Dr Reem El Mutwalli's history of the UAE in beautiful fabric
It is the long-held dream of the art and design consultant Dr Reem El Mutwalli to open the UAE's first permanent exhibition dedicated to traditional Emirati dress.
"I hope my collection of 85 pieces will become the nucleus for a museum," she says. "These interesting pieces are part and parcel of the UAE and I would be interested in younger generations always being able to come and see them."
Born in Iraq in 1963, El Mutwalli's family relocated to the UAE when she was just five years old.
"My father was the legal and economic consultant to Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan before he became President, so we came to the UAE in 1968 and I was very privileged to grow up here," she says. "So since childhood I've been captivated by the culture, traditions and history of the country."
As a natural consequence of her father's position, El Mutwalli grew close to members of the ruling family and received many gifts of clothes over the years. Having carefully preserved the pieces, she is now believed to have the greatest archive of traditional UAE garments spanning the four decades since the country's establishment.
She holds a couple of ensembles particularly dear, including the traditional gold-studded dress (thawb wa kandurah imyaza riyasi) made for her by Sheikha Hamdah bint Mohammed Al Nahyan in 1999.
Another treasured item also happens to be the oldest in El Mutwalli's collection: a royal blue and silver embellished gown with matching shayla, gifted to her mother upon the family's arrival in the UAE by Sheikha Shamma bint Rashid bin Khalaf Al Utaybah, the first wife of Sheikh Tahnoon bin Mohammed Al Nahyan.
With El Mutwalli's passion piqued as a child and following years of study into the origins and evolution of Arab dress, she established her own label in 2000, fusing classical and modern designs. She started to create her own special textiles, in the form of lace and silks embellished with Swarovski crystals, sequins and semi-precious stones. Her creations are sold privately to a list of exclusive female clients.
Earlier this year, as a tribute to the UAE's 40th anniversary, El Mutwalli published three bilingual volumes of her book, Sultani - Traditions Renewed, documenting the changes in Emirati women's dress during the reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1966-2004).
As she compiled data for her book, including previously unseen photographs and memoirs from several generations of the Ruling Family, El Mutwalli's collection of antique clothing continued to grow.
"Some ladies, through my interviews or just by hearing of my studies, would send me pieces they thought would be interesting for me to collect. I also bought pieces myself that I thought to be peculiar, unusual," she says.
In her book El Mutwalli points to factors from oil wealth to urbanisation as having influenced the style of Emirati ladies as the country underwent its period of accelerated economic expansion.
"I think globalisation itself also had a big effect," she says. "The UAE was very open to the rest of the world whether through media, communication, travel or imports, etc. So this allowed for a great amount of interaction with and exposure to other cultures.
"Due to these circumstances, women were exposed to a lot in a short space of time and their understanding of textiles and design matured quickly. Their tastes also became very refined."
El Mutwalli says the modern-day Emirati shayla is a good yardstick for the changing tastes in domestic fashions.
"The headscarf in the 1960s used to be a very wide piece of cloth, purely functional with no embroidery and large enough to cover almost the full upper part of the body as no one wore abayas. With time, the headscarf became narrower and shorter so that now it just covers the head.
"Also at that time, abayas were reserved just for the wealthy. So it was really just the merchants' wives and Sheikhs' wives, who would own abayas and wear them."
The traditional black colour of abayas is one thing that has remained constant throughout the country's brief but significant history.
"The exterior body cloak in general has always been black, not only in the UAE but the whole of the Arab world since the early periods of history," she says. "The roots of this are debatable but in general it is believed women needed something opaque to conceal themselves."
One traditional accessory that has almost completely vanished, however, is the burqa, with many ladies favouring the niqab instead today.
"It [the burqa] was usually made from Indian fabric and cast in metallic dye to give it the feel of leather," she says.
"It was very traditional and unique to the UAE, Qatar and parts of Oman. And, in these locales, generally when girls started to enter school this type of face cover began to recede to the pages of history. Although you still see it worn by some traditional UAE women of older age, it's sad to think that when that generation passes away the tradition will pass also."
Modified versions of traditional Emirati outfits are most commonly seen at certain times of the year, be it during religious festivals such as Eid Al Adha/Fitr or the National Day celebrations. Children in particular, notes the designer, may wear long, brightly coloured and heavily embroidered mukhawara dresses on Friday.
"The roots of these dresses can be traced back to being national and traditional UAE," she says, "and what you see today is an amalgamation of different cultures from the Gulf and surrounding area, plus contemporary interpretations of the culmination of all these influences."
One of the greatest influences on the UAE's fashion scene in recent years has been the emergence of European and US designer labels in the country's many mega-malls. And while El Mutwalli concedes that many Emirati ladies are choosing to wear international brands and styles at home or under their abayas, she insists they are still holding fast to their Arab-Islamic identity while moving with the times.
"Honestly, history tells us that nothing stays the same," she says. "People are always continually changing and their tastes evolving - their interests too. So as long as you have new types of fabric, new forms of embellishment, you will always have dynamic change in whatever you're wearing."
Updated: November 30, 2011 04:00 AM