Why? Because ‘It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.’ By Maryam Yusof.
I love abayas. Their billowing black fabric gathered in intricate folds and pleats, with subtle yet ornate details and beading, can easily set my heart racing. While I was in the United Arab Emirates for a conference, I constantly admired the gorgeous abayas worn by my Middle Eastern friends. So when we visited the local souq (market), I knew I had to buy one.
The one that caught my eye was a simple abaya with meticulously-made pleats gathering in the middle and tiny diamantes lining the front and shoulder.
Unfortunately, the shop assistant told me that the abaya was a sample for a pre-order and I couldn’t buy it even if I was willing to pay more. It took them some time, but my amazing Emirati friends managed to convince him to sell me the abaya anyway. Today, that gorgeous piece of clothing hangs in my closet. Sadly though, I haven’t worn it since, and I’m pretty doubtful about when I will.
You see, in Singapore, walking around in a full sheyla and abaya ensemble for daily wear – without looking like a tourist – can seem a bit strange. As I’ve mentioned before, the heat and humidity are often a talking point in this island city, and you’re likely to hear people mutter ‘shen jing bing’ (‘crazy’ in Mandarin Chinese) in your general direction if you’re decked all in black and wearing the abaya as an overcoat. After all, shorts and sandals are a generally accepted uniform for most Singaporeans.
What is an abaya?
An abaya is a loose over-garment or cloak frequently worn in public by Middle Eastern and North African women over casual wear. Though traditional abayas are usually plain with little embellishments, many Middle Eastern women wear intricate and exquisite abayas for special events like weddings and galas.
If, like me, you love the look of abayas, but are reluctant to wear them in your home country, here are some ideas to help you wear them with confidence. Click on images for a larger version.
Kaftans, not cloaks
Instead of wearing the abaya as a cloak, get a similar style but in the form of a maxi dress. Such dresses are often known today as kaftans or jalabiyas in many boutiques. You’ll get the same elegant effect of the abaya in a more comfortable style, plus they’re frequently available in a wide variety of colours, styles and cuts.
I’ve noticed that many abayas are made of a heavy material like lycra, which helps to define the pleats and folds of the outfit. On the downside, this can also make the wearer perspire a lot. So these aren’t practical in exceptionally humid tropical countries such as those in Southeast Asia. Opt instead for lightweight materials, such as chiffon, that are a lot more forgiving in tropical weather, helping your skin to breathe.
Though abayas are traditionally black, they do come in other colours that will help you stay cooler – light shades work best. Black absorbs heat and will make you feel warmer than usual, so if you’re from a humid tropical country like mine, stay off the black and get light colours.
Wear with a coloured scarf
If you’d prefer to wear a black abaya and you also wear a hijab on a daily basis, instead of wearing a similar black sheyla, go for a bright or light-coloured scarf. Besides making your outfit a lot more interesting, you won’t feel as warm as if you’d worn all black. Patterned and colourful scarves look particularly great against the black fabric of your abaya.