When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or Arábia Saudita, was announced during the Olympic Parade of Nations in the Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium, the world waited to see what the athletes would be sporting—especially the women. While this is the country’s 11th time participating in the 120-year-old Olympic Games, this was only the second time the Kingdom included women athletes at the Games.
The men wore crisp, custom-made thobes from Lomar. The women wore long, loosely-fitted outfits with intricate embroidery, their heads veiled with dark scarves and adorned with traditional headdresses, made of hanging beads of lead, silver and old coins or twisted fabric, resembling a halo. They waved small Saudi flags and flashed huge smiles. They wore sneakers.
The story of the women’s clothing mirrors the empowering story of the women athletes.
Earlier this month, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud became the Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia, the first such division in the history of the country. Knowing full well that the eyes of the world would be on the Saudi athletes at the Opening Ceremony, the division turned the inspiring story of these women into an opportunity to educate the world on traditional Saudi textiles and history. The garments worn at the opening ceremony were created by a charitable initiative that supports local Saudi women from low-income families.
The outfits came from the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, the largest and oldest women’s charity in the Kingdom. For the last 54 years, Al Nahda’s Art of Heritage initiative in Riyadh has preserved tradition and enabled women to become breadwinners by reviving garments that originate in the five major regions of Saudi. For example, the Najdi gowns, from the central region, are cut in a triangular-shape and are deep green and burgundy, and the Hejazi ones, from the west coast, are straight cut and include blues, fascia and red stitching. Traditionally, each of the heritage custom-made gowns takes two to three months to create and are made from cotton, velvet, linen and silk.
“All the regions are rich examples of the diverse and remarkable history of our traditional garments,” the nonprofit’s president, Princess Basma bint Majed bin Abdulaziz, told me. “While we make each and every garment with love—in this case we made them with tremendous national pride as well.”
I spoke with Princess Reema about the choice of these Olympics outfits and her message to young women watching the Games.
Why did you decide to use the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society of Women to dress the women athletes for the opening ceremony?
For several decades, the founders of Art of Heritage have amassed a historically valuable collection spanning several thousand pieces of Saudi traditional dress, making them experts in Saudi costume. The designs were created to reflect the diversity of our national heritage: Saudi green and elements from each of the regions, such as Najd and Hejaz.
How did it feel to watch the women athletes represent their country—and its history—during the opening ceremony?
I’m proud that our nation is being represented by four women dressed in a wardrobe created for them by women that honors our heritage. It is the true amalgam of our past, present and future.
How involved were you in the selection process for these dresses?
I reached out to Princess Basma bint Majed who is at the helm of The Art of Heritage to ask for their participation. The immediate response was: “Leave it to me.” Princess Basma has impeccable taste and understanding of our material and heritage. I knew we were in excellent hands!
What has your experience been like thus far in your new role?
The Olympics began on 5th of August, and it’s been a whirlwind with us all traveling to Rio just a few days beforehand. I will assume my full role once I return to Riyadh after the Olympic Games. I am very honored to have been offered this position and I hope to be able to have a positive impact.
What’s your message to young Saudi girls watching the Olympics?
Our message of inspiration from Rio is that as Saudi women we are expanding the opportunities to engage and participate in our world. Opportunities are being created in the Kingdom today, and, if you work hard, anything is possible. Just ask the four ladies representing Saudi Arabia in Rio.