Cultural timeline: changing fashions

This year's International Museum Day saw cultural centres from Brazil to Zambia and Macao in China throw open their doors in celebration

Designed to increase public awareness of the role of museums in the development of society, there is no denying the success of International Museum Day; since it began in 1977 the number of participating museums has grown to more than 32,000 museums in 129 countries.

The theme for 2013 was Museums (memory + creativity) = social change, with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) partnering with Unesco Memory of the World, which is dedicated to world documentary heritage. The UAE, which is always looking for new ways to build on its proud cultural heritage, ran a program of exhibitions, shows and workshops and also announced plans for a new museum in the Al Shindagha area of Dubai to educate the public on the country’s different variety of clothes.

London’s V&A museum has a popular exhibition showcasing changing fashions through the ages, and this latest addition to Dubai’s museum community intends to emulate the UK version, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Islamic tradition of dressing modestly and covering the hair has always been observed among Emirati women, yet it is interesting to learn how these traditions, over time, have been blended with a dedication to the latest fashions.

While simple black has always been the most common colour for abayas in the UAE, these days it is not unusual to see sleeves and necklines embellished with embroidery, contrasting fabrics, beading and even feathers or crystals. Likewise, the shayla is not always worn in black, can be decorated in the same way that abayas are, and there are variations among women on how much hair they choose to show. Another shayla style features the scarf sitting high on the head.

Often younger Emirati women will wear elaborate eye make-up as an expression of individuality and, in a nod to popular culture, glamorous rings and stylish shoes and handbags add personal style to traditional dress, while still retaining modesty.

Shaima Al Sayed is a stand-up comedian who always performs in her traditional dress. She describes her attire as “part of who I am”.

Al Sayed remembers when many women wore abayas that were more like cloaks that started from the head and covered the whole body. Her mother’s style of dress has changed and been influenced by her children. She describes her mother’s abaya style as “fairly modern, with slight colours and a little fashion”, adding that her mother prefers to “keep it simple”.

For Emirati men, the traditional dress is a long kandoora (also known colloquially as a dish-dash) - this long robe is usually white, but again fashion trends creep in alongside the religious and cultural obligations. Black, dark blue, chocolate brown and a caramel-yellow colour have all become acceptable options for kandooras, which are practical in the hot climate and fulfil obligations for simple, modest dress, with only the hands and face on display.

Like trends for different coloured kandooras, Emirati men may take their cues for the way they wear their ghutra from their father, their friends, from trends set by public figures or experiment with their own style.   

Whatever direction Emirati fashion takes in future, this insight into the country’s clothes and its influences will ensure the past is preserved forever.