Emirati Vibes: The traditional garments that link the UAE's past and present

In the third of a five-part series that explores what defines the UAE, Khaleej Times looks at the two most iconic clothing items associated with the country's culture and heritage


Lamya Tawfik

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Published: Tue 29 Nov 2022, 6:00 AM

The white Kandoura worn by the men and the black Abaya worn by women are the two most iconic clothing items linked to the UAE’s culture and heritage. But what are the different elements of these clothing items, and how have they changed over the years?

When it comes to the men’s Kandoura (the national garment) and ghutra (the headdress), white is, indeed, the most common colour. However, in the recent years, it is not uncommon to also find Emirati men sporting a wide range of colours for the Kandoura, with the darker ones associated with winter.

The ghutra is worn on top of a small cap called the gahfiya and is held in place by a thick black cord called the agal. Sometimes, from the collar of the Kandoura, a tasselled fabric is attached. This is called a tarbousha. The bisht is a loose robe which men would sometimes wear on top of the kandoura for special occasions such as weddings.

The traditional clothes for women include the traditional jalabia, the abaya and the headcover called sheila. In the past, women also wore the burqa – a face cover made of a metalic-looking fabric.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Feryal Al Bastaki, an artist and fashion designer for nearly two decades, said that while there have been noticeable changes in Emirati women’s fashion, the connection to the heritage remains strong and evident.

Feryal, who started her first tailoring and embroidery shop in 2003 before launching her first ready-to-wear collection a year later, said that in the past, the simple social life was also reflected in the simple clothing.

“We still wore modern clothes, but you can see the difference in our jalabyas and abayas. The development of the country is reflected in our designs, but we are always connected with our past,” she said. An example is the use of Talli, which, today, is still used but perhaps combined with crystals, she explained.

According to Feryal, even though you can find coloured abayas today, many women are still wearing the traditional black ones. She describes her designs as “art pieces that could be framed on the wall.”


Feryal’s designs are currently exhibited in Zeman Awwal, a cultural space dedicated to the UAE’s heritage at Mall of the Emirates. She said that her designs integrate art, heritage and modernity. One of her techniques is the digital reproduction of her own paintings on fabric which she uses to design her pieces.

“As an artist, I try to always be unique with my designs. I don’t simply copy what’s happening in the fashion industry,” she said adding that she still doesn’t want to go completely against what is trending. “I look at the trends and decide what I want to feature based on my inspiration. I can select a couple of trending colours and not all of them,” she said.

Feryal targets women from their early twenties to their late fifties, and noted that she has kept her daughters in charge of the line that caters to the younger generation. “They are artists too and they select colours, cuts and designs that are more suitable for [them],” she said.

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