“I always had a passion for textiles, and clothing, and as I grew up in this country, I fell in love with the women’s dress in the Emirates,” Dr Reem El Mutwalli recalls of her life and career inspired her time in the UAE. Born in Iraq in 1963, before moving to Turkey and New York, and finally settling with her family in the UAE capital, Reem spent her childhood “living amongst the ruling family. I grew up with them; many became my best friends,” Reem recalls, of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his family. With her father acting as economic consultant to Crown Prince HH Sheikh Khalifah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Reem was afforded her privileged insight into the ruling family and the history into the history of the country that had little documenting at the time.
Choosing to do a Masters in Islamic Architecture and a PhD in Islamic Art & Archaeology, and having spent 20 years working at The Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, Reem’s love of the UAE grew all the more. “Because of my line of work at The Cultural Foundation and because I was representing the government, I felt that I needed to dress in the thawb and kandhurah, UAE traditional dress, in order to better represent the position that I was in. So, over the years, I began collecting pieces from different friends and older relatives, members of the ruling family, commissioning pieces to be made, and slowly a collection began to accumulate,” she says of the now 180-piece strong archive she has spent the last 30 or so years amassing. “When I did the thesis for my PhD on Islamic Art & Archaeology I had to go back and learn how these dresses were made, what was their history, how were they constructed, why they looked this certain way, the techniques used, the materials… I went back and started studying it all,” she says learning technically how they were measured by hand, how they related each body part to the design, and how each was tailored by hand or machinery. “I began to look at my collection more academically. Whatever I had amassed needed to be organised, catalogued, properly chronicled… Then I could see where I needed to fill holes in the collection, looking for specific pieces that I knew needed to be added to make it a proper historical collection.”
Thus far, Reem has accumulated her 180-piece collection with some of the dresses dating back to the 1950s, from the pre-oil era all the way through to today, with the collection chronicling the history of the Emirates through each stitch and thread. Key pieces include two dresses, one embroidered with gold coins and one with silver. “These pieces are very valuable and they came from members of the ruling family,” Reem explains. “This is how the women carried their wealth, keeping their bank account close to their heart, because they lived a nomadic life, but only people from the wealthier echelons of society would be able to commission something like this. The dress would probably be worn a few times before a daughter or sister would borrow it or it would be deconstructed and reworked into something new.”
Other beautiful dresses she cherishes belonged to Sheikha Hamdah Bint Mohammed Al Nahyan from Al Ain, the first cousin to the late HH Sheikh Zayed and maternal aunt of the present president of the UAE, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and another to , the first cousin to the late HH Sheikh Zayed and maternal aunt of the present president of the UAE, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Each dress itself documents the evolution of style in the Emirates, the influence of Asia and the West on inspiring sartorial change, the development of traditional craftsmanship, such as Teli, to more modern techniques, and the change of fabrics, moving from cotton to net to silks and chiffons.
Documenting the evolution of style in the Emirates is Reem’s way of preserving the culture of the country she has long called home, with a vision to continue showcasing, speaking and lecturing about the collection, and a goal to see the pieces become part of an institution or museum body to be viewed for generations to come to “preserve the pieces, whilst still giving the collection and this culture a sense of longevity,” helping to weave the future of her borrowed homeland whilst preserving the roots of its past.
From the February 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia