When it comes to fashion, Dr Reem El Mutwalli takes her cue not from glossy women’s magazines or the latest couture collections in New York or Paris.
Instead, she reflects on the wishes of the late Sheikh Zayed.
“He would insist on women wearing national dress and everyone did so when they meet him,” says Dr El Mutwalli. “It was part of the protocol.”
In this way, she says, the nation’s founding father was as influential “as he was in all aspects of life as we grew up” in establishing the traditional form of thobe – or garment – for the women of the UAE.
This month sees Dr El Mutwalli, an Iraqi born artist and historian whose father was economic consultant for The President, Sheikh Khalifa, when he was the Crown Prince, launch the e-book version of her reference work on local fashion, Sultani, Traditions Renewed.
The subtitle, UAE Women’s Dress during the Reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan 1966-2004, establishes the scope of the publication. “From the time Sheikh Zayed ruled to the time of his passing away,” as she puts it.
Compiled over three volumes and with 800 pages, Sultani is the fruits of eight years research and writing to produce the definitive work on Emirati dress. The result is as carefully constructed as the most elaborate of dresses described in its pages.
The list of those who have helped is as illustrious as it is lengthy. Sheikha Osha bint Shakhbout, Sheikha Hamda bint Mohammed, Salamah bint Hamdan, Dr Shamma bint Mohammed, Sheikha Moza bint Mubarak, and Sheikha Salamah bint Tahnoon.
In addition, the author interviewed numerous other local women in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain including Moza Gobash, Asma Saddeeg, Salamah Al Muraikhi and Moza Al Hameli.
From different age groups, each brought their own views and opinions to the topic. “These sort of relationships and interviews depend on trust, credibility and shared respect,” the author says.
First published in 2011 by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), the original 2,000 print run quickly sold out, with proceeds donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Dr El Mutwalli continues to get requests for copies from everyone from historians and scholars of fashion to visiting tourists who want to take it home as a gift for their female friends.
As a result, preparations are under way for a second print, with a price tag of Dh1,350 per copy. In the meantime, the book is now available in an electronic version, although Dr El Mutwalli recommends viewing on at least a laptop because the details of the artwork are so fine that an iPod screen is too small to do them justice.
Among the sources for Sultani is Fatima Sa’ad, the personal tailor to the families of the Sheikhs since the days of Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan.
“She was the one I learnt from,” says Dr El Mutwalli. “She would sit with me and teach me the ways. And now, she has a shop.
She was very instrumental in the process of documenting and filled a lot of gaps in detail. Ms Sa’ad, now in her 70s, agreed to be photographed for the book, posing for the camera wearing her traditional burqa.
Each volume focuses on a different aspect of clothing. The first examines the cultural, historical, social and Islamic traditions that underpin women’s fashions in the Emirates. In the second volume, she looks at the evolution of the different aspects of local dress, from the burqa to the style of trousers known as serwal.
For the final volume, Dr El Mutwalli featured her own designs based on requests from the Sheikhas. Among them were several embroidered with lines of poetry by Sheikh Zayed, including his Gased Jedakm Hafy (“I Come to you Barefoot”), and another that featured the verses of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, with Enty Methi Manty (“You’ve Stayed the Same”), written for his wife Sheikha Hind.
Several of the outfits in Dr El Mutwalli’s collection were displayed at an exhibition to coincide with the launch of the e-book last week.
One of the most noticeable changes over the past three decades was the lowering of the neckline to allow jewellery to be better displayed. Such outfits would only be worn in all-female gatherings, of course, or around male members of the family.
Creating the reference work took the efforts of five people, including the illustrator Hayef Kahraman, who created 18 paintings for 18 chapters of the book with three more for the covers.
Each of the illustrations later sold for more than Dh128,000, although the main cover art was presented to Sheikha Sheikha bint Saif, the wife of Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who hosted a launch party for the book at her home in Abu Dhabi.
Dedicated to both Sheikh Zayed and his wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Sultani: Traditions Renewed, includes two forwards by Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikha Dr Shamma bint Mohammed, one of the first women in the family to obtain a doctorate.
In creating the work, Dr El Mutwalli wanted something that would combine the Arabic and English versions. For her, it defined the question: “Who is the audience, Arabs or non-Arabs.”
In the end, the solution was to place the Arabic text and the English translation side by side. “So whether you are reading in Arabic or English” says Dr El Mutwalli,”you are on the same page.”