So the French hate how we dress? Oh, the chic of it …
Hissa al Dhaheri
- Last Updated: June 25. 2009 9:10PM UAE / June 25. 2009 5:10PM GMT
When the heat is sweltering outside your air-conditioned room, the desert is endless and an oasis is nowhere to be seen, that’s when the inner Arabia in you needs to soar out.
Wake up and indulge yourself with an intoxicating aromatic coffee, wear harem pants or throw on a kaftan. The gaiety of the layered material of those garments will allow the air to filter through your soul, encouraging you to rise beyond the dunes.
Culturally embellished garments are the new trend, and you don’t have to travel far to follow it. Depending on your budget you might find a piece that appeals anywhere from a street-corner store to a high-end luxury boutique at the mall. Those culturally inspired treasures have evolved through a long trip, from Arabia to the West and back again.
Harem pants, or women’s trousers with a dropped crotch and draped gatherings at the waist, create the illusion of a silhouette. We have seen their comeback on the couture catwalks of Milan, Paris and New York. They swept across the world after a famously chic French fashion magazine editor embraced them: first the streets of Paris, and now a world trend.
This fashion development is a milestone. Trousers for women did not become a fashion item until maybe the mid-20th century. Now we have trousers actually named after women, or at least how women were once referred to. Harem is a Turkish word derived from the Arabic haram, which means “forbidden”.
It became standard terminology only with the Ottoman Empire, although interestingly enough the Turks never called these trousers harem pants. They were called “sherwal” or “serwal”, and were actually worn by men in the Mediterranean: macho men, to be specific. But how can such a loose and unstructured item of clothing with the crotch dropped down to the knees be incorporated into the rational, structured lines of the western male wardrobe? The answer: feminise it. The crotch was dropped both literally and symbolically.
Kaftans, on the other hand, those beautiful, naturally flowing garments, are the ultimate laid-back feminine dress. The fashion industry might have got its inspiration from the traditional Moroccan women’s dress, or from our Gulf jalabiyas. This loose-fitting garment allows for an ease of movement seen as a necessity for both men and women. Although kaftans were adopted by the western fashion industry as a “feminine” piece, they were worn by men as well: indeed, in the Persian and Ottoman Empires, exclusively so.
The kaftan and the “serwal” pants are now widely available in the West, the former having been turned into a dress and the latter into harem pants. When the western fashion industry adopted these garments with a largely male cultural heritage, they became strictly feminine. So, is the only way for the West to adopt our culture by feminising it? Does that mean that the West does not want to adopt any masculine aspects of our culture, believing that the East is essentially feminine? What about other aspects of our “feminine” culture that the West is now rejecting: for example, the hijab and the burqa.
Could it be that they are rejected because those garments are too “feminine” to be adopted? Or is it because they do not accord with mainstream fashion in the West? Maybe one day they will be adopted as a fashion statement, just like the Palestinian keffiyeh – which used to be a symbol of resistance and is now a trendy item sold everywhere in the world.
Or is it because the hijab is too similar to the elegant headscarf so beloved of French women? Perhaps the French have got all confused that their “chic” symbol is not exclusive to them. They knot the scarf, et voila, instant sophistication; while we knot our scarves, et voila, instant submission. It seems France wants to recapture its national fashionista symbols and status. It is certainly losing them, as many quintessentially French brands are no longer truly French (Louis Vuitton’s creative director is the American Marc Jacobs, while the driving force behind Christian Dior – not to mention a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour – is the British designer John Galliano). So I guess we shouldn’t be too harsh on the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for wanting to be the “fashion police” on a national scale.
The fashion industry is certainly a most flamboyant and irrational one. What is “in” fashion, or what falls “out” never makes sense. Yet I can’t deny our addiction to this rollercoaster irrationality. We become vain and vanity becomes us.
Of course, I may have this all wrong, because politics is not my realm. And excuse my over-sensitivity, as I am a vain, irrational woman. I thought fashion, my only outlet for escapism, was immune to the business of cultural politics. But it seems otherwise, and I am mourning that.
Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher, and holds an MA in Gulf Studies