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November 23, 2017
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Rick Owens A/W 2012 collection. The ensemble seemed to directly reference the conservatively clad women of the Gulf.Source: models.com.

As usual, Hussein Chalayan got there first. His 1996 show, called simply "Burka," dressed models in burkas of different lengths, from full to midi to nude. In doing so, he raised hefty questions on issues such as modesty, sexuality, identity and gender.

Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2012.
Source: wmagazine.com.

Today, designers are revisiting traditional Arab dress, but more sartorially and less philosophically. Specifically, they have turned their attention to the abaya, the long, black, full-sleeved gown worn over clothes by most women in the Gulf region. For example, for F/W 2012, California-bred designer Rick Owens opened his show with a grey robe draped over a polo-necked maxi dress. With every inch of flesh hidden away, as well as most of the model's hair, the ensemble seemed to directly reference the conservatively clad women of the Gulf.

Owens was not alone. In the same season, Zac Posen and DAKS included black button-down looks that were open and flowing from the waist down, quite reminiscent of open-front abayas often worn by women in the metropolitan Gulf. Frida Giannini meanwhile, included an oversized black cape in her collection for Gucci. From the rigid silk fabric to its tiers and ribbon tie, it closely resembled the designs worn by Arab women over gowns or jalabiyas when attending galas and banquets.

Some designers may even have taken their interpretations a bit too literally - Emilio de la Morena for instance, whose signature colourful garments are often quite revealing, took a far more conservative approach with a black belted dress complete with a shayla-esque head covering. Though reportedly influenced by his Spanish heritage, it must be kept in mind that much of Spain has been influenced by its former Arab rulers, thus blurring what is truly "Spanish" in origin.

Western women ask themselves whether their Muslim sisters are liberated by their 'modest' traditional clothing or oppressed by it, and if the Arabic trends we see on the catwalk today are a sign of things to come in the fashion world, or perhaps in society in general.

The Arabic-inspired theme is far from a new season trend - it's been around for a while. While Egyptian demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square in spring of 2011, Italian label Etro sent an obvious reinterpretation of the abaya down the runway by way of a striking, panelled black dress with tangerine and purple colour blocks that would fit right in on the streets of Dubai or Doha. At French fashion house Azzaro, a draped navy blue gown was identical to the jalabiyas that fill the closets of wealthy women in the Middle East. Jean Paul Gaultier's hooded, full length gowns in mustard and black seemed to give a nod to the covered-up couture of the Gulf.

By keeping the abaya and its design features in mind when producing their seasonal collections, it seems both American and European fashion houses may be directing their creative energies towards creating apparel that appeals to a more modest (and moneyed) Middle Eastern clientèle. This may be because clients in their own countries are suffering the effects of an increasingly deep recession. But it's not just that these designers are imitating Muslim gear - in some cases, they are actually producing it.

Labels such as Chanel, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci are designing abayas themselves - long, black, shapeless gowns embellished with diamante logos, gold-embroidered detailing, and made from the finest silk. But just how authentically Islamic is it for Muslim women aiming to avoid the "lustful male gaze" to spend their money on some of the world's most expensive and beautifully designed clothing, no matter how much it covers?

Conservatives would argue that Muslim women should dress in what is the sartorial equivalent of a burlap sack, not a wonderfully tailored Rick Owens gown. Islamic moderates would argue that there is nothing in the Koran that states how women should dress specifically: they should merely be "modest" in their attire. Liberal Muslims would say it's not at all about how you dress; it's how you behave and what you believe that counts. Western women ask themselves whether their Muslim sisters are actually liberated by their "modest" traditional clothing or oppressed by it, and if the Arabic trends we see on the catwalk today are a sign of things to come in the fashion world, we may have to ask ourselves what this trend has to say about changes in our society in general.

It seems that like Chalayan, many other designers today are also raising some hefty questions. 

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