Pushing the Form
I have now lived in Qatar for three fall seasons. I teach at Qatar University College of Law, so I am perfectly positioned to see youthful fashion expressed in the abaya.
Many Westerners, when they see a photo of a group of Arab women wearing abayas, probably assume that the abayas they wear are the same in style, fabric, and embellishment. Not true. As the outward statement for these young women, you see many expressions of their personality and fashion sense in the abayas they choose to wear.
Some students, who view the abaya as a utilitarian piece of clothing, may wear the same abaya all semester. Other women, more fashion conscious, may have four or five abayas that they rotate throughout the semester.
As a seamstress, I am fascinated at the thousands of interpretations of this basic form. In Qatar, most abayas are cloaks with long sleeves that a woman wraps in front of her and holds with one lower arm and elbow. A rare one will have a front zipper that gives more freedom from having to clutch it all day.
In the fall of 2015, I noticed that some of the fashion-forward students wore gray or taupe abayas, sometimes with a matching scarf. Here are three examples. All of these images are commercial photographs, so I am not breaking any cultural rules by sharing them. Some photos stop at the shoulder, which preserves the privacy of the photographed woman.
You can quickly see that manufacturers of abayas use many different fabrics and embellishments.
In the fall of 2016, I noticed a new trend: dramatic compositions in which white played an important role. In my mind, this trend challenged taboos about which gender should wear which color. (Men here wear a white thobe in the hotter months of the year.) Also, while one of these models is not wearing a hijab, a Qatari women would not venture into the public sphere without one.
This fall, I am seeing a new trend: black abayas short enough to show off the designer shoes many women wear here. I would have loved to overhear the conversations between mothers and daughters during the back-to-school shopping. Mom: "That's too short!" Daughter: "Mom, nooooo! You can only see my shoes!" I'm sure it sounded like the conversations I had with my Mom about how short my skirt could be during the '70s Twiggy fashion era.
I asked my students this week if I was right in noticing that they are pushing one aspect of the abaya (its length) while preserving a traditional aspect of it (the black color). Yes, they agreed. Change comes in one increment at a time.
For more images of this elegant and diverse piece of clothing, see here.