Abu Dhabi: The evolution of Emirati women’s attire in light of the UAE’s development is the subject of an 800-page book titled Sultani: Traditions Renewed.

Written by Reem Al Mutwalli, a private consultant in Islamic architecture, Islamic and Arab art and UAE heritage, the book looks at the reasons behind the changes: From fashion trends to the social context to adapting to different circumstances and environments.

Delivering a lecture at New York University Abu Dhabi recently, Reem discussed the research that went into writing the book.

Describing some of the changes to the abaya, Reem said: “The most visible change in the abaya took place around the 1980s when it no longer became the head aba as it’s called, but became the shoulder aba where you would wear it with sleeves. It’s an example of how Emirati women adapted an article of clothing to suit the function and type of life they were leading. They began to drive, they began to work on computers, and began to go into the workforce so the head aba was no longer suitable to be worn.”

Today’s abaya is nothing like it was 30 years ago, Reem said. “It went through many changes. One of the latest is the coloured abaya; it’s no longer reserved to being black. You also have girls experimenting with different textures of abaya, making it more of a cloak than an abaya. So there is a lot happening. To the untrained eye, the abaya may seem unchanged, but it is not so.”


The driving force behind the change comes from Emirati women themselves, Reem said, because they have the means and the technology that’s available, coupled with globalisation where you are exposed to the whole world allowing you to be inspired and to select what you want, therefore these women are capable of experimenting and creating. They’re able to use different designs, and different interpretations, they acquire a refined taste, and an understanding of fabrics and textiles.”

She also goes on to explain the importance of Emiratis learning and understanding the changes that have occurred over time with the dress, for the sake of preserving the heritage and identity of the country.

“Everything is happening so fast in this day and time, the UAE is a small country and you have an influx of people coming in and out of the country, and so it’s very important for the sake of national identity and heritage, that all Emiratis understand their dress. To become more aware of the elements that compose that dress, and to continue to experiment and use it, so that it will stay as part of their culture, rather than just leaving it on the shelves to just be used on special occasions as has happened in other countries.”

Reem is also confident that changes and evolution to the Emirati dress will continue into the future as well, calling it human nature.

“Definitely, it’s typical human nature that things will change, and evolve, and will always be played with.”