The Zay Initiative's Fashion and Diplomacy Series Shatters Misconceptions




A global webinar was held entitled 'Dialogues on the Art of Arab Fashion: Diplomacy & Dress' to foster discussion regarding Arab fashion in collaboration with the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy and The Zay Initiative on Tuesday, 22nd September 2020. The dialogue was between Dr. Reem El Mutwalli, who has collected and preserved the history of the United Arab Emirates (UAE’s) national dresses, and Rawdha Al Otaiba, Deputy Head of Mission UAE Embassy, UK. They discussed the importance and culture of the Arab dress tradition and the customs associated with it.

“Our goal is to sustain global cultural dialogue and to inspire creative minds, empower women and bring their untold stories to life,” said Dr. Reem.

Zay is the Arabic term for the Art of a dress. Men and women dress accordingly to the diplomatic event with different fabrics and jewelry, ensuring that the UAE dress code continues on. The UAE clothing and jewelry was passed on as heritage from generation to generation among families.

The basic UAE attire for men includes agal, ghutrah, wizar and other features as shown in the image below:


Dr. Reem said men praticie wearing that as a form of a national identity. “There is a continuity in maintaining this rich culture. It is important not to judge each other by what we are wearing but respect the culture and try to understand it,” said Otaiba.

The UAE women’s attire includes the shaylah, burgu, sarwal and others as shown in the image below:


“The women's attire served as a way of saving. She would burn the dress and then help her brother, father or sun with the silver. It was a form of saving and beautification,” said Dr. Reem as they combined social cohesion and saving in their fashion styles.

“It shows how we care about our culture and preservation,” said Otaiba.

The Burgu, the iconic face mask, was a part of the female traditional dress and served both as beauty and a cultural expression. It was infused in indigo, which had medical purposes and conditioning to keep the face moist,” said Dr. Reem. “It was (also) a sign of passage from girlhood to womanhood.”

“The Burgu represents interesting stories about the women in UAE,” said Otaiba who emphasized on the different styles and elements made on the Burgu.

Otaiba shared how she always wears UAE traditional dresses as part of her identity to different events she attends as an ambassador, even when she visited Queen Elizabeth II of England. She shares three main benefits in wearing traditional dresses as an ambassador: It helps to break the ice in communication, it presents the creative UAE innovative side and helps educate people about her heritage.

“Clothing, attire and jewelry speak on many levels to many people. From there you can detect so much about society,” said Dr. Reem in regards to her collecting historical UAE dresses. She has the only documented collection of dresses in the Zay collection initiative.

Jewelry and perfumes are also being used as means to bridge cultures and represent UAE culture. “One way to represent the country is the jewelry,” said Otaiba. “I wanted to show something about my country and culture with it in my events.”

Dr. Reem shared that leaders and diplomats attach important details to what they wear as diplomatic dress patterns are very important to them. She gave the example of Queen Elizabeth who adds national emblems to her dresses while respecting cultural and religious guidelines.

“It's a gesture of respect and tolerance to other religions,” said Dr. Reem. “The dress works very closely with diplomacy. Fashion and culture are critical in helping to bring people together. It is a sign that one has taken the time to find about the culture they are interacting with.”

“It’s a way of respecting other people’s beliefs. It's what makes UAE a successful and strong country,” added Otaiba. Dr. Reem agreed and added that individuals have to do research and be mindful in selecting their attire to ensure that they are not sending an unintended message. She said that diplomatic dressing is a subtle way to show respect that delegates have done their homework and pay respect.

“Today we are trying to move away from judging women so much on their appearance, however, no matter what view one takes, these high women’s profile fashion choices say so much about who they are and what they value,” said Dr. Reem. “With dignitaries stakes are higher and it shows how much was put into a wardrobe for an event and it is very important to see iconic figures and how they use fashion.”

“I want to encourage others to invest in their own designs and jewelry. We are hoping to see more international engagement,” encouraged Otaiba.

“Fashion can be used as a form of empowerment,” said Dr. Reem in regards to women in power in UAE. The Zay collection has captured women from all places in their workplace and their fashion, their walks of life, championing their work and designs.

Photo Credit: TheZay Initiative; The National (Necklace) Reporter: @Nikoleta.Morales