Associated Press Writer – Richmond, Virginia.
The assignment for Virginia Commonwealth University fashion students: design an abaya, an enveloping cloak worn by Muslim women, that is stylish yet acceptable in Arab countries.
The results: elaborately beaded designs, a flamenco-influenced abaya, a punk rock abaya, and perhaps a better understanding of cultural norms in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where the university has had a campus for 10 years.
"We were trying to make a feeling of youth but still be true to their culture," said Kendra Palin, a fashion design major who partnered with classmate Shelby Day to design an abaya with looped buttonholes, princess seams and a high waist. "Everything else had to be black, but the embellishment could be any color, and we used silver and blue."
The 10 abayas were shown recently at VCU’s annual student fashion show and are being shipped to Doha, Qatar’s capital, for a fashion show at the VCU School of the Arts in Qatar.
The project is among a growing number of collaborations between students and faculty at U.S. colleges and their overseas campuses. In Doha, VCU’s arts program is part of a higher-education consortium largely funded by the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by the nation’s ruling family. The consortium, called Education City, has its own 2,500-acre campus that also includes Texas A&M, Cornell, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon universities.
In designing their abayas, the Richmond-based students worked with VCU’s Qatari fashion design students and graphic designers in a cultural exchange of sorts. The U.S. students made their first sketches and sent them to Qatar for initial critiques. They then assembled revised sketches, instructions and sample garments and shipped them to Doha. The Qatar team critiqued and tweaked the designs, then had a tailor construct the abayas and had locals do the beading and embroidery. The garments were then returned to VCU for finishing and final embellishments.
The project was part of Kim Guthrie’s "Give Me Shelter" class, during which her students discussed the idea of clothing as shelter and how different cultures address the concept of clothing.
"The students talked about why girls `cover’ – is it cultural or religious?" said Guthrie, who traveled to Doha this spring to oversee production of the abayas. "There’s a huge spectrum of how covered or uncovered they are, dependent on family and tradition."
Abayas are the traditional overgarment in the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman. They also are worn in Iraq and some other Arab nations. Women and girls wear the black abaya, a lightweight crepe garment that includes a head covering called a shayla, in the presence of men and boys who are not immediate family members.
In some Gulf nations, abayas are becoming more decorated as women seek to express their sense of style _ sometimes to the dismay of conservative religious critics. Wealthy women in the region are paying top dollar for elaborate designer abayas trimmed with precious stones and intricate embroidery.
However, in Saudi Arabia, which follows strict Islamic codes, officials warn that women should not wear unapproved abayas – including those with ornamentation.
Palin said the abaya she designed isn’t completely westernized, "but it’s fun and fashionable" for her intended wearer: a 20-something woman. She said she found it interesting that women can wear "pants and cute little tops" underneath and shed their abayas in women-only gatherings.
Many Muslims believe Islam requires women to dress modestly by covering their hair, arms and legs in clothes that do not outline their body. Some conservatives argue this extends to covering everything but the eyes. But for many young women, the abaya has become more a reflection of cultural tradition, something that isn’t impervious to fashion trends.
"Hopefully, if nothing else, those 20 people in my class have gained a more neutral approach to what goes on in the world," Guthrie said. "Just because the women wear this doesn’t mean they’re oppressed."