A legend from the 8th century states that a merchant arrived in Madinah, the city in Saudi Arabia where the prophet Mohammed is buried, with a collection of head scarves and abayas from Iraq; he sold all the colours except for black. Feeling disappointed about the undesirable black colours, he complained to his friend Al-Darimi, a religious monk.
To help out his merchant friend, Al-Darimi composed a poem expressing love for a mysterious woman in black who captured his heart. Gossip quickly spread around the city about the monk who changed his austere lifestyle because of the woman dressed in black. The merchant immediately sold all of his merchandise, and not a single woman in Madinah had not bought a black scarf since.
The origin and authenticity of this legend is debatable, however. So, the reason that black became the main colour of women’s outer dress in the Gulf remains unknown.
One theory says that the abaya originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. Historians and academics like Dr Leila Al Bassam, a professor of traditional clothing and textiles at Riyadh University, claim that women from Iraq and Syria introduced the abaya in Saudi Arabia 80 years ago. It was immediately adopted by nomads in the desert who previously wore long, loose coloured dresses with matching scarves to cover the head and face. It is said that the Bedouins then brought it to cities.
Residents whom I spoke to who witnessed life in Saudi Arabia prior to the 1970s remember a time when women wore colourful and conservative clothing in the port city of Jeddah and in the Eastern Province. Some chose to wear abayas out of custom and not as a formal obligation. Women would carry their abayas when leaving the house or just use them to cover their upper bodies.
The 1980s brought in more austerity in applying strict interpretations of sharia in public Saudi life. While Islam requires women to cover their bodies and head, conservative individuals considered the black abaya the only way by which the obligation could be fulfilled. A single form of the loose black abaya became common attire for women and was sold by male tailors.
The traditional abaya, called the laff in Saudi dialect, was a thin black material that was wide and square shaped, with two openings for the hands to enter to avoid revealing the arms. To securely close the abaya, a woman would fold one part under her arm and tuck in the other side.