Static Culture, Static Fashion

There was an odd, little fashion show held in late June in Paris in the underground ballroom of the George V Hotel that was both a comic, costume exercise in futility and an attempt to drag Saudi religious and cultural sensibilities into the 21st Century. Fresh on the heels of French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s proclaiming that the enshrouding burqa was “…not welcome…” on the streets of the French Republic, Dior haute couture designer John Galliano, the French design houses of Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois and the Italian labels Blumarine and Alberta Ferretti valiantly tried to remake the Saudi Arabian abaya into a playful, more modern version of its black, drab, overcoat-like self.

The show’s organizer was the general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Saudi Arabia, Dania Tarhini. She was obviously thinking of her wealthier and more worldly-wise clients when she stated, “I realized that most of the Saudi clients are wearing designer brands, but they’re covered by a black abaya. It is an obligation to wear the abaya there, but let them feel good about it.”

So Tarhini let slip one of those open secrets that under that abaya and hijab headscarf or abaya and niqab facial veil with slits for the eyes, upper-crust Saudi women are actually fashion conscious. The twenty ornamented abayas shown with matching veils or hoods ranged from $5,500 to $11,500 but were given away to her favored trend-setting Saudi clients after the show in the hopes that others would follow their lead and purchase the lower priced versions at the Saks stores in Riyadh and Jeddah come September 2009.

However, it wasn’t easy getting the designers to do the show initially until Tarhini used the bottom line as her ultimate logical weapon, “They couldn’t imagine how to make a designer abaya, I explained to them the concept is to (make women) look good and also to promote their brands … Then they accepted.”

Something about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear springs to mind here. The reason why the designers mentioned “couldn’t imagine” making “a designer abaya” is that the abaya represents a static garment requirement of a static culture and static religion. Fashion is a Western concept and is all about change, growth and cultural evolution. It is a restless and infinitely innovative reconsideration of the human shape and form as understood by a dynamic culture at a specific point in time. While Western fashion borrows from the past, it never recreates it and it doesn’t stay satisfied with itself in the present. There is always a new, best thing to be had. By the time the average woman affects a new look, the upper echelons have moved on.

What the designers involved in Ms Tarhini’s show did understand was the money-making end of the equation and that’s why they participated. However, if you really want to see what is happening with Islamic dress, switch gears and take a look at what is going on in Malaysia at the Ministry of Tourism’s 10th annual Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival.

Malaysia is pushing “Islamizing clothes” with pastel outfits suitable for a remake of “I Dream of Genie” but with out the bare midriffs. In what has an ominous sound to it, the wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, Rosmah Mansor, said, “The clothes displayed are suitable for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Most clothes are inspired by Islamic art with a touch of Malaysian art. Malaysia is amongst Muslim countries that are keen on preserving their art and heritage. “

Got that, you non-Muslims? Thanks to multi-culturalism, you’ve been stripped of your heritage and pride but look at what’s waiting to fill in the vacuum! If you think that burqa will make you look fatwa, just slip into a Malaysian slubbed silk triple layer get-up in 90 degree weather with only your face and hands showing or else the morality police in Muslim “no-go zones” might slap you with 50 lashes for strutting about like a “Western Doll”.

This brings us full circle back to Sarkozy’s banning of the hijab in French public venues and his dismissal of the burqa as unsuitable wear on French streets. Whether Galliano or the other designers at that Saks Fifth Avenue abaya show realize it or not, they’ve been gamed. Western fashion was proving too seductive to the Islamic world so now it is perverting fashion in order to Islamize it. The Malaysians now have the excuse to claim that these Western fashion designers are getting on board the Islamic gravy train.

Emirati designers Rabia Z, is busily sewing hijabs into tracksuits so that veiling resistance Muslim women can exercise in their version of gang clothing while Badr al-Budoor claims about the abaya that, “It is not a tent that covers us all. We can still look pretty and elegant and sexy – just as covered and as traditional as we need to be.”

Pretty? Only if outer wear dressing a la The Matrix is your ideal Elegant? The whole point of the abaya is to deny the femininity of the wearer. Sexy? In your dreams, Playgirl!