Writer speak. Dr Reem Al Mutwalli Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The Emirati woman’s traditional dress has evolved over the years in accordance with her changing role and status in society. The evolution of fashion has seen daring new trends in the design and cut of the traditional black robe and headscarf.

But unlike many other cultures where traditional fashions have faded into antiquity, the Gulf Arab abaya is here to stay, according to author and archaeological expert Dr. Reem Al Mutwalli.

“Twenty years from now, I think the abaya and sheila will still be very much in vogue in one form or another. UAE women will keep experimenting with it, but are unlikely to ditch the traditional wear that preserves their identity,” Mutwalli told XPRESS.

Document the evolution

In her book, Sultani: Traditions Renewed, Changes in UAE Women’s Traditional Dress during the reign of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1966-2004), Mutwalli traces the evolution of the traditional costume of women in the context of social, cultural, economic and political changes.

In her book, which took eight years to write, the author said she has tried to document the evolution of traditional women’s fashions from both an archaeological and artistic perspective. The 800-page bilingual book was first published in 2011. Mutwalli released a more concise second edition on April 21 at the New York University in Abu Dhabi.

In the book, she argues that UAE women have experimented with clothing for reasons mainly of functionality, personal expression and social status.

“In the pre-oil period, life was sedentary and a type of abaya called ‘Abaya Ras’ that was worn on the head and engulfed the whole body was popular. But with modernisation and a more urbanised way of living, that abaya was not functional anymore,” said Mutwalli who holds a PhD from SOAS in Islamic Art and Archeology. Her first book, Qasr Al Husn, An Architectural Survey of the Oldest Fort in Abu Dhabi, was published in 1995.

“As women started to lead a more active social life and took to driving, she adopted a new style of abaya that is worn on the shoulders.”

According to her, today’s women sport new fashion trends and colours in abaya and sheila as a form of self-expression.

“Today, women more and more want to exert themselves in their field of work and in leadership positions. Now more than ever, the abaya and sheila reveal the identity of the wearer - be it their social status or financial affluence,” said Mutwalli.

But the author is quick to warn that it is a misconception that the abaya and sheila are the only traditional women’s fashions worn by UAE women. “The impact of oil wealth, urbanisation, access to global markets have manifested more on the outerwear like the abaya and sheila, but the inner wear has also evolved over the years,” said Mutwalli.