When I told people I was moving to Yemen, common first questions were “Will you have to wear a burqa? Will you have to cover your hair? Your face?”
No, no, and no. But still, how to dress in my new life in Yemen was a major concern to me.
I should preface this by saying fashion is a huge passion of mine. I spend lots of time putting together outfits and I’ve spent a number of delightful Sundays helping friends edit their closets and put together entire weeks’ worth of head-to-toe looks. I’ve always been this way. A 9-year-old YemenEm once saw an outfit at Kids ‘R Us that was so fabulous that she dreamed about it practically every night for a week until YemenMom got it for her for her 10th birthday. (The outfit was a long floral dress and straw sunhat adorned with a big ol’ flower. Yes, these were the “Blossom” days). Aside from a dark year in seventh grade where we all shunned fashion in favor of Nike and Fila t-shirts and some baggy ass jeans, I’ve always been excited about clothes.
And it was no different when it came to my Yemen look. First, I asked Mr.YemenEm what I should wear to work in Yemen, and in classic boy fashion he said “You can wear whatever you want, babe.” I figured that couldn’t possibly be true – isn’t Yemen one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East? One of Mr.YemenEm’s female colleagues was in DC a few months ago so I asked her what Americans in Yemen wear. She said dressing rather frumpy was a good rule of thumb and that no Americans at their workplace wear skirts. (Which was sad news because in my previous job as a journalist, I mostly wore skirts and dresses when I was out reporting). But here, even if we’re not leaving the office on a particular day, we work with lots of Yemenis so I suppose it’s a respect thing to not be flaunting our pencil skirts and shift dresses. Another colleague sent me an email about dress for Americans in Yemen, part of which I will excerpt here:
“I’ve ever passed an email like this through a man – it’s pretty hilarious. [YemenEm] probably has the skinny from a number of sources by now but here are my general guidelines:No butts or waistline. No knees. No elbows. No cleavage.”
Yikesy. So no clothes that would in any way indicate I’m a woman. Or that I have arms that extend past my elbow.
I explained to Mr.YemenEm that I would need a new wardrobe. He said “Good idea, spend as much as you want for clothes to wear in a place we’ll be for nine months. I only want my lovely wife to look and feel her best. You should also buy a new purse.” Or something like that. Whatevs, who can remember conversations verbatim, you know?
My first stop was H&M where I picked up a number of uninspired tunics of various colors. I showed my friend in DC my purchases and she looked a little disgusted and said “YemenEm, this is not how you dress!” I looked at the floral, granola-crunchy tunic I was holding up and was like “You’re right, wise friend. I think there’s a way to dress ‘Yemen’ without morphing into a middle school art teacher.”
So this friend and I went to our favorite boutique: Violet on 18th Street in Adam’s Morgan. I told the store owner, Julie, that I was moving to Yemen. Not even missing a beat, she was like “Yemen, okay, I’ve got you,” and she started filling a dressing room with flowy, stylish pieces including a camel-colored silky, very wideleg strapless jumpsuit. Totally ridiculous but mad glamorous and I had to get it. Throw a drapey blouse over it and it’s So Yemen (a phrase I have practically trademarked that is the bane of Mr.YemenEm’s existence). I also bought royal blue harem pants that actually look quite a bit like the famed pants sported by this lil lady. However, instead of wearing them with a boustierre, giant head gem, and enough hair extensions to swath the heads of all of the Kardashians, I wear them with a blouse and fitted jacket.
That shopping trip was a total blast. I didn’t realize it could be so much fun to dress in really loose-fitting clothes, but now I realize Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen might be on to something. Hundreds of dollars later, I was out the door with my new silky, drapey So Yemen wardrobe, which resembles what I imagine the Golden Girls would have worn if they had ventured from the confines of their wicker-filled Miami digs and took a vacay to Dubai in the late 1980s.
So, naturally, I fit right in here in Yemen, right? Ha. True ‘So Yemen’ would be a all shapeless black. I’m sure I’ll delve deeper into how I feel about women covering themselves so completely in a future post, but let me just say on a more shallow level, I’d really, really miss wearing nice outfits out and about. Apparently some women here still dress up cute under their black abayas. Most of the Yemeni women at the embassy seem to wear jeans under theirs. If so few people were going to see my outfit, you best belee I’d be wearing some ratty ass PJs under there. Trust me, I know, because I used to work from home and some of the get-ups I’d work in even got me looks of disgust from the kitties. “Don’t think you just hid that coffee stain on your shirt by covering it up with a soup stain,” their feline expressions would say. Then they’d eat flies off the windowsill.
Anyways, point is, buying a new wardrobe to come to an entirely new place was actually worth it, even though I didn’t quite nail the Yemen look. But you know what will be even more fun? Buying my Muy Caliente Espanol wardrobe when we move to Madrid.
In Yemen, Being So Yemen,