I often get asked the question what do women in Saudi-Arabia wear under the abaya? Doesn't it get hot? How does it feel, isn't it horrible?
There is as many answers as there is women wearing abayas, so I cannot generalize. Also it depends on the weather, varies greatly between the chilly winter months and the intense summer heat.
Mostly people will not know or see what a woman is wearing under her abaya so the good thing to this is, you don't have to think too much before leaving the house! It's a relief for the husbands too, no more last minute "what shall I wear" "does this make me look fat" scenarios with the ladies! Also enables shopping in pyjamas if feeling lazy.
Abayas come in various types of fabrics and the woman's comfort level will be directly related to what kind of quality her abaya is. In addition to the heinous polyester, abayas actually come in really thin lightweight fabrics Wearing one of these abayas made fom natural materials feels almost as if you are wearing a "breeze" around you. Movement makes the air flow soflty around your body creating airconditioned environment. When the abaya fabric is really thin, it's good that the color is black. If it were a light color it would be see-through (like some men's thobes in the summer)! So the black color enables these very thin fabrics like cotton, silk, linen and jersey. Most of these lightweights are actually a mix of those fabrics.
This abaya is very fine, drapey jersey material with handpainted decorations I found from a women's exhibition.
Sometimes in the summer months women will opt for sundresses, shorts, tanktops or even plain bikinis under the abaya. If that's the case, it's best to choose a closed abaya model. The one with buttons in the front might pop open if it gets stuck somewhere! For example it might get caught in the escalator, shopping cart or car door, or someone might step on the hem if it's a long tailing one. Wearing only bikinis is a little risky in my opinion, but I know women who do it anyways. I also know women who have gone out butt naked under the abaya.
In the hottest months a good choice is wearing long dresses and skirts underneath the abaya. They are comfortable and airy in the summer and will cover her legs in case the abaya goes flying up in the air. It's easier to walk swiftly (as western women usually are accustomed to) in a long skirt + abaya combo compared to pants +abaya which makes the abaya tangle and stick onto the trousers when taking long strides. Long dresses are also a woman's friend when going shopping and there are no fitting rooms available. Jeans and skirts are easy to try on without having to remove the dress at all. If the only available toilet is an arabic style squatting one, well it's much easier with a dress than pants!
Contrary to common beliefs, abayas can actually cool the woman wearing it. Abayas made from natural materials actually protect the skin from the dry heat, and thus cool off the body. Naturally if the woman is in direct sunlight with it, she's going to start cooking after a while. But during the very hot evenings the abaya brings relief from the dry heat. I remember sitting outside with some friends one evening as we wondered how come we only feel the heat on our faces and heads? It was the only uncovered body part that's why!
Before they invented polyester, abayas were in fact made out of fine goat wool, and other natural materials so it's understandable why the abaya is compatible with this desert climate. It protects from the suns burning rays, the air dryness, dust and wind and cold.
Wearing the abaya in Jeddah or Dammam is another story though. It's so humid abayas tend to stick to the skin immidiately when after stepping outside! Summers are absolutely dreadful there in abaya.
In the winter months it can really get chilly, especially during nights the temperatures can drop near zero. Riyadh which is surrounded by desert is one of the coldest places in Saudi. The cold winds are ruthless and somehow penetrate the skin to the bones. One needs to dress accordingly and stack up under the abaya! Sometimes in the coldest days people will opt for a shawl wrapped around the abaya. Others choose wool coats, trench coats and jackets on top of the abaya. Some women do the opposite, they wear thick coats under their abayas resulting in a bulky "Michelin Man" look.
Some conservative Saudi women that cover literally from head to toe will always wear very modest clothing underneath their abayas. I see them alot in the hospital, they will have loose long-sleeved "house dresses" called jallabiya. Their choice of shoes will be closed black shoes with socks and they will also have black gloves so absolutely no skin is showing. Many of these women don't even remove their head scarves inside and around women.
More liberal Saudis will wear trendy clothes under their abayas. Saudis tend to be very fashion conscious and will don the latest fashion items. The majority of the stores found in western countries can be found in Saudi too. In Riyadh you will find all the most popular western clothing chains like H&M, Lindex, Miss Selfridge, Monsoon, Guess, Mango, Zara, TopShop etc..The famous department store Debenhams can be found in almost all of the largest malls.
The wealthy Saudis and princesses will shop at high end fashions stores like Gucci, Prada or DKNY and the likes. Department stores like Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue are popular among the upper class. Those women will typically wear classic designer clothing under their abayas. When going out for dinner parties or weddings these women will have Oscar night worthy evening gowns, racy dresses and elaborate jewellery hidden under their abayas. The cloaks will come off at the women-only events though.
Younger middle class Saudi women might opt to wear the latest trends seen in the western world. Skinny jeans and trendy tops combined with high heels are popular. The latest designer handbag is a must-have accessory with the abaya. Fashionable sunglasses and shoes are other ways for young women to express their style.
Abayas themselves also have unique trends that vary from region to region and to other Arab countries. In the Riyadh some of the newest trends of abaya are lace inserts and puffy sleeves, large color blocks on the back of the abaya, wide sleeves with beautiful embroidery and abayas made totally of patterned or embroidered fabric.
Certainly, under each abaya there is a unique story..