ABU DHABI // Almost every tradition in the Arab world is surrounded by legend, and clothing is no exception.
It is said that during the 8thcentury of the Abbasid Islamic period, a cloak merchant ran out of colourful items and was left with black garments that nobody wanted.
He visited a poet friend to ask for help with his plight. The poet produced verses praising the beauty of a woman cloaked in black, and said it was worn by the rich and noble.
"And then women flocked to buy the black one as they all wanted to be sensuous and beautiful," Dr Reem el Mutwalli, a researcher in Islamic and Arabic architecture and heritage, said. "That is one legend behind the black cloak worn by women here and in other parts of the Arab world."
Emirati men and women stand out among the crowds of expatriates because of their traditional dress. Men wear the khandoura, an ankle-length, collarless white thoub or gown with a ghutra, or headwear.
Women wear black abayas over their clothing, often with a matching black shayla. With few distinctions, the clothing style is similar across the Gulf.
"Before the oil boom, the economic situation and scarcity of resources directly affected dress, with it being simple, functional and reused," Dr el Mutwalli said.
"Originally, the shayla was a black, full-body wrap that would cover the entire head and body," she said.
The garment was made mainly from cotton in the 1960s, then plain silk chiffon in the 1970s, refined silk lace in the 1980s and velvet and European silks from the 1990s onwards.
The black abaya commonly worn today by women in the Emirates and across the Gulf was worn only by the elites, mainly the wives and daughter of the sheikhs.
The abaya became more common after the oil boom, adopting a more slender and sleeved style. These days, abayas are fashioned to individual tastes and cost thousands of dirhams when adorned with everything from gold threads to crystals.
"Emirati women like colour and are creative in the ways they try to personalise and stand out within the limits of their modest traditional dress," Dr el Mutwalli said.
Although it was traditional for the face to be concealed behind an opaque face mask, the burqa, this item has largely lost its appeal over the past few decades. Only a few elderly women retain the tradition.
However, Dr el Mutwalli said: "The younger generations in some ways are continuing this tradition by wearing large sunglasses in public."
As a researcher and writer on heritage for more than 20 years, Mohammed al Samrai has traced the white dress of UAE men to what nomadic Arabs wore on their many travels.
"It had to be light and at the same time, cover all the parts that are considered as private and nude," he said.
"The white khandoura was more of a beige colour and slowly, over time, it became this crisp white colour tailored to a person's specific measurements."