By Nidhi Chandran
Women in black cloak-like attire are a common sight not only in Qatar but also almost in all Muslim countries. This simple loose over-garment worn by Muslim women in the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa is a traditional dress deeply rooted in Islamic culture. The garment, usually known as Abaya (plural Abayat) in Arabic and by various names such as purdah and burqa in different parts of the world, is used to cover the full body except the face, hands and feet while going outside the home. The Abaya is considered a sign of modesty and is usually accompanied by headscarves (hijab/shayla), and/or face-covering masks (niqab/butoola).
Over the years they have undergone dramatic changes in their form and acquired modern status evolving as a symbol of style and fashion. Gone are the days when women used to wear it as a simple cloak. Today, it has rather become a fashion statement especially among youngsters.
The abaya has evolved into an industry, with latest trends, colours and shapes in order to satiate its clientele who use it as a means of self-expression.
From Indonesia to California, the Muslim fashion industry, led by this innocuous loose gown, is a billion-dollar business. Annual sales of Muslim clothing in Europe have now reached $ 1.5bn, according to a Financial Times report.
According to French Fashion University Esmod — Dubai, the leading fashion institution in the Middle East, the international Muslim fashion industry is estimated to be worth more than $96bn, assuming that 50% of the world’s 1.6bn Muslims each spend at least $120 a year on modest clothing.
The rising demand for modest clothes has also seen Islamic fashion being showcased on international catwalks, and no price seems to be too much when it comes to investing in an abaya or headscarf that is seen as being on trend.
New generation designers are creating a wave with most innovative designs reinventing this Islamic dress without losing its tradition. Qatar Tourism Authority hosted the Hya Abaya Exhibition in June 2012 which provided designers, producers and marketers of Islamic clothing an opportunity to network and display their wares at the Doha Exhibition Centre.
There is an array of exclusive abaya shops around Qatar with many of them concentrated in the souqs where people can choose between the readymade or made-to-order designs.
Some high-end boutiques especially in malls, sell miscellaneous models from simple and everyday collection to luxurious items specially prepared for occasions like weddings. Separate sections are dedicated to casuals, formals and bridal wear.
Modern abayas have simple to elaborate embroidery, patterns with lace, expensive Swarovski stones, crystals and beads. Most of the embellishments are done on main part of the garb such as the chest area, the back, on sleeves and hems. Sometimes a combination of beads and embroidery is used to add elegance.
Most of the gowns have matching shylas for covering the head. A ‘party-wear abaya’ normally comes with thick embroidery, diamonds or beads on sleeves and neck, while routine wear is simple and comparatively cheaper.
They also have many variations in cuts, necklines and sleeve patterns. The most basic abaya is cut in a T-shape with a round neckline. Plain A-line, butterfly, bisht, batwing, draped, princess/umbrella are also popular. Abayas come as full open front or closed with an asymmetric slit, usually opening on the left.
Yet another attraction are the ones with double-layers with the top layer in net or tulle. Sleeve choices are aplenty depending on the size, length and model. They include the standard, puff, baggy, kimono, balloon, pleated, pointed, butterfly sleeves.
Many boutiques in Qatar have their own factory where stitching and ornamentation are done by professional tailors and designers. Abayas are made out of fabrics such as crepe, cotton, georgette, chiffon, satin, silk and velvet. The most widely used is crepe and among them are thick and thin crepe mainly imported from Japan, Saudi Arabia and Korea. Other known brands in Qatar are Lexus, Internet and Nida.
The price of the abaya largely depends on the quality of the fabric used and embellishment made on it. One of the benefits of this garb is that it can be worn easily and is made out of very light and soft materials to suit different weather conditions.
“We have a good number abayas in a wide range of materials known by names such as Saudi crepe, Malak, Bairak, Makhmal, Al Wajbah, Harir-Lebanon, Khloud etc. Most saleable is Saudi crepe. Tatreez (embroidery) and chantelle (lace) are in demand and many women prefer handcrafted pieces. Older women like the traditional and simple abaya ra’s which is easy for them to put on and inexpensive (QR245 onwards) compared to others. Working women also go for simple designs,” said a saleswoman at Al Motahajiba, a highly-respected abaya brand in Qatar which has presence in many Gulf countries.
The store has decked up a wide collection for the season. “During winter ladies choose thicker materials. Therefore, this time we have launched velvet abayas,” she says, adding “trendy items are largely liked by teenagers.” To satisfy youngsters the brand has come up with elegantly pleated collections covering the yoke of the garment.
The shop also has a mix of casual, party and wedding abayas. “We normally launch wedding abayas in June. They are the costliest ranging between QR2,000-7,000 even sometimes more than that because of detailed laces and embellishment with Swarovski stones,” she explains.
“The standard length for our garment is 62 inches. Plain abayas are sold at QR320 and embroidered ones start from QR1,500 and above. We also provide tailoring and alterations service. Though most of customers are from Qatar, Westerners also come here in search of this dress,” she adds.
Many shops in Qatar employ tailors mostly from Nepal, Bangladesh and India who have been working for years in the industry. They create fascinating handmade patterns incorporating their creativity, imagination and hard work. According to the shopkeepers there is a huge demand for handmade embroidery among Qatari ladies.
“Aari embroidery and handmade items are always in demand. They have perfect finishing and come in a variety of colours and models,” says Ashraf who has been running Pardha House for the past 15 years with three branches in Wakrah, Doha and Dafna. Abaya is also known as pardha in some of the Asian countries.
“It takes five people to finish a single abaya. A cutting master, tailor, embroiderer, stone artist and designer all have to work for two whole days to bring out a high quality abaya,” says Ashraf who has around 47 employees mainly from Nepal.
“The latest trend is abayas with detailed mini-pleats below the yoke. This type also comes with pleated cuffs. They are famous among youngsters. Most moving items are those having big lace work. These days many women are also going for fancy pardhas with heavily decorated sleeves and neck,” he says.
The shop has a good display of abayas with intricate embroidery both handmade and machine. “Years before the embroidery was done manually, which was time consuming. The entry of machines has helped to finish the job in fewer hours. Even then, handmade items are known for their perfection and have customers throughout the year. Aari is famous among embroidery which comes in varied models and colours,” he elaborates.
A normal abaya at this shop costs around QR150 or above. Handmade patterns are priced at QR600 onwards whereas wedding abayas starts from QR800. Those come with stones are a bit expensive. “We use Swarovski stones of size 10 and a normal abaya with one-line fixing of these stones would cost around QR250. This may increase if you need more number or big size stones,” he adds.
Arab women form a large part of his clients at his Wakrah and Dafna branches. “They usually like large designs and ask for latest trends in the market. In Doha, 70% of my customers are Keralites who prefer simple and quality material,” he says. Customers can select any of them displayed here or can get custom-made item within 10 days.
“Traditionally women used to wear loose pardhas which were enough to cover the whole body. The intention was not to invite unwanted attention from others. Maybe this was the reason why black-colour has been in use from years. But nowadays, as new generation is embracing fashion, they go after Western trends. Some of them have started using pardhas that project the shape of the body which is not a good tendency. I think women should not forget the value and tradition of abaya,” he adds.
Whatever fashion or trends come and go in the market, many women still prefer this traditional way of dressing which has become a way of their life and hold it close to their heart. This is evident from the large number of women clad in abayas seen not only here in Qatar, but around the world.
Abayas on display at one of the shops in Souq Nasser bin Saif.