When my husband Joe and I were asked to return to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this past June, we anticipated some very different challenges than we had encountered during our first trip this past winter.
For one thing, it was the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and we were told people would already be in holiday mode, our students included. For another, we would be facing daily temperatures in the range of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Joe and I scrambled to assemble wardrobes that would be appropriate for our roles as coaches in a professional development program, and that would work both in the extraordinary heat and the over-air conditioned indoor environments we would encounter.
I faced one more sartorial challenge: my “abaya,” a shoulder-to-floor length black robe that must be worn in public by all women, and which I had been given upon our arrival in January, had seen better days. The abaya is intended to preserve a woman’s modesty and keep her figure safe from the lascivious eyes of unrelated males. To say that I was loathe to spend good money on a new one was an understatement, but I had already learned that the original one was much too basic for my role at the university and not appropriate for social events or important meetings. So determined to make the best of the situation, my fellow coach, Leah, and I enlisted the help of a Saudi woman with whom we had become friends and ventured down the rabbit hole into the world of abaya shopping.
Education of an untrained eye
Off we went to a mall one Friday afternoon, following our friend like two little black-clad ducklings. The mid-market shopping center she had chosen had one abaya store after another. Who knew you could fill dozens of shops with variations on a basic black garment? Prices started at 1,000 Saudi riyals— about $37 — and went up to hundreds of dollars. Our guide hastened to explain that if we wanted more exclusive, designer-quality abayas, we should go elsewhere. No, thank you, we said, this would do just fine.
But where to begin? Black is black, and to the untrained eye, one abaya looks like another. But we were to learn that wasn’t the case.
Confounding the process was the fact that there was no easy starting point such as size. The garments come in varying lengths and widths, but if the one you’ve chosen needs alterations, the on-site tailor simply does it on the spot. So what you are left with are racks upon racks of black robes, each one with a different style element that sets it apart from its dusky sisters.
We began trying them on, almost at random, just to get a sense of what styles we liked. There are no dressing rooms in these shops or in most women’s clothing stores in the Kingdom, for that matter. We had to either try the garments on over our existing clothes and abayas or execute the delicate maneuver where one of us shielded the shopper from view as the other slipped off the old robe and helped her into the new one. As we moved through the racks, our intrepid friend imparted a non-stop commentary on abaya protocols.
Abaya dos and don’ts
Watch out for the width of the sleeves, our friend advised. The full ones are graceful and beautiful but can be hazardous while eating; your sleeves will most likely end up in your food.
Given the heat, Leah and I were interested in the lightest fabrics we could find but were quickly disabused of that notion. Lightweight material could be too transparent, revealing the clothing (or lack thereof!) underneath. A light fabric only worked if we were wearing it over dark pants or a long skirt. Strike those from consideration … quickly.
Closures were another minefield. Some of the loveliest garments had no fasteners; you “clutched” them to keep them closed. Others had zippers, drawstring, snaps, buttons, or, for the most orthodox, an opening that went on over the head so there was no risk whatsoever of a chance glimpse of skin. Given that we went to work each day carrying laptops, totes and shoulder bags, snaps or buttons seemed our best option.
Our friend also gently guided us away from other less-obviously inappropriate choices such as abayas with “oriental” motifs. Since many “guest” workers in the Kingdom employed in menial jobs are Asians, choosing a garment that had oriental design elements would be considered low class and a fashion paux for professionals such as ourselves.
Fashion trends: who knew?
Once we had some of these basics down, the fun began. Did we want color embellishments and if so, what hue? Where did we want the decorations? Down the front, on the cuffs or the sleeves, on the body of the abaya, around the neck or across the back? Muslim women often eschew these last two options as the hijab, or head scarf they wear, may obscure the designs. With no such constraint, however, we thought “in for a penny, in for a riyal,” so began trolling the racks for robes with shoulder and back decorations.
But did we like shiny or matte beads, crystals, color panels, embroidery, ruffles, rhinestones, pearls, feathers, fringe, screen-printed designs or insets of patterns such as polka dots, abstract designs or floral motifs? Or maybe a dashing little number with black rubber studs across the shoulder or some rhinestone skull and crossbones motifs to channel our inner punk?
Trends in abayas change from season to season and even across the country. In the city of Jeddah, on Saudi’s western coast, some women are forsaking their all-black garb for abayas in pastels, shades of gray and brown. Jeddah’s humid seacoast climate and its Red Sea resorts reportedly encourage a more tolerant approach to abaya-wearing. This year, we were told, there were even some daring souls who were wearing shorter and more form-fitting abayas.
“When I go to Jeddah to visit my family,” a Riyadh-based female business executive told us, “I feel as though I am wearing my granny’s abaya. All my friends are wearing color and I show up all in black.”
Obviously, if you are in the country full-time, you probably want an abaya wardrobe. Women who work in mixed gender professional or corporate environments wear the abaya equivalent of the dark business suit; all black, with tasteful but understated embellishment. At the university, our students gave free rein to their creative sides, wearing garments adorned with 3-D flowers, abstract designs, bright colors and lots of of bling. And Western women seem to wear two kinds of abayas, either the most basic, such as what we had been given in January, or ones with lots of embellishments, probably thinking, as we did, that if you had to wear one, you might as well as have some fun with it.
Perhaps a little Versace number?
Upper class women often have their abayas custom made, patronizing Saudi designers who create one-of-a-kind garments for them. That went a long way in explaining why some of the more beautiful abayas we had seen were not in evidence in any of the mall’s shops. There are also exclusive “showcase bazaars” that are held each season featuring the work of local designers, as well as world class brands such as Versace and Donna Karan. But our quest was strictly for an off-the-rack, ready-to-wear garment. In short, a go-everywhere-do everything abaya.
After a long afternoon of trolling through innumerable shops (“You can’t buy the first one you like,” our friend admonished, “or you will always wonder if there was something better”), we made our choices and went through the obligatory haggling. Leah went with a slim robe with sprays of turquoise flowers embroidered on the sleeves, back and skirt. I opted for a flowing garment with embellishments of pearls on the shoulders and sleeves. A tailor adjusted the lengths to our friend’s finicky, floor-grazing standards and off we went.
All that remained was a trip to another store for some specially formulated abaya wash along with tips from our patient friend on how best to remove the dust of Riyadh’s streets that would inevitably settle on our new garments.
It was just another day in the Kingdom.