The abaya remains the ultimate garment for women across the Middle East, with Saudi creatives breathing new life into its threads. As Vogue Arabia partners with Saudi Tourism Authority in our fourth anniversary issue dedicated to creativity, we highlight the female designers behind the Kingdom’s leading abaya brands.
The sweeping black garment – the abaya – is rumored to have its origins date back 4,000 years, to ancient Mesopotamia, or the present-day Arabian Peninsula. Here, amid rugged dwellings, girls and women went about their day’s tasks, which consisted above all, to maintain their family and elders, all the while dressed in a sweeping black cloth. The abaya would skim the ground as they walked and billow in the arid winds. If today’s changes to the abaya may be considered avant garde by some, the Middle Eastern woman’s role in society is more affirmed than ever and her clothing serves as a great revelator. Her abaya proves to be a constant in her young adult life through to the age of wisdom. Now, her garment choices may dictate color and embellishment with the purpose of revealing her personality but never her body, which, like her mind and spirit, is always dignified.
If the loose robe carries such history, in pre-Islamic times, its initial purpose was most likely to denote an esteemed social status. And while it has remained as such over centuries, as women’s eminence has become increasingly prominent, the abaya has also returned to its roots, serving as both a symbol of modesty and style. Sarah Basaad of Saudi abaya brand Moja Majka reflects that when thinking about the abaya when designing, she always tries to transform any preconceived notions of suppression into ones of emancipation and autonomy. “It’s a personal interpretation of our culture and heritage,” she shares. Over decades, she explains, abayas “transformed into a way of expression that bring color, flow, and freedom to women who wear them.”
That regional fashion houses and Arab Muslim women today are creatively inspired to evolve the abaya only serves as proof of a woman’s undying devotion to this ancient garment. In a country brimming with changes to its social structure, it is both expected and welcomed that such a garment, reflective of society, evolves too. Saudi designers in particular are taking the reins, approaching the abaya as a canvas and a way of outward expression. This isn’t necessarily unique to this century, albeit with time, creative exercises have become more refined with an emphasis on local craft, embroideries, and traditional beading techniques.
In the Eighties, the shoulder abaya, featuring full sleeves, covered the entire body while crepe, chiffon, and silk fabrics saw it transform into a breathable and lightweight form of dress. This was one of the earlier steps in evolving the garment. Come the turn of the millennium and experimentation with the abaya flirted with excess, recalling superfluous styles of the Eighties’ West. The last decade has seen a happy marriage between individualism and taste.
Perhaps it is the abaya’s air of mystery that contributes to its sartorial permanence. It is even going beyond craftsmanship to court tech. Riyadh-based Torba Studio designers Nazek AlKhulaifi and Sarah AlAmeel offer an experimental approach to their designs, inspired by the “billowing darkness of the night.” Streetwear abayas are embellished with glow-in-the-dark material and cosmic prints. “We take inspiration from the mystery and philosophy of the unknown,” they share, adding that their niqab visuals express a core value. It was up until only a few years ago that abayas of color offered inspired choices to women who no longer wished to blend in amid a sea of black fabric. So beguiling are the contemporary modern designs that for some decades they have started permeating other cultures and far-reaching locations such as the West. Specializing in abayas and traditional Arab dress, Chador, based in Riyadh and driven by designer Nora Aldamer, a Parsons School of Design in New York graduate, is one of the leading Saudi contemporary abaya brands today. Staples of the label see the abaya silhouette even reaching outerwear. To wit; cashmere ponchos, vests, and maxi trench coats with utilitarian accouterments see a joining of cultures where both a jet-set Middle Eastern and a Western woman can meet at a crossroad of elegance and modesty.
Liberty, self-expression, independence, and self-determination are the ideas that drive female designers behind today’s leading abaya brands throughout the Kingdom. At Orange Blossom, which is collaborating with clothing brand Noukliér on a collection inspired by English aristocrat Jane Digby (who spent her final years in Damascus), its vision is to modernize the abaya to cover both modesty and practicality to fit the lifestyle of the modern working Saudi woman. Gone is the black abaya; here, color reigns with blazing burnt oranges, shocking pinks, mustard yellows, and lavender purples recalling the rose-filled hills of Taif. Babushka Store’s Alaa Al Jefri considers abayas not just an essential item in a Saudi woman’s wardrobe but that it is “the one piece that says it all. Your style, mood, and your personality.” Meanwhile, at abaya fashion brand Baya in Jeddah, founder Safaa Alireza creates versatile, conscious abayas for coastal journeys with cotton, rayon, and crinkle fabric ideal for the warm climates across the country but especially for a weekend at Al-Ahsa Oasis or Umluj.
Women the world over are entranced by the abaya’s aura. Particularly when in movement, its lightweight cloth rises to swell and swirl in the wind, just as it most likely did 4 000 years ago. Like a compelling sillage, that trail of notes left behind an exceptionally perfumed woman, the impression a handcrafted abaya leaves remains long after it is out of sight.
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Photography: Lina Mo
Hair: Aisha Alnajjar
Makeup: Safaa Alireza
Photography assistant: Bashayer Al-Amri
Production: Danica Zivkovic