Arab heritage through the prism of traditional fashion - GulfToday

Arab heritage through the prism of traditional fashion

Arab fashion

The Zay Initiative links academia, trade, creativity, culture, heritage and high design.

Manjula Ramakrishnan

Dr Reem El Mutwalli is a connoisseur of Arab culture and heritage. Recently she has launched a digital archive of Arabic dresses to help preserve and share Arab fashion with the rest of the world. There are over 800 Arab dresses from several countries that one can access free of charge at

“This is a wonderful tool for students, fashion editors, design businesses and academics, besides serving to simply fascinate those who are just interested in fashion – old and new. The Zay Initiative would not exist if it weren’t for the Internet and the seamless accessibility it has brought.”

Dr Reem elaborates on her interest in fashion, the need for archiving fashion and her passion for culture and heritage.

How did this passion for culture and heritage come about?

My parents, both Iraqi nationals, moved to Abu Dhabi in 1968 when I was five years old. The Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, appointed my father as the economic consultant to the then Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. I was lucky to have grown witnessing the birth of a nation.

Most families who leave their home country are left with a longing to hold on to their heritage and identity through their possessions. My earliest memory of such sublime components of life is colour – ruby reds, emerald greens on my mother’s rings, rugs, painting and tapestries that filled our home. By the time I grew up, my appetite for all things artistic took firm shape and continued to evolve.

Interior design was my major in the undergraduate programme and I studied Islamic Architecture for my Masters. Study of forts and fortifications resulted in a book Qasr al Husn, An Architectural Survey (1995) which further anchored my interest in promoting culture and art. At the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi, I headed the Exhibition and Arts department for twenty years and studied Islamic Art and Archaeology for my doctorate, thus choosing to pursue subjects that were relevant to my life in the UAE. This soon led me to research the topic of dress and its evolution in this nation.

 Dr Reem El Mutwalli
Dr Reem El Mutwalli, the brain behind the Zay Initiative.

What were the key findings of your book Sultani that explores the link between fashion and the discovery of oil?

As I was working on my doctoral programme, I was fortunate to receive many of the dresses illustrated in my thesis. This was later published as Sultani, Traditions Renewed: Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE, during the reign of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1966-2004). The first edition of the book was released in 2011. At that time the Sultani collection comprised 180 traditional UAE dresses. Today it encompasses 315 artifacts from the larger Zay Initiative collection, which is home to more than 800 pieces from all over the Arab world. To date, the book continues to be the most comprehensive reference on the evolution of dress in the UAE.

So what is Zay Initiative that you launched in 2018?

My interest has always been in collecting and managing art in all forms. These pieces in the collection tell the story of people from all walks of Arab life, mainly women, their textiles and jewelry; these are bountiful and a constant plethora of rich and valuable resources that are at the risk of being lost or wrongly classified due to inaccurate documentation.

Can you tell us about the recent launch of the Zay Initiative digital archive? 

Clothing makes a person feel attractive, comfortable and protected. It gives self-confidence and expresses your personality. It helps you identify with other people. So clothes tell stories and reflect the economic, social, religious, political and cultural climate of the time. The Zay Museum Collection, (the Dress Collection Digital Archive) is accessible online since October 2019. Anyone can search the archive by decade, country, garment and more. It presents a unique platform that preserves cultural heritage and bridges the road between academia, trade, creativity, culture, heritage and high design.

How important is it to preserve Arab fashion?

During the period following the discovery of oil, changes occurred rapidly and profoundly. The wealth that resulted created a culture that chased modernisation and globalisation. Fortunately, first hand records from generations that experienced the pre-oil culture were available. In such a rapidly changing environment where women were and still are rarely photographed, many vital details of their clothing can go unrecorded unless preserved for posterity to get a glimpse of the early times in Arab history.

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