In praise of the black abaya

I mentioned my appreciation for the black abaya. I can begin to explain here some of what I like about the traditional, standard women’s clothing in the Gulf.

Surprisingly cool and comfy in here. Really.

I mean, surely, there are a few things I don’t like. For example, I have slippery hair, and if I expect the shayla (the rectangular scarf that goes with the abaya) to stay on my head, I have to wear an underscarf and pin it tightly. Thing is, I don’t usually like to wear my scarf tight around my neck anyway (and maybe I’ll write a post about tinea versicolor some other time).

I know a lot of people have covered this point, but don’t assume anything about what’s going on under that abaya. Imagine it as a trenchcoat: I could be wearing a dress, a pair of jeans, a dirty muumuu, or–gasp!–maybe even nothing at all. That’s the point, really: none of your business, mister.

Know what else? It’s really quite airy in here. To honest, these days, with the temps in the upper 30s to 40s daily, I have been basically wearing technical workout clothing underneath, so I’m in running tanks and capri-cut running tights. So I am catching plenty of breeze through fabrics, and the abaya is taking the heat, rather than the layer against my skin. Am I a sweaty mess? Sweaty, sure, but not so much a mess. And certainly no sweatier than anyone else out here.

And another thing: I’m always mosque-appropriate. Being a Muslim, if I’m out and about and it’s prayer time, I should pop into any nearby mosque to line up with my sisters for a prayer. In my abaya, I’m always ready for congregational prayers. Which is nice if you like your prayers with company, which I do.

And almost as good, an abaya pretty well ensures that I meet any dress code, anywhere. It’s not often that I need to worry, but it’s one more worry I don’t have if I’m in an abaya.

Notice I didn’t say anything about getting respect on the street or better treatment? So far, I haven’t really noticed a difference in how I’m treated in the black abaya versus my other clothes. But I haven’t been choosing it for social reasons as much as pragmatic, utilitarian ones–keeping cool, neat and presentable while going about life in a hot and humid environment.

Now, I haven’t yet seen anyone in an abaya on a bike here, but Dubai doesn’t really seem to be much of a cycling town. And I certainly  would not do garden work in an abaya–but then, the garden is within the walls of our home, a private space, and I’m surely not sitting here at the desk draped in black crepe or chiffon, am I? I don’t wear it in the ocean (though there are those who do), nor would I wear it to the gym. It does restrict movement to the extent that any long dress would. Just as I wouldn’t go for a run on the beach in the Louboutins so many Dubai women are wearing, nor would I do so in the abaya.

Certainly not least, let us revisit one of the oldest truths of fashion: black is slimming, darlings. There are women of all sizes and builds wearing these things, and I truly think everyone looks nice. That is, as nice as their smiles are. One really effective way to show off a pleasant attitude is to cover the rest up in black. And I swear, while I tend to turn it off for the camera, I have been sporting a smile on the streets (and in the malls).

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6 responses to “In praise of the black abaya

  • Becky Van Elsen

    Louboutins AND a slimming black abaya? I am SO coming to live there!!

  • bcastleton

    When I lived in Kuwait, way back, the abayas were made of a nylon material that seemed to create a little eco-microbial village beneath, particularly on hot days. And, they were of a style that meant the abaya was supposed to rest on the top of your head and then fall to the ground. Family ladies wore a scarf underneath so that when the slipper fabric slipped from the slippery hair, they were still “decent. There was no closure on the abaya, so women clasped the voluminous folds in one hand. The other was free to fondle blouses, tomatoes or whatever they were shopping for. \What fabrics are in use now?

  • jkohnhorst

    When I was in Turkiye, the black abaya was ubiquitous – as were women wearing Chanel suits or jeans. However, the closer to a mosque I was, the more women cloaked in black I would see. I found them captivating, and because of my love for fashion, I thought about them a lot from that perspective. With everything else covered, the eyes and face became a dramatic focal point. That was another thing I admired greatly: the drama. I know it’s not the point, and I know i’m responding to it as an outsider, but those are some seriously striking garments. All that drapery, the way it moves when you walk and blows in the wind. And being black, the absence of color, they create a silhouette against any backdrop… often white marble or colorful tile in the old city of Istanbul, and I thought it was lovely. Plus, you know, it’s classic. Classic black. You look very chic in yours, especially with the shades.

    Can I admit though, that the women who also wore screens covering their faces and eyes spooked me a bit? What is the story with that?

  • mollie

    I love hearing your perspective on things I was judgemental about; judgemental only because I’d never had the experience. THANK YOU.

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