I bought a new abaya. When I first moved here, I didn't think I would buy more than one abaya. I'm not planning on staying here long enough to warrant spending money on a clothing item I will only wear in Saudi Arabia.
Then I bought my first abaya.
I say that not to imply that abaya shopping is exciting. It does somewhat feel like a scene out of a J.K. Rowling novel with a fun cultural spin, but other than that it's relatively meh.
What I didn't know before buying my first abaya was the complexity of the cloak! I thought they were just glorified house robes! Boy howdy was I wrong. Therefore I had to go out and buy a second abaya that is more practical for my lifestyle. For those in the market, I've compiled a list of the things one needs to consider when purchasing an abaya:
1. The sleeves! Take into consideration what you will be using this abaya for. Will it just be fending off the public from taking in your sinful body? Then you don't need to go fancy. Don't be seduced by the flowy, open, heavily embroidered sleeves. Oh you'll love how much they resemble a kimono and feel wonderfully worldly with your cross-cultural abaya, but about 1 day after the purchase, you'll be cursing the Asian designer that came up with the wings that now have to be attached to your body!
This is my first abaya. I really do like the embroidery on the sleeves, and this will be my go-to abaya for fancy occasions (cause I have so many of those over here in Saudi Arabia). But look at the sleeves! They are totally impractical! They're too long, and their bell shape, though alluring at first, turn into huge shovels of destruction anytime I need to reach across any sort of plane. Cups get dumped across the dinner table, soup gets a little fabric flavoring, and knives tumble to the floor. Plus, whenever I'm grocery shopping, my arm is exposed while reaching to the top shelf, and that elicits unwanted sidelong glances from my more conservative fellow shoppers.
These are the sleeves on my new abaya! Look at how they maintain the flouncy-ness, while tapering at the cuffs to prevent mealtime disasters and unwanted exposure.
2. The Length! Now, you can't rock the calf-length abaya, but if you're only purchasing the abaya to abide by the local regulations, there's no need for it to drag the floor like a genuine Arab. Chances are you'll be going up stairs or an incline of some sort in your time with the abaya, and I'm willing to bet at least one of those times you'll have something in your hands. That's when you get introduced to the abaya-wearer's most common companion: the hem peck.
Anyone who has worn a prom dress that was too long is familiar with the hem peck. It starts with an accidental step on the hem of your skirt, and in an effort to prevent ripping the skirt, your posture becomes one of a chicken going for its breakfast. Your neck goes out, your shoulders go forward, and your back curves a little bit to decrease the tug on the fabric. You try to recover by taking another step, but if your hands aren't free, you just perpetuate the cycle. The hem peck (I totally just made that term up, but I think it's got real staying power).
I recommend that you make the hem of your abaya fall around your ankle bone, that'll decrease your chances of looking like a doofus in front of all your students as you stumble your way up the steps, muddying your abaya and fumbling your school books all at the same time....not like I've experienced it or anything.
3. The Fabic. Ok, so most of the affordable options ($20 and up) are going to be some sort of polyester blend, there is still lots of variety when it comes to what your abaya is made of. The most expensive abayas ($1,000 and up--no joke) will be made of a wonderfully buttery silk blend that has the most magical flow when you walk. But chances are if you're reading this and actually heeding my advice, you're not a wealthy Saudi oil tycoon's daughter, so you can't afford the silk in the first place. Welcome to polyester town.
You want to consider how thick the fabric is. If your sleeves are layered, you're going to boil in the summer. If your fabric is too thin, your abaya's going to become see-through in the flash of any cameras that snap your photo for posterity. For the winter, there's the velvet abaya. Just the other day I saw a beautiful abaya that was all black with a black-eyelet lace overlay. So nice for the frigid 50 degree weather of the Saudi winter.
4. The Hijab. There's no point buying the abaya if it doesn't come with a matching hijab included in the price. If your abaya has any embroidery or individuality on it, your hijab will match. Most hijabs have the embroidery on one end so when you tie it around your head, you don't have scratchy threads making an impression on your cheek while you stroll around town. Sometimes the hijab will have embroidery on both ends. It all depends on your preference, really.