17 October 2005

The Price of Looking Good

"UAE national women drive up price of abayas" - a headline that encompasses so many of the pre-conceptions and realities of local culture.

Traditionally the point of the abaya, an ankle-length black cloak worn by women in this region of the Arab world, is to hide the female form as the Koran describes (although this is open to interpretation, as witnessed by the many different forms of dress in the Muslim world). In the UAE the abaya is considered national dress, as is the dishdash for men. So many working women consider wearing it as a suit substitute when they attend meetings with local companies, even if they wouldn't wear it for religious reasons.

What was once a shapeless cloak has turned into a fashion item, with designer-abaya fashion houses springing up (and marking their designs with logos on the outside of the abaya - what would Naomi Klein have to say about this?) and boutiques lined with rails of black items like goth shops that only sell one outfit.

The main way to individualise an abaya is to apply embroidery, mostly along the edges, but sometimes all over and combined with lacing and applique. Then there is the shape of the item itself, which, according to Fatma Abdi Mohammed, a local abaya designer quoted in 7 Days newspaper, is tending to be tighter and more form-fitting, specially round the waist. This is called the French design. All this illustrates the shift in local society which is trying to adapt to the fact that so many of its children are exposed to Western ways and still try to hold on the traditional aspects of their culture.

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