Arabian Fashion in Digital History

The Zay Initiative preserves Arab culture through dress and adornment

“Our heritage and culture are disappearing very quickly,” says Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, founder of The Zay Initiative, a non-profit digital platform that aims to preserve the rich history of Arab attire and adornment through collecting, documenting and archiving traditional dress from the Arab region and beyond.

Having spent 20 years heading the exhibitions and arts department at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, and holding a doctorate in Islamic art and archaeology, Dr. El Mutwalli maintains an ardent passion for the Arab world. Her PhD study of women and their expression of culture and history through dress had her amass a collection of 171 pieces of clothing from the UAE – the first collection of its kind to be documented. This set her on the path to create The Zay Initiative, inviting prominent women in the field, from dress historians to collectors and textile archaeologists, to sit on the collaborative advisory board of experts when the organization officially launched toward the end of 2019. Within a year of putting out a call to the public to donate pieces to the collection, the items in the digital archive grew from her personal tally of 171 to an impressive 1,499, with clothes and accessories being sent from places as far as Japan and South America.

“Many articles of clothing have traveled so far out of their original geographical locale. It’s very interesting that they are finding their way back home to this collection,” says Dr. El Mutwalli, who invites donors to include the personal stories attached to the pieces so that information about who made or wore them can accompany the free online portal that is being developed in both English and Arabic.

Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, founder of The Zay Initiative Fashion Trust Arabia
Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, founder of The Zay Initiative

Items range from simple rural sherwals to abayas previously owned by sheikhas, with additional pieces from Iran, India, China and Ottoman Turkey highlighting the historical influence of the Silk Road. The oldest piece is currently an 1870s Evazi silver-embroidered silk skirt from Iran. By being displayed digitally, such items can be identified through searching the website by decade, country, material or technique, making it easy to locate relevant information. “It’s providing a platform for designers and researchers, as well as a bridge for other cultures – a platform from which Arabic culture can be understood,” says Dr. El Mutwalli.

The Zay Initiative Instagram page provides an additional channel for such cultural comprehension, sharing ideas around jewelry, symbolism, traditional rituals and more, always linked to dress and adornment. Such insights reflect on the economics, politics and social, cultural and religious customs of different periods in the Arab world, from countries that stretch from Egypt to Kuwait. “We hope to produce a body of work that we can leave for our grandchildren,” Dr. El Mutwalli says, “while being a source of inspiration and knowledge for young designers to produce designs that speak to the women of the area.”

She believes that the rapid globalization that occurred in the Arab region after the discovery of oil, and the fact that women were rarely photographed before that, led to vital details about the clothing they once wore going unrecorded – lost nuances that she hopes The Zay Initiative will recover, so as to preserve a vital cultural narrative. “People think that I am crazy. They say this is the work of governments and grand institutions. I totally agree. But nobody is doing it. So somebody has to start.”