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Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of The Past

posted on: Nov 24, 2020

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

By: Safa M. Qureshi/Arab America Contributing Writer         

The abaya is a long, cardigan-like garment that is meant to cover a woman’s whole body, so as not to reveal her body shape or what she is wearing underneath. Historically, it allowed Muslim women to blend in and stand out at the same time.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

It comes in various designs and styles for Muslim women and girls of all ages to wear while going out of the house. Most of the time, it is worn with a scarf or veil, but some women opt to wear it with a turban as well. 

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

The abaya is the most popular dress in the Muslim world. In Arab countries like the UAE, it constitutes the national dress, but many local women opt to wear western clothing instead. Did you know that “more than 90% of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas?” This quote came out of Saudi Arabia in February of 2018, when Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq stated that women in the country should no longer be forced to wear the abaya. By law, Saudi women must wear the abaya in public places, although some cities in the country are more lenient than others.

But wearing the abaya isn’t so bad. Feeling bloated or your jeans are tight? Throw on the abaya! Or let’s say you’re out running errands in comfy, loungewear (under your abaya) and you get a last-minute text from your friend to have lunch together. Don’t have time to go home and change? No problem! Your abaya will come to the rescue and no one will ever suspect you’re underdressed. 

In this article, we will go over general knowledge as well as the evolving trends of the abaya.

Who Wears It?

Generally, the black abaya is worn by women in Arab countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. White and simple printed abaya dresses are popular in far eastern countries and the embroidered and heavily-embellished abayas are famous in Arab countries, too.  

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past
Women above pictured wearing traditional Jordanian abaya.

Why Do Women Wear It?

Although the Quran does not explicitly mandate that women wear black, floor-length robes, most women still wear the abaya for religious reasons. This is because the Quran mentions modesty in chapter 33:59 and the abaya helps cover a woman’s “treasures.”

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past
Here is a modernized take on the abaya modeled by Cozmoburqa.

Aside from religious reasons, the abaya is viewed by many proud wearers as a symbol of their heritage.

“To me, the abaya is what the kimono is to Japan; it’s part of the culture,” says Saudi clothing designer Arwa Al Banawi. Similarly, Saudi-born Nour Al-Tamimi, founder of the urban sneaker brand The Nou Project, says “it is special to be different from the rest of the world in a way.” While she may not always wear the abaya when she’s in Dubai, she says she enjoys putting it on when she visits her home country. “I think the abaya is beautiful and it emphasises the culture, just like in India where they wear saris.”

The Abaya through the Ages

Below is an excerpt by fashion historian Reem El Mutwallli on how the silhouette of the abaya has evolved in the UAE: 

Pre-Oil Period: The traditional Bedouin abaya was a square-shaped, black wool, overgarment adorned with a wide, gold, trim at the central neckline. It could only be afforded by those at the higher echelons of society, such as the wives of sheikhs or merchants. For the general public, the large double-width black shayla, or headscarf, was used to engulf the upper part of the body, playing the role of the abaya.

1970s: Different weights of black silk became popular and, in time, less opaque. By the end of the 1970s, the abayas worn at social functions became more sheer. It draped from the back of the head, was bunched at the waist, and tucked under the arm, showing off the lower skirt part of whatever was being worn underneath.

1980s: The shoulder abaya was introduced from Saudi Arabia. This saw the introduction of a basic full-length, black sleeved, cloak that covered the body, alongside the narrower black shayla that covered the head. Black fabrics in different weights and sheerness were experimented with, and various adornment techniques were introduced. 

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

1990s: The same basic shape of the abaya continued, with displays of more ostentatious lace, heavy embroidery, iron-on rhinestones (usually all in black), and some sparkle every now and then, as the abaya and shayla became paired as ensembles. The new “umaniyah” (from Oman, as it resembled the tunics worn by Omani men), became widely used. This is also known as the Islamic abaya, as it was completely closed at the front and could be slipped on over the head.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

2000-2010: Heavy experimentation in new cuts and styles began, resulting in bizarre and at times very flamboyant shapes. Butterflies, bats, or anything with wings in multi-layers became all the rage. Some also acquired a waistline through different styles of narrow and wide belts to emphasize body shape, and hooded extensions were introduced in attempts to blend with popular Western attire.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

2010 – Present-day:

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past
Kuwaiti-Saudi influencer, Fouz Al Fahad, posing in a pastel-blue abaya.

Experimentation with colored shaylas and abayas has become elevated, with natural fabrics and high-end designs that express individuality. Emerging local designers begin to look beyond Western fashion labels for inspiration, developing their own signature styles based on a global fashion heritage.

Today’s abaya has evolved to mean more than a piece of clothing covering other garments. Detaching itself from earlier attributes, it has acquired a standing of its own, thus becoming a fundamental fashion piece, and an added value to an overall outfit. In shopping centers, women of every age can be seen wearing beautifully decorated abayas that do not necessarily hide the outfit anymore, and it is now quite common to see them worn open in the front in the guise of a coat. 

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

The Changing Face of The Abaya

There is no shortage for choice when it comes to abayas. One of the biggest shifts in abaya fashion is that it no longer needs to be black; women across the Arab World are now opting for an array of colors when it comes to abayas, from khaki green and dove grey, to pastel pink and dusty cream.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

In more recent years, many women have also begun wearing open abayas worn over long skirts or jeans according to Reuters news agency reports. Here are some of the current trends followed by renowned celebrities and native women all around the Arab World:

The Sleeves- The sleeves can be in a bell shape, straight, fitted, or lose fitted from the end.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past
Saudi influencer Reem AlSanea posing at an event wearing a cream-colored abaya.

The Accessories- Accessories range from buttons, pearls, laces, fancy ribbons, or a belt on the waist.

The Robe- The robe is a popular style and is usually worn as formal wear. The reason for this is that the loose robe makes it difficult to handle the gown for a longer time period.

The Butterfly- The butterfly style abaya is one of the trends that has not lost its charm, even after years of women adopting it as one of the most fashionable designs.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

The Overcoat- The overcoat abaya is usually loose from the front and back, because it’s not tightly tied up. 

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

Luxury Brands Take-On the Abaya

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past
Dolce & Gabbana goes modest with their new abaya line.

The abaya, which was once a statement of faith, has now become a statement of style. The designer abaya has flourished in recent years, with luxury brands, like Dolce and Gabbana and Carolina Herrera, creating collections specifically for the Arab World. Many Arab designers are also deviating from classic blacks.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

Modern abayas feature open fronts, and woven fabrics in neutral and jewel-toned shades. Some are decorated with athletic-inspired stripes, pearl beads, and floral embroidery.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the PastConclusion

The abaya has acquired a status of its own, becoming a fundamental fashion piece and an added value to the overall outfit.  Fashion designers have helped change the image of abayas so that more women wear it proudly and willingly. It allows a woman to express herself, because abayas are getting more and more creative, elegant, and well-designed,” says Alia Khan.

Evolution of the Abaya: The Black Cloak of the Past

One thing remains the same, the purpose of the abaya – which is to cover the body.

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