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Dresses, denim and... drones? How fashion is changing in Saudi Arabia


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There has been much discussion currently regarding the freedom and liberties afforded to women in the historically sexist and patriarchal Saudi Arabia. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have been noted for introducing and advocating for various reforms towards improving women’s social positions.

In 2017, a ground-breaking royal decree finally lifted the archaic ban preventing women from driving in the country. Simultaneously, there have been moves towards loosening the patriarchal guardianship system that underpins women’s daily lives in the country and mandates that women must seek a male relative’s permission and approval to carry out various activities. These activities include travelling abroad, taking advantage of government services such as education and healthcare, and renting a property.

For example, women are now able to visit areas such as sports stadiums and cinemas, which were previously closed off and restricted. Moreover, women were previously not notified when their husbands divorced them. However, a recent law requires women to receive a text from court officials.


The Riyadh skyline // Image credit: apriltan18 on Pixabay

There have also been developments in the country’s fashion scene, which is not without its own set of difficulties. Saudi Arabia hosted its first Arab Fashion Week in April 2018, fashionably late owing to various delays and postponements. There were a range of restrictions on the types of clothes allowed to be modelled: ‘no cleavage, nothing above the knee and nothing too transparent.’   Men, even male fashion designers, were prohibited to attend, and photography was also banned. Nevertheless, this was a significant step for the conservative kingdom, and was hailed as demonstrating progress and change.

However, fashion designers in the country’s major city of Jeddah appeared to take a step backwards in the name of female empowerment last year. Making a bold fashion choice, designers used drones to model their latest designs with dresses, handbags, skirts and local dresses known as abayas suspended in the air and navigated along the runway in a parody of a traditional fashion show.

Intended to showcase Saudi Arabia’s evolving technology achievements’ and bring something new and innovative to modelling, the show was subject to much controversy and billed as another example in Saudi Arabia’s long history of excluding women from public life.

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Criticised by notable figures in the fashion industry and social media users alike, the fashion show was described as everything from ‘hilarious’ and ‘bizarre’ to ‘tragic.’ Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion & Design Council in the United Arab Emirates, condemned the event for being neither appealing nor ‘mesmerising or beautiful,’ and failing to encourage viewers to try on or purchase the outfits.

This show demonstrated that, once again, women are relegated to the background in Saudi Arabia and are deliberately alienated to reflect modesty and align with the ‘country’s conservative fashion culture.’ The fashion show was a startling depiction of the depths of sexism and gender inequality that still persist in the nation. Cultural beliefs, which advocate for segregation of genders and for women to cover up and remain unseen so as not to attract men, lead to ultra-conservatism, which continues to restrict and limit women from participating fully in public life.

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It is no longer sufficient progress that the country is hosting a fashion show in the first place. Instead, the country and its leaders need to address the deliberate exclusion of women from public viewing as part of their initiative to improve their social positions. 

Melissa Twiff, a journalist who was invited to Saudi Arabia to write about the developing fashion scene, corroborated this and pointed out that much progress is required in order to develop the country’s fashion offering.

The drone fashion show appears to be a one-off event and has not been replicated since. Following this, there have been some reforms in the fashion industry, for example, it was announced that women are no longer required to exclusively wear abayas in public as long as their clothing is ‘decent and respectful,’ and there have been moves to support local emerging fashion designers in subsequent fashion shows.

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Marriam Mossalli, an entrepreneur and editor, created ‘Under the Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia,’ a compilation of contemporary and ‘progressive’ Saudi fashion to reflect ‘independence’ and express individuality. However, long-held ultraconservative moral values mean that change remains small in scale and there is much improvement to be made. For example, fashion shows continue to prohibit men from attending and photography is banned in order to prevent unveiled women from being seen by men.

Whilst it is significant progress that a fashion industry exists and receives government and public support, in order for this to flourish and women to be empowered through fashion the country must combat traditional behaviour which segregates genders and relegates women to the shadows. Women need to be permitted to play a more visible role in their own fashion industry, as models and as designers, in order to combat sexism in the industry. 

Lead image credit: apriltan18 on Pixabay

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