Research Point 1 Diversity and Design in Textiles Available to the Consumer
Almost three years ago, I had to leave my lovely home in Calgary, Canada, nestling in the foothills of the Rockies, in the heart of a lively, creative city with design more at its heart than I had expected after moving from England. I had studied interior design, collected samples of trends in furnishing fabrics, joined the weaving guild, made friends with ardent quilters. As can be imagined, being pulled away to the unknown territories of the Middle East because of my husband’s job did not settle easily. Packed up, I came to a house on a compound in Bahrain, close to the Saudi border, and two days after my arrival had to go to Saudi for paperwork. It was Ramadan, and a pressure time for immigration. I was in a hotel room for 10 days, during fasting. I had left a liberal egalitarian society in Canada after a career in race equality in the UK. Suddenly I had to don black gown and scarf, covering all of myself, avoid eye contact, go for medicals and fingerprinting in cramped and crammed, noisy hospitals unable to communicate but guided by a male agent, then hide in a hotel room. It was an enormous cultural shock for me, the so-called equalities expert.
Maybe the biggest shock was the impact that putting on the abaya (gown) and scarf had on me. Hiding every aspect of my own clothing, eyes down, I felt my personality, my qualifications and professional expertise drain away under the cover of darkness. I am showing a photo of me as I was preparing to leave the Bahraini house to go over to Saudi, and then one of me in the hotel room. As it shows, there is nothing of the core of me that is revealed. I was amazed at the impact the gown had on me, and was challenged by my previous opinions on wearing the abaya. I had always believed and had promoted in my work, that if you want to wear one, that is your prerogative. Instantly I was against the whole concept, feeling it was degrading and destructive to women. I was reduced to a black blob, in my own eyes.
In my Bahraini house
In the Saudi hotel room
After almost three years of living here in Bahrain, with regular trips to Saudi Arabia for paperwork, my view of the abaya has changed, expanded and I think it is a very interesting subject to do a short piece of research on. No longer do I think it is the bugbear that I had initially felt in putting it on. Here in Bahrain, there is freedom to dress as you wish, within the bounds of decorum, and as a westerner I do not wear the abaya. But many Bahraini women do and I have discovered that the abaya is a very complex garment. It is a fashion statement, it is a religious statement. It is designer, or off the peg at the local supermarket or souk (market). It is a blanket coverall or it is a revealing and provocative garment, which challenges the boundaries of decorum. Its impact on home furnishings are limited by the restriction on depicting the human in Islamic art, but it can still appear.
In discussion here I am not going to talk about head covering, as that would be a different study, but I am going to highlight some of the aspects of the abaya only. My first abaya had been bought at a store in the shopping mall, my aim to have a gown for my quick turnaround trip to Saudi, two days after arriving in Bahrain. I did not realize that I had entered a designer shop, and that my deeply black gown had a tailored cut that revealed a line to my body, and that the encrusted black Swarowski crystals on the cuffs and on the scarf glittered in the sun. I was shocked when a Saudi woman in the hotel admired its style and cut, and asked where I had bought it as she would like one just like it. An inkling that the abaya is a fashion item.
This research is anecdotal, but my first abaya with its crystals got lost. I had pushed it to the back of the wardrobe after that first 10 day wearing, and could not find it when I had to go to Saudi again. Maybe I had mislaid it on purpose, but I still needed one to go back for my papers! This time I went back to the designer shop with more understanding of my needs. I wanted very smart, please, with a good style. My new abaya is designed by Bukanan, in Saudi Arabia. I have tried to research this designer but have not been successful, other than to find their business address etc.
This second abaya has a good tailored line, with no crystals but a colour insert which emphasizes the shape and cut. It also had a little opening at the neck, and my own confidence has grown enough to wear earrings and makeup. My second abaya is now a definite style choice!
A good website to see the range of styles in the abaya is the online shop My Batua. My Batua shows the kaftan shape, which is a sleek line, and the shape that I have chosen for my own abaya. There is also the butterfly abaya. This is an abaya where the sleeve is integral to the body (ie forms a square shape when arms are raised). According to The best Islamic Clothing site, the butterfly shape has detailing which ripples like a butterfly. Personally, I find it obscures the body further, but it is an example of adapting a basic garment to have some stylistic and fashion changes that are culturally determined, and therefore is quite an interesting feature for that reason.
(Butterfly Abaya from Haya Couture)
A winter design from she korner, note the grey fabric, and more tweed coat style. Frankly though, I have not observed the red niqab (scarf) worn much by Saudi and Bahraini women. The different colour niqabs are, I suggest, worn at home or are from other countries.
A developing trend in abaya fashion is the move towards embroidery on the fabric. I have seen some lovely examples when I have been in hotels and restaurants, where women have been wearing more ‘dressy’ abayas rather than daytime fashion. Of course I have no photographs of my own to show this, as it would be inappropriate to have taken them, but examples from online are as follows:
This is from Namshi, an online supplier of Arabian clothing to Bahrain. It is from Haya’s Closet and has block printing, lace and embroidery. The fabric is nida. I would feel too inhibited to wear this myself, in the places I would visit where wearing an abaya is needed, but I do think it is lovely!
There are many sites online which show different colours being used for abayas and the use of different accessories to give a designer impact. A short foray into Pinterest will offer an amazing variety. Each Muslim country has different conventions on what is acceptable to wear. A visit to the opera in Oman offered view of the most glamorous, stunning colours and decoration. I find that mostly the simple black gown is worn everyday amongst Saudi and Bahraini settings. However the black cut will have inserts of grey very often, some embroidery, gauze that allows light to show through around the lower leg or on the sleeve, but never in a revealing place.
More mainstream western fashion houses are exploring the potential of the abaya. For example, Dolce and Gabbana have recently launched their Abaya and Hijab collection. This is an example of their beige abaya, which I believe I have seen worn at a recent event here in Bahrain (without realizing where it had come from), but I have no personal photograph to show. It is with embroidered lace effect, which is quite a trend. Reading on this collection, it has had a mixed reception in the media. Praise for its legitimizing and recognizing Muslim style, and concern raised by the light-coloured skin of the models, and the apparent wealth targeted. It seems that the new move towards collections for Muslim women in general have been focused as a Ramadan (holiday) collection and generally available in the Middle East only, but this could be a tester market. Ref Fortune.com. I have realized more the significance of Ramadan as a period of spending and celebration, as being here in Bahrain all residents follow the no eating and drinking during daylight, all the cafes etc are closed. Once the sun has set, all opens and the night becomes daytime, with special evening meals in a social atmosphere. There are large sales and offers in all retail outlets. Hence focusing celebratory abaya collections at this time is a wise marketing plan.
I had one abaya for my delayed period in Saudi (10 days instead of the expected 5), so my abaya was worn every time I left the hotel room, or quickly donned inside the room if anyone knocked on the door (as it would have been shocking to be seen in my trousers and long-sleeved top), The abaya had to look smart in all of that wearing. It has to not show creases from sitting, folds have to drop out, it has to not hold sand and dust around the feet, it has to keep taut around the neckline. The fabric must be strong and sturdy, but lightweight and flowing because of the heat. I have not seen a matt abaya, so there is sheen. In terms of fabric quality, flow and drape, hardwearing, easy washing and ironing are a must. The abaya is a textile product with particular specifications.
The fabric used is listed online as crepe, georgette and chiffon, silk and satin, occasionally jersey or cotton. There are differing qualities of the crepe, dependent on the country, and the season needed, for the abaya. Winter requires warmth, and summer a light flow of air, but still opaque. My own abaya is crepe in the body, with a satin trip for neckline and fastening strip. The matching scarf is in georgette, with satin trim.
The Best Islamic Clothing Website gives an interesting discussion on the different qualities of crepe available to make abayas. I find it interesting that it also says that medium weight crepe is more wrinkle resistant, and has a better drape. It refers to the difference between Bahraini and Saudi crepe. Bahraini is suitable for all seasons, smooth and slightly silky.
There are several websites, which discuss the range of fabrics used for making abayas, and I found the abayaelegan interesting as it discusses the different qualities of the crepe. All are forms of Polyester. For example this is their comment on Saudi crepe:
“Saudi Crepe is one of the most wearable abaya fabric in GCC abaya fashion industry. It’s also 100% Polyester a light, elegant, pliable and comfortable to wear smooth and soft material suitable for the hotter & colder season. The texture of the fabric is a bit sandy or grainy when you touch it’s surface.’
I would suggest that there is a consumer choice in the fabric, which is also determined by price as well as use. The simple abayas in the lowercost supermarkets are high sheen, thin polyester.
On researching, I found an interesting slide presentation on qualities of fabrics used in the textile industry, presented at the University of Fashion and Technology in China. There was a particular section on the fabric used for abayas, so I am including the relevant slides here. It is an example of the analysis relevant to choice and quality of material selection for this garment
Presentation On: “ Fabric Analysis ” Course: Product Development & Re-Engineering Code: GMM-260
Date of Submission: 24-04-2015
Submitted to Md. Tanjibul Hasan Sajib Lecturer BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology BUFT
Submitted By: Fahad Islam 121-244-0-45 Dept of Apparel Manufacturing & Technology BGMEA University of Fashion & Technology
Another factor is the wash and care. The abaya is a large item and hanging to dry with minimum iron is a very desirable feature as it is cumbersome and shifty on the ironing board (personal experience!). Good quality crepe is very attractive for this reason. There are specific soap liquid products to wash the abaya with. These have no brighteners. My product is from Persil, and they claim it keeps the black radiance with Black Renew German Technology.
Culture and religion
I do not want to discuss fully, as I know I do not have enough knowledge and sensitivity to detail to be able to write appropriately. However, I have noticed a difference in some styles of abayas which could be linked to either religious/cultural differences or it could be a result of financial security. There is certainly a difference in culture/country of origin. One can see variety amongst visitors from the wider Gulf countries, or from further afield. But within Bahrain itself, it appears that some communities chose a different shape to the kaftan line. Some abayas are rounded in shape, and from the back the impact is almost like a ball, from the head to ground. There is no break in fabric from top to toe. There is no possible determination of a human shape. Others are tailored, with seams, giving an elegant shape, which is not revealing of the body outline itself, but highlights a definition to the cut, which suggests there is a person underneath. This could be religious difference, as in Bahrain there are Sunni and Shia groups, and many expatriate peoples from elsewhere. It could also be village dress. A modicum of research (eg Wikipedia) shows that there is much discussion on body covering for women, what is modest and appropriate, and I am not qualified to write anything with a proper evaluation. Just that I have noticed that women do choose from shapes which include neck and chin covering and overall outline and I suggest it is religious culture based.
From images online, I have picked some samples of the rounder shape, which appears to be a choice from Iraq. It may be that it is the choice of older women, according to the arabspeaking website, and I certainly have seen older women wearing this shape, but have also seen younger girls too.
The age and status of the woman/girl is also significant. I have taught in village language schools where the girls have been in abaya and niqab, generally with the rounded shape. However, wealthier girls have been in kaftan shape, with beautiful embroidery and flashes of discreet colour. Anecdotal information has been that older women, widows wear completely black, with the only adornment being in a variation in the weave of the black crepe, no embroidery or colour changes.
There is an interesting discussion of the different styles for different countries on the arabspeaking website, with photographs for each region. Bahrain is shown with beautiful kaftans in red and gold. These however are celebratory items and are not everyday or weekend wear.
The Abaya in soft furnishings
It seems a little strange to discuss the link between the abaya garment, with its significance and essential basic for women’s clothing, but I have seen a development (or it might be my growing awareness) in the artistic nature of soft furnishings to include a reflection of the abaya. I attended a launch of cushions made by local artisans which show Bahraini and Arabic culture, some of which show the abaya design. It is not a feature of Islamic art to depict the human form, so the format is one of cartoon/naïve unrealistic interpretation. Yalla Habibi cushions use traditional Bahraini woven fabric, and are becoming widely available on stalls, in art fairs, the museum and tourism information shops.
This is designed by Weaam Sperinck
This set of cushions, from Fyunka in Saudi, are a sleeping female in a black abaya:
On a separate point, notice the woven basketry that is placed next to the cushion. This basket weaving is a very traditional Bahraini craft.
I have searched to find any other textiles for the home, which would reflect the abaya, but have not found any at all, other than the cartoon cushion. The fabric is very specific for its application as a garment, pattern is not a feature other than some variations in the weave for decorative features and the colour is black. Local fashion for upholstery is traditional heavy-duty woven textiles with Arabic or Indian-inspired pattern, or also can be strong and challenging in plush velour etc.
My attitude to the abaya has come full circle since being in Bahrain. Sometimes I have wished I could just pop one on when going out instead of having to worry what I look like when I go out, am I covered enough, too much, colour matching, have I put on a bit of weight etc. I have even felt disadvantaged being a Christian westerner. I also recognize the elegance, which they offer to the wearer. They can be beautiful! There is an amazing amount of subtle variety in fabric, shape, and decoration. And of course as a result of the abaya, accessories such as shoes, handbags, scarves and headwear have an even greater impact than ever. I have not touched upon the fact that the abaya is a cover, and underneath that garment, there can be fashion in its highest form and where the wearer has disposable income the designer labels are amazing. The shopping malls with their Versace, DKNY, Juicy Couture stores are always busy. The abaya is a religious requirement, a cultural message, and it is interpreted differently in each country. I have learnt to conjecture on the cultural background of wearers of the abaya in our tourist areas, by looking at the shape, the line, the type of fabric and embroidery etc. And that does not include the scarf! It is also designer led amongst Middle Eastern designers, and the market is being entered into by Western design houses, a politically and socially-charged move. It is a fascinating, complex garment, and this research has only skimmed its surface.