Yeezy catwalker Halima Aden caught the world’s attention earlier this year as the first model on a major fashion runway to wear a hijab. But this summer, as she moves from magazine shoots to judging Miss USA alongside Ashley Graham, fashion watchers are likely to notice another staple of her everyday style: the baati, a classic cotton dress from her homeland of Somalia that costs less than $20.
Though it’s a sort of housedress, designed in the spirit of one-size-fits-all utilitarianism, the baati conjures elegance and refinement rather than the scraggly bohemianism of the muumuu and caftan. That’s because of the self-possession of the women—usually Somali—who wear it, and because of the baati’s inherent versatility, the way its fluid, wide-sleeved silhouette flips from loungewear-like to dressed up depending on how it’s styled.
Aden, 19, started wearing baatis when she was 8 years old and has been photographed trekking the globe in them since February, when she signed to IMG Models. “I have found I am wearing them more than ever,” she says. “They are great for wearing on an airplane, when traveling, and perfect for wearing to photo shoots, where I am going to be making clothing changes on-site and need to be able to do that quickly,” she says. “My favorite thing about baatis is that they are so comfortable and easy to wear, like wearing cozy pajamas.”
DJ and fashion designer Deka Abdullahi
Photo: Courtesy of @Fatumas_eye
Another aspect of the style’s appeal is the way it functions as an instant statement piece. “The prints are so bold it doesn’t need anything else,” says Canadian singer-songwriter Cold Specks. “Sometimes I’ll wear it with a shiny traditional scarf to cover my head. Sometimes I cut the bottom off.” Specks’s music-world peer and Love Army for Somalia activist Amaal Nuux favors the look for reasons of cultural pride: “I always have my baati loose, sometimes tucked into my goongaarad [a Somali slip worn underneath dresses],” she says. “I’ll accessorize with a gold long necklace and some bracelets. All of this together makes me feel like a Somali queen.”
The summer before sixth grade was the first time I wore a baati, and the first time I experienced that queenly feeling for myself. My paternal grandmother handed me a baati that smelled like her (an old Somali lady smells like frankincense and Ben-Gay, if you’re wondering) in her Columbus, Ohio, townhouse, and from then on I was hooked. Wearing it meant I was indeed a woman, not a girl, because baatis had been too long for me the previous year, when I was 4 feet 11. At 5 feet 2, however, they fit perfectly, and I could wear them every day. I could dress them up or down, shorten or lengthen them, wear them loose or tie them up to make them formfitting—whatever. Wearing a baati felt free, like being naked. Sometimes I kind of was naked; I wasn’t aware I was supposed to wear a slip underneath, so the silhouette of my legs reflected against the sunlight would leave me exposed. Not that I cared or noticed; this was before the words modesty or shame had entered my lexicon.