Contrary to what many Australians, who still tend to expose their skin to the first hint of the sun's rays, might believe, many of the women I met on a recent trip to Dubai insisted that covering up in a hot climate is hugely practical.
Across the Islamic world, women typically don the abaya, a long- sleeved black dress, and wear it with a hijab (head scarf). The niqab, or face veil, so controversial in the West, is an everyday sight in the Middle East, though the women I discuss Islamic dress with in Dubai insist the niqab is optional and tends to be worn mostly by older, more conservative women.
The abaya is made from light material and is not constricting or tight-fitting; it protects the skin from sun damage, as does the niqab when the desert dust stirs up in the streets.
During my time in Dubai I meet Hind Beljafla and her sister, Reem, the designers behind DAS Collection, a range of fashionable abayas that have become very popular in GCC (The Co-operation Council for the Arab States ) countries - the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.
After spending time studying in London, the Beljafla sisters returned to Dubai and began to design and customise their own abayas, adding more colour, embroidery and embellishment and experimenting with different textures and cuts.
Both are passionate about educating visitors to the UAE about the abaya and Islamic dress in general. They say that the abaya, hijab and niqab are not forced on women; rather, women wear them as expressions of national pride and identity, and for practical reasons - as protection from the intense heat and desert dust.
"The idea that what we wear restricts or represses individual expression is a huge misunderstanding that stems from a lack of education and awareness," Hind insists.
"It's very important that we make people aware that covering the way we do is our own choice.
"It makes us feel empowered and proud of our national identity. The abaya has evolved and, as you can see from our designs, there is plenty of room for personal expression."
Indeed, everywhere I go in Dubai, from the souks to the huge shopping malls, I see elegant and comfortable- looking women individualising their look through the make-up they wear, the shoes, handbags and accessories they choose, and the trims and embellishments decorating their abayas.
"Emirati women are extremely fashion conscious and they're always up to date with the latest trends," Hind says.
"So it's important that the abaya complements the whole accessorised outfit. I tend to wear quite fun, colourful abayas or something with a bit of an edge - some leather detailing, perhaps - while my sister, Reem, is very classic and elegant. She prefers details like chiffon pleats or pearl embroidery."
DAS got off the ground because the sisters began customising their garments and were asked everywhere they went: "Who made that?" Since launching in late 2008, the company has continued to grow and attract new fans. The day we visit the DAS studio, I notice photographs of the Beljafla sisters with an impressive array of supporters, from American socialite Tinsley Mortimer and countless high-profile gulf region identities to English designer Alice Temperley and Sardinian designer Antonio Marras, the former creative director of Kenzo.
Our pit stop at DAS is one of several occasions during my visit to Dubai where I get to learn a little bit about the way in which Emirati women and men dress, and in each instance, some of my assumptions are shattered.
"There's a common misconception that black is the least practical colour to wear in a hot climate but it's not actually the case that black absorbs the sun's heat more than any other," Hind says.
"Wearing an abaya is so comfortable - generally in the hot weather we wear a vest top and leggings or a lightweight skirt underneath. I encourage all my expat friends in the UAE to try it, even just for one day, to experience just how comfy and convenient it is."
This is where DAS Collection's head of PR, Lauren Doble, comes in. A London transplant, Doble has worked at Harrods; DAS Collection was the first brand of its kind to be stocked there. Visits to Dubai sparked a love affair with the city that ended with her moving to the UAE and working for DAS. She, too, loves wearing the abaya.
"There's a wonderful sense of respect and pride in this nation that I find very inspiring," Ms Doble says. "DAS is such an exciting young brand and it's achieved so much since its inception, from stocking in Harrods to showing at London Fashion Week."
We're shown one of the event dresses worn by Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek at a recent London show. It is in a shimmering gold fabric, voluminous yet elegant. One of our group, a well-known Sydney-based lifestyle columnist, immediately places an order. These are clearly dresses that can be worn and appreciated well beyond the Middle East. dascollection.com.Pip Christmass was a guest of Emirates Airline and the Government of Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
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