From boots in the sand to an oil-rich nation: tracking the UAE through female fashion

For Dr Reem El Mutwalli, tracking the progress of a country through its national dress seemed like an interesting counterpart to the usual anthropological means. And along the way, she found that the subjects were starting to create their own narrative 

It all started with a search for a PhD topic. After studying Islamic architecture and archaeology, Dr Reem El Mutwalli wanted to extend her research beyond heritage sites, to documenting something she had seen start to tangibly change alongside the evolution of the UAE: women’s clothing.

“When you are doing a PhD you need to find new material, and a topic I seized upon was that of national dress,” she says.

“I felt like my studies abroad helped me to understand the importance of documenting things like this. I came back with a passion to put everything down – before it disappears.”

Now living in a quiet Dubai suburb, in an intricately-decorated villa in that speaks to her other career as an interior designer, El Mutwalli talks of her upbringing in the emirate and the fascination of seeing a country evolve from its birth.

“My father came by invitation at the late Sheikh Zayed as the economic adviser to the Crown Prince, so I grew up here and experienced first-hand the changes that were taking place,” she says.

“As a child, we used to walk to school with boots on because our feet would sink into the sand. When we came it was just beginning to happen, and we witnessed it. We grew up with people who were creating a country.”

After my first day of school in Dubai I went back and cried to my mother, 'Mama, they are all going to a wedding and I’m the only one that’s not dressed!’

Dr Reem El Mutwalli

When it came to documenting local dress, there were a couple of misconceptions El Mutwalli wanted to correct, and a few innate advantages she thought she could gain simply by virtue of her upbringing.

Photographs of women in the beginnings of the UAE do exist. Explorers such as Sir Wilfred Thesiger spent five years between 1946 and 1950 living with the Bedouin tribes of Southern Arabia, and documented much of his life there.

Yet most outsiders’ photographs are just that: taken from the outside. Captions are limited; ‘woman walking in the desert’, ‘woman in street’, and fairly othering in their depiction of Arab women. As El Mutwalli started to research women’s dress, both in her book Sultani: Traditions Renewed and most recently on Instagram, she found that these lost identities started to be filled in.

“I’ve been immersed some of these famous photographs for the last 25 years; I’ve studied what the person is wearing, how they are sitting, but I never knew the person,” she explains. “But now, these women are contacting me on Instagram to say ‘this is me’, or ‘this is my grandmother.’ To meet those individuals whose faces have haunted me all these years has been amazing.”

On speaking to women from all walks of life – from royalty to tradespeople – El Mutwalli pieced together an evolution in dress that began with colourful ‘60s dresses, through the decadence of an oil-rich emirate in the 1980s, to the fashions of the modern-day.   

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayid Al Nahyan
Colourful thawbs were a staple in the early days of the UAE. Here, Dr El Mutwalli attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony with His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayid Al Nahyan and His Excellency Mohammed Al-Suwaidi in Abu Dhabi

“After my first day of school in Dubai I went back and cried to my mother, as she tells me, ‘I don’t want to go back, mama, they are all going to a wedding and I’m the only one that’s not dressed!’

The children were coming in to school in colourful thawbs – a tradition that started to disappear with the introduction of the abaya, she says. “In the early ‘60s you saw women dressed in these colourful outfits, selling in the market or collecting water or wood.”

As the region started to recoup the benefits of the oil industry, the Bedouin lifestyle started to evolve into a sedentary one, says El Mutwalli.

“People started coming from abroad, and we started to see the black overcoat, known as the abaya, becoming more prominent.”

Previously worn by more affluent members of society due to its material – a very fine wool embellished with gold thread – the abaya was “worn by the higher echelons and borrowed by the other members of society, if they had a celebration or wedding,” El Mutwalli explains.

“It was symbolic; not only did they cover her with this, but they felt that by covering her with this borrowed abaya, they are giving her the blessings of a more affluent life.”

Much like the oversized, decorative fashions of a 1980s America or UK, the novelty of newfound wealth also did not go unnoticed in the UAE

As lifestyles modernised, with women starting to drive and enter into classrooms and offices, the abaya evolved alongside them.

“Modern times meant women could not wear the old abaya to drive or use a computer or teach in a class. So the shayla shrunk and became very narrow to cover just the head, and the shoulder abaya was made with long sleeves and covered the rest of the body,” she explains.

Alongside societal changes came economic transformation, also reflected in women’s dress. Much like the oversized, decorative fashions of a 1980s America or UK, the novelty of newfound wealth also did not go unnoticed in the UAE.

Sirwal, trousers that were worn under the thawb (and have now been mostly replaced by leggings), became so densely embroidered in the 1980s that “they stood up on their own,” recalls El Mutwalli. “You could hardly walk in them!”

It is these kinds of changes, she states, that may seem insignificant or normal at the time, but are so crucial to document.

“We’re just beginning to understand why it is important to preserve culture, to learn from our heritage,” she says. “But this is the case anywhere in the world – where you have a new country or area being formed, it takes time to reflect internally, as you are so often looking to the external.”

In 2014, the UAE Federal Council debated the idea of preserving national dress, with one member anxious about what he saw as the decline in traditional Emirati clothing. 

For El Mutwalli, it is the documentation, rather than strict preservation, that is the most important part of the process. “No matter what sort of guidelines we ordain, we can’t halt evolution,” she says. “We were born without clothes, after all ­– we put them on for different environmental, social, political factors. As long as they work, they will continue. But the day they cease to provide what you need? Then we will see evolution.”

After all, the creation of a nation is an amalgamation of societal, geographic, economic change – and what better way for that to be reflected, than through dress?