Sported on runways at rare Saudi fashion shows

Haute couture abayas sported on runways at rare Saudi fashion shows

Models saunter around in high heels and neck-toe abayas as they wear chic, sophisticated attire. The show was held in Saudi Arabia.

In the conservative Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia, haute couture shows are very rare. They have always been limited to women models or avoided them altogether. One display even featured dresses hanging from drones. A private event held in Riyadh last week featured a new collection abayas. This is a figure-concealing, billowy robe that can be worn by all sexes. It was held at a time of social changes in the country.

Half a dozen models were adorned in shimmering embellishments and wore the collection, which sought to redefine the abaya, a fashionable overcoat that is suitable for all women, not just Muslims.

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“The stigma surrounding the abaya, the hijab all over the world I wanted that to change,” stated Saudi Princess Safia Hussein Guierras, a former model who collaborated with Christophe Beaufays, the Belgian designer. “If I can bring it up to a level that is chic and acceptable… maybe our generation (fully) will embrace the abaya.”

Many see the abaya as a symbol for chastity, piety and purity. However, feminists view it as a symbol for oppression. The now-defunct religious police used to enforce the dress code in Saudi Arabia.


De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has led a massive modernisation drive in the country, stated that the robe is not required in Islam. This suggests that there may be a looser dress code.

It was made clear that the requirement was not mandatory for foreigners the next year, but Saudi women must still wear the garment in public. The once-all-black garment has been repurposed in bright colors and many women now leave their cloaks exposed at the front as part of a cultural revolt.

A few brave Saudi women rebelled against the arch-conservatives and decided to stop wearing the abaya. Princess Safia (50) said that she wanted to make the garment fashionable, a cross between tradition and modernity, which combines Arab motifs with contemporary fabrics.

These designs will appeal to women of different cultures and religions who are open to “modesty, elegance”, according Beaufays. Beaufays is based in the Kingdom and works for Jeddah’s Lomar, which designs traditional “thobes for men.”

Liberalisation Drive

This fashion show, which was unimaginable in the kingdom just four years ago, was held at the residence the Belgian ambassador. This is all part of Prince Mohammed’s ardent drive to change his country’s conservative image by allowing cinemas and mixed-gender concerts, as well as sporting extravaganzas.

However, the government bureaucracy involved in organising the event seemed to have hampered its success despite liberalisation. Two sources close to the organizers said to AFP that the Saudi authorities refused permission for the Belgian embassy to host the event at first. The Belgian Embassy and authorities did not comment publicly. Sources said that after heated diplomatic negotiations, the show was finally allowed to continue.

The elegant abayas were celebrated at the event. Princess Safia has confirmed that they will be available in the kingdom. The audience was limited to three dozen due to the coronavirus pandemic. This included diplomats, members of the Saudi royal family, and social media influencers. The show was a significant improvement over previous fashion events, despite the small audience.

Jean Paul Gaultier, Roberto Cavalli and the Kingdom’s First Arab Fashion Week were the headlines in April 2018. This was a women-only event which barred men as well as cameras.

A June 2018 video showing dresses suspended from drones floating in the air at a fashion show held in Jeddah’s Red Sea city, went viral on social networks. The video was referred to as “ghost show” and many comments were posted online with ghost emoticons. (AFP)