Arab fashion has evolved through the years. Today, it has become more than just a functional piece of clothing, with more styles introduced in the market.
An excellent example of this is the abaya.
A fundamental piece in Arab fashion, this garment predates the age of oil trade in the Middle East. Fashion historians believe it was first introduced during the time of Bedouin tribes as a square-shaped black wool cover-up embellished with wide gold trim.
Want to know more about the abaya? Learn all about its appearance and styles and some tips for properly wearing it below.
What is an Abaya?
Abayas are outer garments women in the Middle East wear. Traditionally only available in black, these modest garments are floor-length, with long sleeves made of the same fabric as the rest of the clothing (not stitched separately).
Abayas are found mainly in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arabian Gulf, worn over street clothes to cover up the “curves” of the body. Some styles may be slipped over the head, while others open in the front and are secured by zippers, snaps, or overlapping layers.
Arab women also wear abayas with other Islamic clothing pieces, like the hijab (a scarf covering the head) and niqab (a veil covering the face).
8 Tips for Wearing an Abaya
Besides locals, foreigners can also wear abayas when visiting Arabic countries in the Middle East. If you’re one of them, below are eight tips you may find helpful when wearing an abaya for the first time:
1. Make sure you’re comfortable.
Although Arab clothing seems a bit stuffy, many of these pieces are really quite comfortable. In fact, one of the most basic rules in Arab-style fashion is to prioritize comfort, putting style second.
If you’re wearing an abaya for the first time, you might find it overwhelming, especially since you’ll have to choose among the wide range of styles available. Whether you want a designer abaya or a more traditional piece, you must always select those made from a comfortable material.
Select a piece made with light fabric for the summer and reserve the heavy, layered abayas for the cooler winter months. Arab fashion experts also recommend silk and cotton for their natural, flowy look, as they also tend to be breezier compared to stiff fabrics.
2. Choose the appropriate length.
Arab fashion revolves around modesty, which typically translates to long, floor-length dresses.
Considering this, you must choose an abaya that can cover the entire length of your body. Look for a piece that ends just a few centimeters below your ankle, nothing higher. Of course, it shouldn’t be sweeping the ground either.
To be sure, try the piece on before buying from a brick-and-mortar store. If you’re shopping online, check the measurement guide and compare it to the length of your body to make sure the hemline of the dress falls at just the right spot.
3. Pay attention to the sleeve length.
Besides the length of the hem, abayas should also have a good sleeve length. Anything too long or too short could completely ruin the entire look.
Having sleeves that are too long for comfort could also prove inconvenient as it might hinder you from performing your day-to-day tasks. Opt for an abaya with sleeves that extend right at the wrist to achieve a cleaner appearance.
Pro Tip: If you’re not comfortable with a full sleeve, you can always opt for abayas with three-quarter sleeves.
4. Match your body type.
Like other dresses, abayas also come in regular and slim fits. However, most traditional abayas have a regular fit because they tend to be more flowy, which is how these pieces naturally are. You can also tie them at the waist to achieve a more flattering, modest look.
Of course, this still depends on your body type.
You should consider an abaya with a wider bottom and tighter sleeves if you have a pear-shaped body. If you’re petite, choose an abaya with more layers.
Meanwhile, taller women should make sure that the length of their abayas matches their height, as too-short pieces could look a bit awkward when worn.
5. Play it safe with black.
Modern Arabic fashion has now embraced other colors besides black. In fact, designer abayas now come in dark blue, green, brown, and purple variations.
Of course, it’s still safest to stick to black, especially if you don’t feel comfortable or are unsure about wearing a colored abaya.
A black abaya is considered the classic go-to for Arab women, but not just because it can be worn on almost any occasion. These Arabic dresses are also considered the traditional choice since they exhibit Muslim women’s faith. It is also more widely accepted to wear abayas across the Arabian Gulf region.
6. Add layers wisely.
Layering is an excellent dressing technique that not only enhances an ensemble but also offers warmth during cooler months.
However, many Arab fashion experts discourage adding too many layers when wearing an abaya. This is because it distracts from the flowy appeal of the outfit and may even result in a puffy appearance.
Instead, they recommend picking an undergarment that complements the style of abaya you’re planning to wear.
In the summer, you may opt for open abayas as they are the lightweight and breezy option, with cotton Kurtis, shirts, or half sleeves underneath. Meanwhile, you can add more layers in the winter, but be sure to keep it minimal.
7. Look closely at the embellishments.
Abayas don’t have to be all plain. In fact, most designs now have embroideries and embellishments that make them look more elegant. Just make sure the crystals, sequins, and needlework are expertly placed.
Besides those attached to the abayas, you can also add a few wearable accessories. If you opted for an abaya with three-quarter sleeves, wearing simple bracelets and rings should be enough to enhance your entire look. Then, bring the whole look together with a statement purse or pre-owned designer bags.
8. Complete your style with a scent.
Perfumes have become a crucial part of fashion anywhere in the world. In the Middle East, both men and women use fragrances to enhance their overall look and presence with ease.
You can choose Arabic perfumes to match your look, but there’s no rule that prevents you from going with other scents. Whether it’s floral, powdery, woody, or fruity, you just need to choose a fragrance according to your style and personality.
Dress Up, Arab-style
Whether you’re attending a formal affair or visiting a religious site in the Arab region, you need to pay attention to how you dress. Besides showing your respect for the culture, dressing up according to the local customs in the Middle East can also be an enriching experience for you.