highness’s presidency for Vogue Arabia’s June issue.
The Saudi female thobe HRH Princess Basma bint Majid bin Abdul-Aziz AlSaud is wearing is her own adaptation of a classic original, and she moves in it with the kind of effortless confidence reserved for a woman who feels at home in her own body and life. “The people who say that traditional dress inhibits a woman’s mobility don’t know the variety of choices we have in Saudi Arabia,” says the philanthropist, who is credited with launching a movement that bolsters fashionable traditional dress in the Kingdom, while also preserving the precious cultural patrimony of the country.
The thobe is comfortable; instant chic. Just drop it over your head, fix your hair, and you’re done. You don’t need to think about how to wear it.
With its classic Islamic architecture contrasted with artwork by hot-ticket Arab names, the Four Seasons Resort in Dubai is the perfect backdrop for today’s photo shoot. There is a whole caravan of people involved and a handful of local onlookers. But the Princess is unfazed. Leaning against a gilded mosaic with her hands clasped, the princess wears a silk thobe dotted with embroidered pomegranates – an updated version of a dress that would typically be worn in the Kingdom’s central region by women from the Banu Tamim tribe. A vintage gold lariat encircles her neck, trailing down her torso like a summer vine. Her makeup is minimal and her face is elegantly ageless, but her expression is focused.
We are here to discuss the Princess’s innovative work with the Riyadh-based Art of Heritage organization. Under her leadership, and with the support of the board, including chairperson HRH Sara Al Faisal Abdul-Aziz, HRH Princess Haifa Al Faisal (who started the collection years ago), and HRH Princess Moudi bint Khalid bin Abdul-Aziz, it has been making waves by crafting contemporary luxury takes on traditional dress. All the garments are meaningfully produced by more than 100 female artisans who are employed full-time.
Art of Heritage is affiliated with the Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, the country’s oldest charity, which was founded in 1963 by the late Queen Effat Al Thunayan, the most prominent wife of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. The organization also manages Yadawy and employs around 20 women with special needs to produce a line of pottery. “We really invest in the Yadawy women,” says Princess Basma with a measure of pride. “They don’t have to stay at home because they have disabilities. They go to work like any other woman and they take a salary.” This belief – that today’s Saudi woman can and should work and generate an income – is stressed again and again over the course of our conversation.
Later, framed by a classic archway, Princess Basma stands out in a peacock green masarah, an Art of Heritage reproduction of the classic bridal dresses worn in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. It took nearly an hour to select and style her elaborate vintage jewelry. With its eight strands of interlinked gold disks punctuated by gemstones and crescent moons, the neckpiece gives the fierce appearance of chain mail. Gesturing to the jewelry, she explains, “This huge piece is called a rash-rash. The bigger the rash-rash, the more important you are. Some of them actually reach the knee, so the more you wear, the merrier.” The embroidered sleeves of the dress are attached to the headscarf, to allow for easy veiling, should a man enter the room.
The masarah is surprisingly vivid, standing in stark contrast to the unvarying black in which Saudi women are portrayed by the media – a color that the West tends to indiscriminately associate with suppression, both of the body and the mind. “These are always in bright colors, like fuchsia or green,” corrects Princess Basma, smirking slightly. “The world doesn’t see what is behind the abaya. Saudi women wear that in public, but you don’t know what’s underneath. Sometimes it’s jeans and a T-shirt.”
The world doesn’t see what is behind the abaya.
After the shoot, breaking the uncomfortable silence of a crowded elevator, Princess Basma admits that keeping her composure took real work. She was imagining whole conversations in her head while the shutter clicked away. “I am a photographer, and am much more comfortable behind the lens,” she says.
Upstairs, the tea in the royal suite is served black and strong in dainty bone china cups and saucers. I mention that I’m a new mother, and in response, she shows me videos of the three little curly-haired granddaughters in sundresses who live in the house next to hers. There is a catch in her voice as she mentions that it’s been a hard time for her family since her husband, HRH Prince Bandar Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, passed away. As though we are part of an audience watching performers take a final bow, we pause our conversation as the sun slips lazily into the Arabian Gulf beyond the suite’s immense terrace.
Oddly, there is no cream laid out on the coffee table, though there is a Charles James book, which we both eye approvingly. “Do you take sugar?” I ask, awkwardly volunteering to go in search of packets in the marble kitchen behind us. We are casually perched on a pair of linen armchairs arranged beneath crystal chandeliers. A baby grand piano on the other side of the living room aches to be played, ideally with Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which the Princess – a would-be musician but diehard symphony goer – has set as her phone’s ringtone. Unclasping her box bag and unscrewing a brass pillbox with some ceremony, she pours a teaspoonful of sweetener into her teacup. “That’s all right,” she says, offering it to me as well, “I bring my own sugar everywhere.” It is this unpretentious warmth coupled with capable command of any circumstance that defines Princess Basma’s ability to serve a growing organization. As part of Art of Heritage, for decades now, Princess Basma and a group of friends and family have gathered more than 3,000 examples of traditional Saudi dress and another 6,000 pieces of jewelry and artifacts of material culture – an absolute treasure house in a culture that doesn’t typically value clothing passed down from generation to generation. Several items came directly from Queen Effat’s wardrobe. Although the collection has not yet been exhibited to the public, she hints that a museum for displaying the costume archive’s contents may soon be in the works in Riyadh.
In 2009, with Princess Basma assuming the role of president, the organization began to design couture reproductions of original items from the archive, hoping to jumpstart a social movement to bring back pride in Saudi heritage through its endangered dress. “As I was collecting the original designs,” she recalls, “I was surprised by the variety of cuts, choices, and shapes, and how current some of the outfits looked. The older dresses from each of the five regions of the country are designed not just for looks but also for function.” She pulls her phone from her pocket and rapidly scrolls through photos, landing on one of a woman in a woven top and skirt, heavily embroidered to give a bohemian look. “This is our replica of an outfit worn by women from the Banu Sa’d, the same tribe as Halima al Sadia, the woman who nursed Prophet Mohammad. It’s incredible how modern this is – it’s a skirt with a blouse that is short in the front and longer at the back. It’s a brick color with metallic silver stitchwork.”
Proving to be a shrewd entrepreneur, she decided to launch the Art of Heritage label with a range of high-end designs aimed at reaching the most stylish women in the Kingdom, who might have come to ignore their grandmothers’ fashions because they were lacking in quality and updated features, such as luxurious fabrics, practical pockets, trending color palettes, or lightweight embroidery. “Today’s designers get inspired by old traditions, but we do the opposite,” she explains. “We look to modern designers – Gianfranco Ferré and Claude Montana – and try to blend their influences with our heritage in order to create appeal.” With its artistry, as well as the promise that funds generated will go straight into artisans’ pockets and to Al Nahda’s programming, Art of Heritage has convinced many younger Saudi women to buy new versions of the thobe each Ramadan and continue to wear them year-round.
Princess Basma’s greatest success occurred at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Art of Heritage was honored to dress the female members of the Saudi delegation. They marched into the stadium in traditional thobes, with each uniform incorporating embroidery from one of the five regions of the country – coupled with sneakers. She believes, “It says a lot that Saudi women have reached the Olympics, and the clothing they were wearing was designed and created by women in their home country, celebrating their heritage. It’s a big message.”