In malls, cafes, and urban spaces in Saudi Arabia today, women are wearing an array of fashionable abayas. Depending on the season, they are linen or velvet. There are abayas in deep, monochromatic colors or pastel ones, left open to reveal a casual outfit underneath. For women who grew up in Saudi Arabia during the last three decades, there were only two styles – those that clasped in the front, worn over the shoulders, and those that slipped over the head – and always in the color black.
The abaya is an outer, full-body cloak worn by women in public spaces. It evolved from the izar, an 18th century body wrap in which two pieces of rectangular fabric were stitched together to create one article of clothing. Depending on the time and location in the Arab or Muslim world, the garment is known by different names. For instance, it is called a jilaba in North Africa or chador in Afghanistan. While the abaya is a common feature of the Islamic world, it has deep historical, religious, and cultural resonances in Saudi Arabia.
“In the pre-oil era, the traditional was a square-shaped garment made of sheer goat or camel wool. Sometimes, it was embellished with a golden thread running down the outer seams of the sleeves. The black or dark navy color was derived from the precious indigo dye,” explained Reem El Mutwalli, historian and founder of The Zay Initiative, a nonprofit that works to preserve and archive Arab historical attire.
Speaking of then-predominant Bedouin society, Mutwalli noted that, “People who could acquire this type of garment were wealthy, so it was worn only by the upper echelons of society,” she said. “Therefore, it became a status symbol.” With industrialization, the garment was manufactured commercially, and the black color became the norm. “It also lost its value as a garment of affluence.”
During the 1970s, different fabrics were introduced, with the lighter, sheer, silk aba becoming popular. It was draped at the crown of the head and gathered at the waist by holding it in both arms, revealing the lower portion of the dress beneath, Mutwalli explained.
In 1979, extremist insurgents seized the holy mosque of Mecca. Subsequently, the Saudi royal family turned to hard-line Islam to reassert its position as the guardian of faith. Any form of modernization, including cinemas and mixing of opposite genders, was banned, and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police) was given tremendous power to enforce these rules. In public spaces, it was mandatory for women to wear the abaya – devoid of any color and embellishment, lest it should attract any male attention.
The 1980s marked the introduction of the abaya Islamiyah, a tailored cloak with a neckline opening to slip the garment over one’s head, denoting a modest, closed style. The Saudi aba (exported to the Gulf through the hajj) was another coat-like abaya, with tapered sleeves and an accompanying head scarf. During the 1990s, there was a little experimentation with lace, embroidery, and rhinestones. From 2000-10, designers started experimenting with different cuts and styles, with wide sleeves and wings becoming popular.
Over the years, the abaya came to symbolize oppression and, for mainstream international media, a narrative that Saudi women have no voice or agency. In 2016, Saudi Arabia stripped the religious police of its powers, including the strict enforcement of the abaya.
Marriam Mossalli, author of “Under the Abaya,” a photobook that celebrates Saudi street style, suggested that, even with fashion choices now being unlimited, in general, Saudi women continue to opt for the abaya. “The abaya was never a garment of patriarchal suppression but rather an extension of our own cultural identity,” she said.
Hafsa Lodi, author of “Modesty: A Fashion Paradox” added that Western media misses how the modern, contemporary abaya is very different from the black, all-encompassing garment that it once was. “It is now more of a fashion garment, as opposed to a religious one. And even though it is no longer enforced, women in the kingdom haven’t given up the abaya at all,” Lodi said. “There hasn’t been any kind of liberation or unveiling. Instead, women have just reappropriated it to suit their modern needs.”
With Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and its mandate for more women entering the workforce, the abaya has evolved to suit the social roles that women now play. Arwa Alammari, the fashion designer behind the award-winning label Aram Designs, shared the example of her mother, who is a doctor. “In the past, women were limited to jobs in hospitals or schools. When my mother arrives at the hospital, she removes her abaya and puts on a white lab coat to do her job.” She continued, “But in the past few years, women have held different roles and in different industries. With the political, socioeconomic, and cultural changes that are happening in Saudi, the abaya is evolving.”
Historian Mutwalli also noted that, with more purchasing power, the current generation tends to be value-based shoppers, which means they shop for brands and clothing that align with their personal beliefs. To meet this newfound demand, local designers are now combining modesty, comfort, sustainability, style, and heritage in their designs.
Alammari’s designs, for instance, incorporate Saudi heritage. Her iconic Saudi tuxedo bisht features an ornate gold trim lapel and trench coats with Sadu prints – the geometric embroidery style practiced by Bedouins. Eman Joharjy designs modest, “athleisure” abayas that allow for outdoor activities. Her Activewear Abaya is made of cotton and has a jumpsuit-like silhouette, with a zipper running down the front and wide pants that allow for jogging, bicycling, or driving, even in the harshest of Saudi summers. “A female photographer needs flexibility to move; a female architect has site visits – women wanted practicality, comfort, and contemporary designs but also wanted to adhere to our culture and tradition” Joharjy said. Although it started as a niche offering, Joharjy’s modest sports abayas have now found widespread acceptance and appreciation.
The Toby Femme Collection by designer Hatem Alakeel features structured pastel abayas with wide lapels and peacock motifs, symbolizing creative expression in fashion. Lomar Abaya is known for its fierce, androgynous silhouettes. The haute couture, embellished abayas in azure and lapis lazuli by Samah Abayas, are a far cry from the days of the traditional abaya.
Author Lodi added that Saudi women are not just looking at local, homegrown brands for their abaya needs but also at international brands. “The global modest fashion boom that has occurred over the past decade has really impacted this retail sector,” she said. DinarStandard’s “The State of Global Islamic Economy 2022” report estimates Muslim consumer spending will reach $402 billion by 2024. “This inspires global brands like ASOS and fast-fashion Shein to create abayas or abaya alternatives for Muslim women,” Lodi said.
Nonetheless, the contemporary Saudi abaya and its alternatives now represent high fashion and individual style. Given the choice to wear the abaya or not, women – Saudi and expatriate – continue to wear it because it is a mark of cultural identity and belonging, much like the Indian sari or the African kanga.