Three years ago, a university in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, launched a campaign against coloured abayas – long-sleeved maxi cloaks worn by women in Arab countries, especially in the Arabian Gulf area – claiming that students who did not wear the black attire covering their clothes were subject to a penalty. Wearing the customary black abaya, deemed more modest than coloured ones, was considered a sign of respect in such a formal institution.
Similar incidents triggered a debate regarding whether coloured abayas conform to sharia or contradict modesty.
It also instilled fear in some boutique stores that were caught up in selling boundless designs of coloured abayas.
Walking in public today, this perception seems to have faded away. The modern trend of the coloured abaya that started in Jeddah quickly became a common scene in public life, including more conservative cities in Saudi Arabia and across a number of Gulf states.
In a 2016 article published in Okaz Newspaper, a local Saudi daily, a female reporter interviewed a member of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars and asked him if coloured abayas are prohibited in Islam. The scholar replied that wearing modest clothing which is not revealing is the main requirement of a Muslim woman, adding that wearing colours in public is acceptable.
The origins of the black abaya
A legend from the 8th century states that a merchant arrived in Madinah, the city in Saudi Arabia where the prophet Mohammed is buried, with a collection of head scarves and abayas from Iraq; he sold all the colours except for black. Feeling disappointed about the undesirable black colours, he complained to his friend Al-Darimi, a religious monk.
To help out his merchant friend, Al-Darimi composed a poem expressing love for a mysterious woman in black who captured his heart. Gossip quickly spread around the city about the monk who changed his austere lifestyle because of the woman dressed in black. The merchant immediately sold all of his merchandise, and not a single woman in Madinah had not bought a black scarf since.
The origin and authenticity of this legend is debatable, however. So, the reason that black became the main colour of women’s outer dress in the Gulf remains unknown.
One theory says that the abaya originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. Historians and academics like Dr Leila Al Bassam, a professor of traditional clothing and textiles at Riyadh University, claim that women from Iraq and Syria introduced the abaya in Saudi Arabia 80 years ago. It was immediately adopted by nomads in the desert who previously wore long, loose coloured dresses with matching scarves to cover the head and face. It is said that the Bedouins then brought it to cities.
Residents whom I spoke to who witnessed life in Saudi Arabia prior to the 1970s remember a time when women wore colourful and conservative clothing in the port city of Jeddah and in the Eastern Province. Some chose to wear abayas out of custom and not as a formal obligation. Women would carry their abayas when leaving the house or just use them to cover their upper bodies.
The 1980s brought in more austerity in applying strict interpretations of sharia in public Saudi life. While Islam requires women to cover their bodies and head, conservative individuals considered the black abaya the only way by which the obligation could be fulfilled. A single form of the loose black abaya became common attire for women and was sold by male tailors.
The traditional abaya, called the laff in Saudi dialect, was a thin black material that was wide and square shaped, with two openings for the hands to enter to avoid revealing the arms. To securely close the abaya, a woman would fold one part under her arm and tuck in the other side.
Beginnings of modern abayas
Towards the beginning of 1980, in a shopping district of Jeddah, a newly opened boutique by the name of Sayedat Al Hijab marked the shift from the laff design that was worn by all women in the Kingdom.
“It started when I was looking for an abaya to buy,” recalls Saudi owner Buthayna Hafiz, who has retired from her business. “I was shopping and the seller dealt inappropriately. I got frustrated and decided to design my own at home.”
Acknowledged for her stylish flair, she was encouraged to start a business after succeeding in designing her own abayas, becoming the first designer in abayas.
“I carefully chose nice fabrics and silks and hired Asian tailors at home. When the business grew, I opened a shop,” says Buthayna, whose boutique is regarded by Jeddah women as a pioneer in offering the finest abayas at the time.
The aspiring designer experimented with subtle changes to the abaya by using new materials and styles, such as jersey fabric and wide square sleeves.
“I noticed other tailors in town copying my designs,” she adds. So, Sayedat Al Hijab continued to push for more variety in styles as other abaya shops emerged. One of her bold moves was adding gold colour to the black abaya.
However, it was only near the 1990s when stylish abayas began to be sold in various stores. A handful of designs started to appear, such as the butterfly cut design, and became popular among a certain group of women who were open to dressing fashionably in public.
As foreign brands and retail stores were introduced in the Kingdom, ready-to-wear fashion became more accessible. Correspondingly, local abaya tailors incorporated colourful ornaments, patterns and new fabrics and played around with sleeve designs.
“Black and plain abayas are boring,” exclaims Hafiz, who acknowledges that the evolution of the abaya occurred at a rapid pace.
The market demand quickly led the way for the rise of local designers and trends.
Like Buthayna Hafiz, women who were not able to find certain designs in the market were prompted to create original models.
Reintroduction of the coloured abayas
Fed up of black abayas, a design and architecture student who was passionate about arts and colours took the lead in crafting a coloured abaya for herself.
Rotana Al-Hashimi quickly made a name for herself in Jeddah when she first started making the novel, unique abayas for her family and friends.
“Wearing colors makes you feel fresh, especially in our climate,” she says. “I feel more comfortable in colour.”
Her attempt to tackle black was not gradual. She founded her brand, Rotana, and started selling her collection in a shop in 2006. She immediately started to experiment freely with colours, including yellow, blue, green and red hues.
“Abayas should be comfortable since we wear them all day,” she says, believing that abayas represent an Arabian woman’s identity and culture.
“My designs quickly spread and I saw others replicating them,” she says.
The past decade saw a boom of designers selling coloured abayas from home then gradually in stores.
“There was an obvious need in the market,” she adds. “There were a segment of people who were also against it, however. When I wore my designs in public, my aim was not to attract attention but encourage wearing color.”
While her entrepreneurial venture was growing, a number of shops were hesitant in selling her abayas during the business’ first few years.
But after succeeding in selling her unique collections, her famed sense of style led her to participate in fashion shows in Dubai.
This opened the door to designing abayas for prominent figures, including royalty, international guests arriving in the Kingdom on official visits and celebrities such as fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
Standing out from the crowd
A woman in a coloured abaya wants to express herself and stand out from the crowd, according to Samar Edrees, a 33-year-old Saudi stylist and fashion-trends forecaster who recently founded her start-up, The Socialite, a fashion consultancy and production house.
Although coloured abayas are now popular, black remains the primary colour for people who want to blend in, she believes.
Growing up in the 1990s, she remembers that girls were nearly prohibited from wearing abayas which incorporated colours in their design, and the girls were sometimes questioned. “It was controversial in the beginning,” she says.
“With the rise in awareness of trends and social media nowadays, people want to define their sense of fashion identity,” says Samar, who specializes in fashion merchandising. “It’s different from the past where one would own an abaya or two in their closet. Now, there are abayas for each occasion, like workwear, informal wear, eveningwear, and so on.”
As demand for abaya designers increased in the region, colourful, stylish abayas caught on worldwide. Dolce and Gabbana recently launched its first collection of abayas in its signature colourful prints.
“I love colored abayas,” says Saudi abaya designer Rouba Dayani, who has embraced them in her collections since 2008. “Once I started wearing them, I never went back to black.”
Rouba, who left Jeddah to study fashion design in Florence, witnessed a widespread trend in coloured abayas upon her return in 2008. “It was a sudden change,” she says.
“I feel lighter in natural fabric,” she adds. “It’s more appropriate to our climate, especially summers in Jeddah.”
In the Arabian Peninsula, Jeddah stands out from other GCC cities, as its residents have a freer spirit in incorporating more colour and diversity in society. “Historically, it’s always been a cosmopolitan city,” says Samar. “Up until today, its people have been open and cultured. It’s why they’re pioneers in taking risks in local fashion and setting trends in the region. This has been reflected in the abaya.”
Layan Damanhouri is a Saudi journalist based in Jeddah.