• Sigrid van Roode

Sultani - Women's traditional dress in the UAE

When it comes to placing dress in its cultural context, the two-volume Sultani book is one of those rare publications that encompass it all. This heavy study is the outcome of the PhD-research of its author, Dr. Reem el-Mutwalli, and discusses all aspects of traditional dress in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).


The Sultani volumes are stunningly designed, one of the aspects that makes perusing the books such a pleasure. Dr. el-Mutwalli, a designer herself, has cooperated with artists and designers to illustrate her work. The result is a splendid mix of traditional garments, old photographs, new designs and photographs surrounded by beautiful graphic design and calligraphy. In this respect, the book shows how tradition can be inspiration for new art forms, and in this way stay very much alive.


Another advantage is that the book is bilingual: every text, caption and explanatory line is both in Arabic and in English. The texts are broken down in main texts, feature items, captions to photographs and drawings and additional box texts where needed so the reader can wander through the books at leisure.


Volume 1 places dress in its historic and religious context. The influences of past conventions and religious and political issues are discussed in detail and illustrate the many aspects influencing the shape and fabric of dress. Regional influences such as the climate, desert areas, pearl fishing and the many migrations of other cultures into the region all contribute to the way dress evolves and changes. Political changes such as Ottoman, Iranian and Saudi dress codes are highlighted, before discussing one of the most-debated topics in the West: the history and nature of veiling. In this nuanced approach, the Sultani book successfully creates a cultural framework for understanding and appreciating the many functions of dress. The final part of this cultural introduction zooms in on the UAE itself and discusses gender roles in tribal and social hierarchy before and after the oil boom. Throughout the book, this treatment of dress as a living and adapting tradition rather than a static form of adornment continues.


The chapters on dressmaking, textiles and embellishments are a very detailed source of information for everyone interested in regional dress. Again, these chapter do not simply present the topics themselves, but place them in a cultural context. The use of fabric as gifts, tributes or even payments for example serves to understand the importance of fabric in a lager framework and not just as basic material for dressmaking. The extensive terminology given for each type of fabric, stitch, colour and design shows the in-depth knowledge of the author and will be a feast to read for every costume and dress specialist.


Volume two continues this journey with an elaborate presentation of garment types and accessories. Of each garment, its history, meaning and changed appearances are discussed, alongside again an elaborate terminology and detailed images. Face masks, head covers, body covers, dresses, underwear and even footwear are presented and illustrated. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about storage and maintenance of clothes and fabric, as this illustrated the use of incensing clothes before use and after washing.


I wholeheartedly recommend this book as it both details historic dress that is no longer worn, and documents change and adaptations. Dr. Reem el-Mutwalli does not 'freeze' dress in a vacuum, but rather focuses on its constant change as a result of a changing world. The beautiful illustrations and large format make both volumes enjoyable for their content as well as for their art, a rare and wonderful combination.


Sultani. Traditions renewed. Changes in Women's traditional dress in the United Arab Emirates during the reign of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1966-2004.

Read more about the book here on the Sultani website.

More on the collection of traditional dress can be found on the website of The Zay Initiative.


The book is a treasured gift from the author.