WEALTH Arabia talks to Dr Reem El Mutwalli about her new Sultani collection, a window into the high fashion of Emirati culture, from 1968 to the present.
Since its foundation in 1971, the UAE has gone through massive changes, fast becoming a place the world looks to as a representative of the future today. While much has changed in the country, the UAE’s national dress remains iconic and distinctive, a symbol of the country’s history and values. Dr Reem El Mutwalli is one of the key voices keeping that tradition alive.
Since she moved to the UAE at the age of five when her father was invited from Iraq by HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, she has been fascinated by Emirati culture, spending much of her adult life dedicated to its study. National dress is of particular interest to El Mutwalli, and something she feels needs to be properly documented and preserved.
“With the UAE being a young country, and everything happening so fast in this day and age, textiles and dress are made of a unique material. They don’t last—to preserve them is very difficult. People, in general, in societies, change their clothing, throw them away, and get a new one. Consumerism in general has also created a cycle where people really don’t keep their clothes—they’re almost disposable,” says El Mutwalli. “For me, preserving the dress of this culture feels like a capsule of history of this area, which is very much needed. With oil, exposure to the world, and the onset of the technological lifestyle and this global village life we are living, so much can be lost very quickly. To document it, collect it, and have it available for future generations is a very important step,” says El Mutwalli.
Mutwalli grew up at a pivotal time, able to see the country grow from its foundations to what it is today. This allowed her to see fashion develop, and to collect key examples as time went on. “I was lucky that I was in the right place at the right time,” says El Mutwalli. “I grew up in this area. As I grew up, I lived among the people here, I experienced their way of life, and I wore these costumes as I grew up. I collected them. I have pieces that date back to 1968. My collection is around 95 outfits, but the articles of clothing add up to much more, to around 180 pieces, form 1968 up to today. I’ve collected them through wearing many of them, being gifted some of them, sourcing others. People knew that I was researching this, and they started presenting me with pieces, which was very lucky. Eventually, as I was working on it, I learned how to make them myself.”
Mutwalli’s fascination in fashion goes beyond just appreciation of the artifacts. In her mind, clothing is indicative of so much more than style—it is evocative of an entire culture. “You learn so much about the history of the people, their economic situation, their political issues, and much more from their dress. You’re looking at the life of somebody. In learning about dress, you learn about people. You learn, that women, living in an enclosed society, could still express themselves and put a stamp on society through their dress. That was very liberating to me.”
El Mutwalli even began designing her own dresses. “Many of the dresses that I have come from the ruling family of Al Nahyan. So many members of the family asked me, as I was researching, why I wasn’t designing them as well, as they wanted something contemporary that still embraced their history. I then started designing them, and started doing two exhibits a year, on contemporary reinterpretations of traditional dress. I did this when HH Sheikh Zayed passed away. When that happened, I felt that it was a turning point.”
El Mutwalli attributes the preservation of the UAE’s national dress to Sheikh Zayed himself, who was a key figure in encouraging women to continue wearing it over the years. “Everything related to traditional dress, to me, was associated with him. He was instrumental in encouraging women to continue to wear it. It may not be functional enough for us to wear it every day, but because he only received women in their traditional dress, it encouraged people to continue to wear it,” says El Mutwalli.
UAE national dress is a lot more complex, varied and colourful than many outsiders might know. “From an expat point of view, automatically their minds go to the black abaya and hijab. The UAE dress is, however, composed of many elements that a lot of people do not know. The Abaya is only an outer garment. When she is inside, it is invigorating, colourful, and bright. It was very important, with the changes happening in society, that all this information was put into paper and pen and preserved,” says El Mutwalli.
El Mutwalli has put on countless exhibitions of her collection of 95 outfits, called ‘the Sultani collection’. She has also written numerous books, including 2017’s Sultani: Traditions Renewed, Changes in UAE Women’s Traditional Dress during the reign of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1966-2004), written with the younger generations, and generations to come, in mind. “Today’s generation hardly knows much about the traditional clothing that their parents used, even though what’s unique here is that we still have people alive that used to wear this clothing. When you look at other societies, usually, when you talk about traditional costumes, no one wears them anymore, and you’re taking your information from second hand material such as books, records or diaries. In the UAE, the change has happened so fast that within one generation, there have been many evolutions of these articles of dress. You can take the information first hand, and document it,” says El Mutwalli.
“I want to make sure that history is documented and documented in the correct manner. To be able to have it documented and available for future generations is most important. Whether they are inspired by it or they forget about it will come later—but I want them to have a reference point. I am not advocating that women should be dressed in this clothing, or to advocate one form of dress or the other. Societies evolve, and things change, it’s only normal,” says El Mutwalli.
Recently, El Mutwalli and Omani photographer Issa Saleh Al Kindy produced series of photos based around notable pieces in her collection. These limited-edition prints are entitled The Sofa Series: Sultani and were modelled by El Mutwalli’s daughter Mae Noaf in the family’s home.