Deftly balancing cultural sensitivities and sophisticated individuality, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser has had an unrivaled influence on fashion.
In 1958, Eleanor Lambert, founder and steward of the International Best-Dressed List, dispatched telegrams to “eight women of unchallenged style leadership” to inform them of their elevation to the newly formed IBDL category, the Hall of Fame. Among the inaugural group of honorees whom Lambert singled out for “distinguished taste in dress without ostentation or extravagance,” were Countess Mona von Bismarck, the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, and Queen Elizabeth II.
In the decades since then, the IBDL has conferred its Hall of Fame status on a multitude of other individuals, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes, Audrey Hepburn, and Princess Diana of Wales. Today it is difficult to name a woman who meets the criteria of the List’s highest distinction more fully than Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, who ascended to the Hall of Fame in 2015 after having won a place three times on the regular List. At the time of her induction, arbiters of the List (then published in Vanity Fair), struggled to find the right references to describe the Sheikha’s sui generis brand of chic. One member of the IBDL committee referred to her as “the Babe Paley of the Middle East.” Another characterized her peerless style as “royal opulence meets Hitchcock heroine.” Stephane Rolland, designer of the embroidered gray flannel dress the Sheikha wore to the opening of the Quranic Garden Exhibition in 2010, similarly felt that HH “came across like a Fifties movie star. Sheikha Moza is the Arab world’s answer to Ava Gardner.” Even a US diplomatic dossier, posted in one of WikiLeaks’s notorious document dumps, briefly abandoned bureaucratese to breathlessly call HH a “fashionable ‘movie star.’”
Others have reached back to the Kennedy White House to find an apt precedent for her ineffable glamour. During the Sheikha’s 2014 state visit to the UK – when she famously paired a simple white Chanel haute couture tailleur with the house’s surrealistic icicle-heeled furry boots – British designer Julien MacDonald declared that “not since Jackie O has any first lady had such global resonance in terms of fashion.” The Jackie analogy has also been invoked by the Instagram account that obsessively chronicles the Sheikha’s style, @sheikhamozafashion, which has 210 000 followers. The account holder, who is based in Asia and goes by the handle “Ab,” has shown the former First Lady and the Sheikha side by side in a similar double-breasted white dress; a comparable crop-jacket suit; and a lookalike cape-and-gown ensemble, all, in the Sheikha’s case, by Valentino (now owned by Mayhoola, the Qatari investment firm).
Even though Qatar has stricter dress codes than those of 1960s Washington, DC, the Sheikha’s choices reveal a more adventurous spirit than Mrs Kennedy expressed. A case in point is the Sheikha’s willingness to venture beyond her treasury of Harry Winston, Cartier, Buccellati, and Van Cleef jewels to try out the artier ornaments of sculptor Alexander Calder, as seen in the curvilinear brass “M” brooch with which she embellished her Fall 2012 Dior haute couture dress on a trip to Rome. Further proof of her sartorial courage is the fact that in 2015 she was seen in the same embroidered wool haute couture coat by Ulyana Sergeenko that Rihanna wore in her BBHMM music video.
The @sheikhamozafashion account regularly researches the sources for Her Highness’s clothing and jewelry, all the better to study how ingeniously the Sheikha has modified her runway selections to conform to Qatar’s vestimentary protocols. An intriguing case study is the color-blocked, blue-black-and-white Gaultier haute couture ensemble acquired for her June 2016 audience with Pope Francis. To adhere to the requirements of her position and her religion, the Sheikha raised and rounded the slip-dress’s neckline, added sleeves, and both lengthened and recolored the skirt. Similarly, the Sheikha adjusted a 2013 haute couture Valentino look by filling in the dress’s bare shoulders with lace inserts and, as usual, by elongating the silhouette to ankle length.
When fully draped in an abaya – as she was by Qatari designer Khemar in the October 2022 “Come Together” event in Education City – the statuesque Sheikha almost resembles a work of art; specifically, the celebrated sculpture from classical antiquity known as Pudicity (in the collection of the Vatican Museum). The disused word “pudicity” means “modesty” – a trait that has all but vanished from the fashion lexicon. Sheikha Moza exemplifies the time-tested adage that covering up the body can be far more alluring than exposing it. This principle applies equally to HH’s turbans, which typically show just a soupçon of her hairline, and slant back from the crown of her head, accentuating her chiseled jawline and prominent cheekbones. Her high-topped hijabs serve as a reminder of yet another forgotten fashion truism: the right hat can flatter the face even more than a becoming coiffure.
Above considerations of hairdos, hemlines, or shifting silhouettes, the Sheikha is never in style or out of style. Like Odette in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, she is a period unto herself. Her indifference to trends is one reason that HH has no fear of repeating looks and has no qualms about reviving a decades-old dress. For example, during a visit to Tajikistan in August 2007, she did not hesitate to resurrect a light-blue Dior outfit from Gianfranco Ferré’s SS96 haute couture collection for the brand. More recently, in October 2022, to meet with members of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, the Sheikha resuscitated a 20-year-old SS02 black Chanel haute couture redingote. How unlike the Duchess of Windsor, who, Eleanor Lambert recalled, “always wanted the latest thing head to toe.”
Naturally, it helps to be over 1.76m tall, and as well-proportioned as a Tanagra figurine, with a tiny waist, broad shoulders, and a long, slender neck – all borne with perfect posture. Yet, even with these advantages of beauty, comportment, and wealth, somehow the Sheikha is still capable of the common touch. We are just as likely to glimpse her seated with dignitaries in a green Gaultier jumpsuit at the official Bastille Day celebrations in Paris (2008) as biking, helmet on, in the streets of Seoul (2015). The International Best-Dressed List committee regularly reminds hopefuls that spending large sums of money can never alone make a person well dressed. The Sheikha is the exception that proves the rule. Who else with her resources looks like her?
Even more remarkable, unlike other present-day personalities who occupy a niche in the Hall of Fame, the Sheikha does not employ a stylist. (Eleanor Lambert would approve. She considered stylists the “termites of the fashion industry.”) On her own, the Sheikha has developed what Harold Koda, former curator-in-chief of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, calls an “authentic, identifiable, signature style, accomplished by melting brands into the assertive details of her personal preferences, and by consistently adhering to a rigorous graphic clarity and to a perfectionism of cut and fit.” The Sheikha herself has said: “I don’t have a stylist because I wouldn’t find anyone that would understand what I want.” For her, the components of a seemingly infinite wardrobe serve the same purpose as the paints on an artist’s palette. “It’s my mental treat,” she explained. “When I’m exhausted, I go to my dressing room and go through my closets, and I try to mix things and fix things.”
Koda concludes, “What Sheikha Moza has mastered requires aesthetic sophistication, discipline, and a decisive point of view. She deftly balances decorous societal expectations with stylish individuality. No one else will ever look like her.” Or, as the Sheikha stated more simply, “My style is to be in something that respects tradition and is at the same time modern and practical.”
Originally published in the November 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia