Open Minds: 'What is traditional dress and can expats wear it?'
Q: What is local or traditional dress in the UAE and can expats wear it?
To answer this, we need to look at everything that influences what we wear in the region. From the beginning of time, human beings have covered themselves. From a faith point of view, the Lord says that righteousness and piety are the best of covers.
For Muslims, this translates to modesty. A person may have wealth, health, beauty and knowledge, but we should be humble and thankful and shouldn’t make others feel inferior by showing off. Weather affects what we wear. Whether it’s sun, sand, bugs, mosquitoes, hot or cold weather, we have always dressed by necessity. In this region the original protection from the elements was through wearing the traditional kandura and khutra for men and the abaya and shayla for women.
Tradition effects what we wear. Not too long ago before trousers and suits, people from all over the world wore something similar to the kandura and abaya. This is still worn by the Pope, clergy and Hassidic Jews in their cassocks, the Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama in their saffron coloured robes. Let’s not forget women through the ages in their overcoats and hooded shawls.
Fashion became an influence as world trade opened up. Standards of living rose, bringing more choice and more chances to create fashion - sometimes in the extreme. Now it’s not about what you are wearing, but “who” you are wearing. Garments are more sought-after because of a name, rather than quality or practicality. The individual decides what they want to wear and when.
They could be the one who steps outside the box in a society and this is how trends start. There was the era of the Jacky ‘O’ black dress or the hats of Queen Elizabeth. I hope our kids don’t follow Lady Gaga. Finally, culture dictates what’s acceptable. For instance, if everyone in an office dresses down and someone arrives “dressed to kill” we question their motives, or wonder what we missed. Culturally, countries have national dress. The Sari in India, cowboy boots and jeans in Texas, kilts in Scotland and yes, the kandura, dishdasha, abaya in the Gulf. At one time the kandura was different for each GCC country.
There were two buttons for Saudi, one button for the Kuwaitis, a shirt or collar for the Bahraini, the Emirati and Omani with no collar, the Omani with a short tassel and the Emirati with the long tassel.
So did the Emirati traditional dress evolve? Of course it did, because in some form or colour it was a perfect way to cover from the sun and sand. It still is. It was a religiously modest dress and it still is. These clothes were meant to be simple and useful, promoting equality - rich or poor wear it.
The ladies are more fashion forward of course, but how did black become the colour of choice? Do we MAKE women wear it? Is black hotter? Why would women choose it? All of these are the questions that we answer when you visit us at SMCCU. While the colour has changed from time to time for both men and women, the kandura and abaya remain practical.
Today, of course, there is a mix of modesty and fashion. And we believe without a doubt that the abaya has been caught up in the essence of the extreme. Some have Swarovski crystals, while others are simply black with a designer “name”. It’s understandable that the national dress appears to be something just for “locals”- but if you have been here for a while, its practicality becomes evident and we are often asked by residents if its “appropriate” for them to wear. In my own observations, the abaya is already worn around the world, it’s the kandura that has not really travelled past the Gulf and when we see it, we still have the idea that it is part cultural and part religious.
So could you as a non-Muslim, non-Arab, or non-religious leader wear local dress? I don’t see how we could say “no”. I don’t think anybody could tell me I can’t wear jeans or a suit and tie, or tell my wife she can’t wear a sari, or don an embroidered or sequined abaya. But with all due respect, there is a protocol. For example if a kandura is white and see-through then you should NOT wear something brightly coloured underneath that might become disrespectful or distasteful. Same with the abaya. You shouldn’t wear very little underneath it or wear it open. Is there going to be a point where societies exchange national dress? Yes. Saris have been in India for a long time. Now the Sari is on the fashion runways.
The abaya, at one time it was looked at as an oppression of women. Now it is on the catwalks and it’s sold at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. The choice of what we wear has many “layers” but at the end of the day your modesty lies not in clothing but in your character, demeanour, and your actions.
Nasif Kayed is general manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Every week in 7DAYS he addresses topics about culture and life. Do you have a question for Nasif? Email firstname.lastname@example.org