Dressing in the Arab World: A Female Perspective
Yes, you can still wear those Balenciaga thigh-highs
The Arab female knows that venturing out into the streets of our eclectic cities and towns sometimes requires a calculated but fashion-savvy mind. Yes, we’d all love to step out wearing those Balenciaga thigh-highs and an oversized tee, but the reality is that we have to face the facts – as a woman, choosing your outfit in the Arab world is just as much about expressing your personal style, as it is about trying to maneuver cultural (and sometimes legal) requirements.
But there’s a knack to this. There’s an inherent balance that can be found between adhering to the status quo but also subtly evading it by simultaneously wearing what you want – and retaining at least some semblance of your personal style and identity.
The Gulf area is arguably the trickiest of places to navigate your style – with a plethora of unspoken dress codes it can be exhausting to find the ‘right’ thing to wear. So as a sort of cheat sheet, here at MILLE, we’ve compiled a few tips and loopholes for you.
The chameleon Abaya: Seeing as Saudi Arabia requires its citizens to dress according to Muslim guidelines, having an Abaya in your closet has become a necessity. Over the last 10 years, the garment has taken on a mind of it’s own. It’s changed colour – from black to baby blue and pastel shades of pink and beige. Patterns have started to appear as well as embroidery, gemstones, chiffon and lace, Swarovski crystals and silk appliques.
Although all-black will always be chic, my advice to you is to play around with it. Add a little colour, instil some shape and don’t be afraid to wear a belt (we have waists, you know!).
The enigmatic undercover outfit: Any woman who’s lived in Saudi knows that the real struggle is have an outfit you really want to wear, want to show off – but can’t. This is unless you’re off to a dinner at someone’s house, of course. Shopping in Jeddah is like shopping for you and your alter ego, with the ‘you’ being the sweatpants and basic tee-clad casual queen, and your alter ego being the tight skirt and crop top Reformation inspired go-getter of a woman. Both exist – it just depends on where you’re going.
The wardrobe that leads to Narnia: The land where all those clothes you purchased on sale at the Mall of Arabia live (tickets and price tags intact) waiting patiently to be worn. I’m talking dresses, skirts, tops, heels, and the list goes on. This is the wardrobe of dreams. The ultimate shopper’s paradise, and every girl in Jeddah has her own pile of “I’ll wear this when I travel next to X destination.” We all know that fashion is for feeding the soul, not for people’s approval, so you could of course wear that coveted Dior gown in your bedroom. But if you do want to flaunt that one sequined top you snagged from Topshop, then be sure to pack it on your next #girlboss adventure.
Street v car chic: Cairo is a paradoxical city when it comes to women and dressing. You have every part of the spectrum covered. The veiled woman stands alongside the sporty girl in yoga pants and a cut off Under Armour top. When traveling by car you’ll face no obstacles, however in the streets of Cairo harassment is unfortunately very much a thing. But at the end of the day, the general rule is ‘wear whatever makes you happy.’ The city is generally safe and eclectic, and no one who lives here can argue with that.
Confidence is key: I know this sounds cliché, but I’ve found that the best way to navigate through Cairo’s identity crisis when it comes to getting dressed is to just simply be you and own it. At any given moment you could be the girl in sportswear standing in a crowded Metro of veiled older women in the ‘female’ car at rush hour, or you could be the only veiled woman at a local bistro surrounded by your girlfriends on a night out. The gist of this city is that it doesn’t matter because there’s enough contrast to go around and so whichever side of the spectrum you lie on, own it!
Location, location, location: 90 percent of dressing in Cairo depends on where you’re going. Zamalek for example is a district that is considered to be the most open. Maadi is a close second, followed by Downtown – all are known as areas that host the most eclectic communities. Some of the more rural areas require a slightly more conservative approach to dressing in order to respect rural cultural norms, such as Fayoum or Dahab.
Go for it: At the moment, the attitude towards fashion in Dubai is one of change and progression. With Sole DXB, the Dubai Design District, DDFC, and Fashion Forward Dubai (as one of the leading fashion showcases in the region), Dubai is spearheading a wave of change and the way that people in the Middle East perceive fashion. If you’re a young girl in Dubai, dress as you please and take advantage of the moment – you’re witnessing something powerful. You’re in the fashion capital of the Middle East after all, and how did they earn this title? By pioneering acceptance and encouraging creativity. Dubai was the first city in our region to make young women feel truly comfortable dressing as they please.
Dress local: Talent is rare, and in fashion, a designer will only thrive if you help them. In the age of social media, we all have the ability to generate influence. And so, shop local, and support creative youth rising in the fashion scene in the Middle East.
Give credit and share: There is a misconception that our region is behind the times and still struggling to relate to concepts such as the importance of gender equality. But when it comes to talent, Dubai doesn’t fall short. Fashion here is timeless and creative outlets are endless. If you find a cool new designer that makes dope dad caps for example, purchase one, take a picture, share it, write an article about it and suggest them to your friends. You might be helping someone’s career. Believe in the domino effect.
Photo credits @Ali Al Shehabi