‘Saudi women are style conscious and want the world to know,’ says Marriam Mossalli, the brains behind recently published book Under the Abaya: Street Style From Saudi Arabia. The book, a showcase of street-style photos of Saudi women in their everyday outfits, is making huge waves on social media and in the international press thanks to the honesty and surprising nature of some of the images. All of the photos were submitted by the women themselves and reveal what fashion is really like in the Kingdom – something that is very different from the way it is often perceived to be.
‘I wanted to showcase all women in Saudi and that’s how the Under the Abaya concept came about,’ says Marriam. ‘It’s not just about women who work in fashion but real women – teachers, shop assistants... real women living in our country and what they are actually wearing. What’s important for me is seeing the book being recognised on an international level.
‘The women in Saudi Arabia see this every day and we know what we are wearing. But I’m getting the biggest reactions from [people] outside the country.’ Perhaps that is because many of the outfits worn by women in the book are not abayas. They are stylish, comfortable and in many cases, the same as what you or I would wear. Yes there has been a big change in Saudi Arabia in the last couple of years.’
Marriam, who was born to an American mother and Saudi father, spent much of her childhood living in the kingdom. ‘People are dressing differently now,’ she says, adding ‘we like to mix and match and I hope the abaya becomes one of those items that all people want to wear in a way much like they would a kimono; girls wearing a robe or abaya over their jeans. We are seeing a lot of that in Saudi now.’
Social media has also had a big influence on Saudi culture, something Marriam, a former journalist and founder of fashion blog Shoes and Drama which now has 44,000 followers on Instagram, has first-hand experience of.
Marriam explains: ‘Everyone is a blogger and an influencer. Before, you used to be able tell whether someone is from Riyadh or Jeddah by how they dressed, but now it has all become quite uniform. The people who ‘like’ your photos have changed. Women used to not ‘like’ photos because [they felt] it was inappropriate; men were too scared to ‘like’ a photo of a woman. But those worries aren’t there so much anymore. I get so many more messages from guys now. It’s not because they are hitting on me but they are more willing to engage – they are genuinely interested in fashion and what is happening. That whole type of communication is new in Saudi Arabia.’
The recent relaxing of some laws for women has been highly publicised in the media. Late last year came the announcement that women would be allowed to drive for the first time, and in March this year the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman declared that women need not wear an abaya or cover their face as long as the attire they wear is ‘decent and respectful.’ So the timing of the launch of this book, that reveals unique style some women have, could not have come at a better time.
The women’s attitude to covering their faces too is changing. Marriam explains: ‘We covered some faces stylistically not because the women didn’t want to show their faces; in fact, a lot of the girls got offended that we were covering their faces so we tried to show as many as possible. There was even one particular girl who has a skin disease on her face. She really didn’t want us to censor her face. I think for the next edition we are going to show all the faces. This is something that was so different two years ago when I started doing research for the book.’
All the girls in the book nominated themselves. They were asked to send a picture of themselves along with one sentence on what they want people to know about them. ‘The reason I asked for the sentence is because the book isn’t really about fashion; it’s more about the Saudi woman. I want the rest of the world to understand that we’re not this media avatar that you’re seeing wearing all-black and hiding behind our man. We are women who are getting out there, getting educated – in fact the women are often more educated than the men and they want to get their voices heard.’
What’s the future of fashion in Saudi Arabia? With laws being relaxed, does that mean fashion trends are going to relax too?
‘What a lot of people and fashion brands don’t understand is that fashion in Saudi can be quite revealing. Often, women take off their abayas while socialising with other women, and their outfits are full on. But some brands only stock products that are maxi or fully covered and we actually don’t want that under our abaya.
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‘Modest wear is something we have actually never had before – it’s either you wear your abaya or you take it off and you wear regular items; it’s just one thing or the other. This modest fashion trend is going to make it possible for us to wear things other than an abaya and still be covered. We are already seeing a lot more people out on the street dressed modestly but not in abayas.’
The next Arab Fashion Week is scheduled to take place in Riyadh later this year and will move the city one step closer to making their mark in the industry.
Under the Abaya: Street Style From Saudi Arabia is available at undertheabayaksa.com for Dh201.