Fashion designers who draw inspiration from the rich heritage of the Arab world should proceed with caution these days.
Given the nationalist passions, hair-trigger cultural sensitivities and rapidly evolving gender politics in countries from Morocco to Iran (and everywhere in between), the fashion industry needs to think carefully before appropriating traditional ethnic styles to satisfy Western fashionistas hungry for exotic new looks.
At the very least, that means understanding the history, purpose and social context of Middle Eastern apparel and respecting those traditions. A keffiyeh print doesn’t make for a cute bikini. A chador is not a sexy nightgown.
It’s easy to forget that, in many parts of the world, fashion and politics are inseparable. To ignore that truth is not just insensitive, it’s potentially dangerous, as Aussie swim label Lisa Blue found out last year: it used a digital print of a Hindu goddess on one of its swimsuits, triggering angry protests across India.
These cautions are especially relevant to the lingerie industry, since women’s undergarments have become a potent symbol in the Arab world of repression or liberalization — depending on your gender and which country you live in — and of the increasing commercial colonization of the Middle East by Western brands.
And lingerie brands have frequently turned to Arab and Middle East history for design influences. From the folkloric tales of Aladdin and Scheherezade to the exotic sexual culture of royal harems, the Arab world has given lingerie designers an enduring archetype: veiled femininity and the promise of inevitable, obedient submission.
You don’t have to look hard to find examples of how designers embrace that archetype. Below, we look at three recent collections that draw their inspiration, in very different ways, from Arab culture.
You won’t find much cultural sensitivity in the 2013 collection that American enfant terrible Jeremy Scott debuted at New York Fashion Week, just a lot of the blind smugness that so often fuels the Arab world’s anger against the West.
Scott’s latest is called Arab Spring and his recent runway show was, apparently, inspired by the populist uprisings across the region over the past year.
What he delivers, though, can only be described as warlord chic: metallic corsets, customized combat helmets, sheer harem pants and veils that are like an ironic response to traditional Muslim burqas, chadors and hijabs. There’s even a top embellished with tiny machine gun brooches and a revealing wrap dress that uses a see-through keffiyeh motif — the symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
This all seems pop-art cool and very boundary-pushing to Westerners who are far removed from the daily realities of life in the Middle East. It’s hard not to wonder, though, how Scott’s pieces would be received in Damascus or Tehran or Riyadh, where dressing like this could get a woman stoned to death.
Jeremy Scott is ordinarily a great young design talent, but this misguided collection may be the worst fashion insult against the Middle East since Sex and the City 2.
The deliriously design-centric Aussie label loves nothing more than creating elaborate prints that hint at their source material while remaining completely original and unique.
Several pieces in Pleasure State’s Couture and White Label collections for fall 2012 draw their inspiration from the Arab world, although this time they skip the politics and focus on familiar storybook romantic references. The result is an exceptional blend of old and new; one gets the sense that Pleasure State needed a tapestry as rich and varied as that of the ancient Middle East to accommodate its fondness for detail and ornamentation.
The highlight is the Cleopatre range from the PS Couture collection, shown in the main photo at the top of this article. It’s an exclusive print in coppery desert tones, embellished with crystal baguettes and eyelash lace and it creates a kind of modern belly-dancer look. A stunning tribute to Middle Eastern style, and one of the year’s most gorgeous lingerie designs.
PS White Label, meanwhile, comes close to matching Cleopatre‘s artistry with a series of new Arab-influenced styles. The Flying Carpet set offers a gorgeous original print that mimics the intricate patterns of woven Persian carpets, while the Persian Garden series combines an exotic floral print and pink beadwork, all inspired by 1,001 Nights.
The collection includes an iris-hued Lantern set, the bridal range Hidden Veil with its pearl-like motif, and the black-and-copper Spice Bazaar range with its crystal and copper bead embellishments. That’s Spice Bazaar in the photo above showing the model served up on a Persian rug along with a plate of fruit and a tea set — an image with mixed (but historically authentic) connotations.
Fred & Ginger
The luxury independent label from Britain doesn’t try to copy Middle Eastern history for its glamorous new collection, Arabian Nights. Instead, designer Victoria Holt was captivated — like everyone else for the past several hundred years — by the sheer romance of 1,001 Nights, with its tales of love, heroism, magic and eroticism.
It’s a lush collection of monochrome peach-hued satins and silk chiffon, playing off against mesh panels with gilt trim and Swarovski jewel adornments. The overall effect is to capture the veiled femininity that we spoke of earlier, and which is central to allure of Arabian style.
Holt creates a few new looks that convey the fairy-tale Aladdin influence and wouldn’t look out of place in a harem: unique panataloons, a bed jacket with billowing wide sleeves and a dashing cape.
(It’s worth pointing out that most designers, including Holt, who find inspiration in 1,001 Arabian Nights focus solely on the romantic fables while overlooking the grim undertones of the framing story, about a vengeful king who deflowers a new virgin each night after learning of his wife’s infidelity.)
Holt told Lingerie Talk that she wasn’t trying to make any political or cultural statements with her new collection, she was simply inspired by the region.
“Having traveled around the world for a year solo, I spent the time taking inspiration from all the countries I visited,” she said. “I found the Middle East a fascinating and beautiful area of the world and their culture is unquestionably unique, which I find both intriguing and inspiring.
“If I had my way, we would all live in unison with one another and respect one another’s cultures and beliefs. Perhaps it’s me that lives in a fantasy world!”
Now that‘s an approach that’s hard to argue with. Maybe fashion can be a tool for diplomacy after all.