“It is evident that women’s “character” – her convictions, her values, her wisdom, her tastes, her behavior – are to be explained by her situation”
Simone de Beauvoir
I never thought I would ever blog about fashion. Not until recently when a friend of mine (actually a designer I often buy clothes from) made me look at it from another perspective and realise there is more to fashion than meets the eye: it could be a platform for free expression of political views, it could also be a way of breaking the glass-ceiling through art!
I remember reading about the television series Signs of the Times where cameras entered ordinary people’s living rooms and asked them to talk about their lives. One woman, an architect’s wife, shed tears explaining how she sometimes went to her children’s bedroom because that was the only place where curtains were permitted. This may seem absurd to many in today’s society. However, to me it turns out to be a yet another Gogol-like tragedy that repeats itself even nowadays describing the trauma of many women restricted by the patriarchal norms of their sometimes extreme societies to express themselves within the marginal spaces of their homes only. Although they are rarely spotted at a fashion show and are usually wrapped, women of the Middle East are actually the world’s biggest buyers of high fashion , and even more: recently they have started finding their voices through art and fashion.
I will skip discussing the well known haute couture designers from this region, such as the Lebanese Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, and will rather emphasise on the unique rebellion art of a few Middle East women that has been flourishing after the uprisings. The Arab spring seems to have been transforming not only the political landscape of the region but also people’s mindset in terms of fashion. The recent revolutions have actually led to a new wave of art in the Middle East about politics. This is where the women, mostly seen as oppressed and powerless, are finding their voice through fashion and art. This is not, however, a yet another example of feminist designers to base your gender study on. After all, gender and fashion usually explore feminist cultural theories that champion the work of female designers in and out of the traditional “soft” areas of women’s production (like Friedan (1963), Millet (1970), or Lees-Maffei and Houze) or, as another feminist scholar, Attfield, puts it, challenge the patriarchal interpretations of design characterized by a “political position that seeks changes in the interest of women“. However, there is more to this than meets the eye when it comes to the new wave of Middle-East fashion and art. It is not just about what women wear. It is not just about the female vs. male world. Nor it is only about fighting for women’s rights or against the oppressive regimes. Rather, it is an apotheosis of individualism, of each and every woman’s unique inner world, passions and sorrows, and her desire to speak up and be heard.
Surprisingly enough, art in those countries with severe regimes like Saudi Arabia or Iran is the most interesting and clever. However, nowhere has this flourishing of Arab women’s art been more evident than in Dubai. At the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, for instance, work by Nadia Kaabi-Linke, a Tunisian artist, tackles the heavy topic of the clothes many women in the region are forced to wear. Have a look at the photograph of an Arab man pictured in the desert. Instead of wearing the typically white kandoura and ghutra, his clothes are made from the heavy black material normally worn by women. Here I should point out an interesting fact: the Muslim religious law specifically prohibits men from wearing materials like silk and doesn’t tolerate men dressed in a feminine manner. On the other hand, there are no restrictions on the fabric women wear, as long as they are all covered when in public. It seems to me that this controversy should be seen as a cultural rather than religious phenomenon, don’t you think?
The Arab spring has apparently inspired numerous Middle East artists and designers to take further steps towards breaking through the ominous system of policing (and self-policing) that has long hindered creative production. “Artwear”, “unwearables”, “conceptual clothing” are the forms in which designers, such as Milia M or Fares Cherait searched for a form to manifest their personal, social and political anxieties. Although Milia M produces high end haute couture collections, the hidden shades of rebellion spirit in them can be sensed easily. The beauty of Milia M’s collections lies in the designer’s ability to fully express her own intoxicating spirit, one of a kind, contemporary and culturally allure. A little bit modern, a little bit romantic, with hints of seductive Middle Eastern mystery, Milia’s designs are best suited for daring women, much like the designer herself. Playing with transparencies, folds, openings, and mastering the art of the body-hugging cut, Milia M reveals and accentuates what Middle East women cannot usually wear in public; exciting clothing that is bold, and always beautiful.
Throughout history the relationship between art and fashion has become even stronger and more complex. Constructivism, Surrealism and Conceptual Art are the art movements that offered a solid framework for flourishing relationship with fashion that are now evident in the work of many Middle East artists and designers. Kader Attia’s “Ghost” that was shown at the Saatchi Gallery is a vivid example of this relationship (see Picture 2).
From the gallery entrance, you can only see large aluminum foil. But if you come closer, you realise that you are actually looking at the backs of dozens of nearly identical life-sized foil figures kneeling in straight rows and facing in the same direction. Each represents a Middle Eastern woman covered from head to toe in a chador. It’s as though you found yourself in the women’s section of a mosque. But when looked from the front, you discover these figures are hollow shells – faceless, without identities, only recognised by their chadors. This work obviously addresses the clothing restrictions of women in the Middle East. Similar concepts could be found in Shadi Ghadirian’s replication of the inception photography popular in Iran during the Ghajar dynasty (it was presented in Saatchi too). In the surreal images we can see Iranian females dressed in antique costumes (see Picture 3). If there weren’t contemporary items interrupting the scene, we would think that these female Iranians were captured ages ago. The clash between tradition and modernisation in terms of clothing is apparent, as well as the author’s silent protest against restrictive regimes and attitudes towards Middle East women.
Such politics of identity could be found even in conceptual Arab fashion. Fares Cherait’s 2011 Autumn/ Winter collection (see Picture 4) echoes the uprisings’ spirit using black and red colours and leather accompanied by army accessories to complete the military outlook of the collection.
Such designers seem to deserve admiration because of their ability to retain the practical side of their clothes while using them to convey deeper social, cultural, philosophical and political messages in order to challenge the society’s dominant restrictive ideas of women’s fashion. These ideas strongly remind on conceptual and visionary fashion designers, such as Hussein Chalayan, as well as the above mentioned feminist artists, who make strong political statements via their work. Contemporary Middle – East fashion helps you really see how the dialogue about social problems in the region is opening up through art, evoking positive feelings of hope instead of anxiety.