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Playing dress-up
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 08 - 2008

Mai Samih wonders whether we really are what we wear
Though the traditionalist would continue to insist that blue is for boys, jeans are for the young, and black is the colour of death, such popular dress codes have been changing. Meanwhile others have survived, if only to reflect our ancient customs and traditions. "Clothes are considered a sign of personality, for they reveal the social customs that a society is accustomed to. Hence the oriental proverb, 'eat whatever you like but wear what people like,'" explained Ali Mohamed El-Mekkawi, head of the Social Department and chairman of the Social Studies Research Centre at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University to Al-Ahram Weekly. He explained that clothes tell us about gender, age and also social status. There are also clothes for hilarity and for grief.
The use of colours still differs depending on country and culture. The colour red for example is considered in many Asian countries as a good luck charm, while it is considered "girly" in many Arab countries. Hanan Said of the Clothes and Weaving departments at Helwan and Al-Azhar universities believes that, "colours in our society have an ideological meaning, often with magical or medicinal connotations. For example the colour red is used to cure measles. Beads the colour of amber are used to cure some illnesses and to dispel the evil eye."
Mohamed Amer, assistant professor at the Faculty of Applied Arts Department of Textiles Engineering of Helwan University, believes that people wear the colour black to attend formal occasions for religious reasons. "During the Ptolemaic [Graeco-Roman] rule, black and gold were favoured by the Greeks. However, after the Christian religion appeared, black was used by priests in churches. It also is a symbol of abstinence."
On a parallel note, during the Pharaonic era, "The kola was a uniform the king or ruler gave out as a reward," Amer said. In the 17th century clothes were used to distinguish a person of authority such as lawyers, doctors, and magistrates from others. The same was the case in Babylon and Rome.
However, after the French Revolution in Europe and the subsequent revolutions in African, Asian, and American nations, the difference in appearance between the rich and the poor faded. Indeed to some extent the very concept of wealth ceased to exist. Said explains: "Throughout the ages society was divided into various social classes, where the higher classes were those whose clothes were distinguished by their richness and the decoration. Gold and silver thread was used for the rich, as well as studding them with precious stones, diamonds, turquoise, and emeralds." However, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire there was a financial collapse and such luxurious ornaments were never to be found again.
But where do young people get their fashion models and definition of chic? According to the Encyclopaedia of World Art, "elegance" is a term that entered in to common use in the 14th century, but was already in use in France in the 12th century to indicate a value that is born from a choice or selection.
"I like wearing Western clothes as they are practical, and Eastern as they are artistic and aesthetic," said Amal Khaled, a law student at Ain Shams University. She added that although fashion is forced upon us by fashion houses, she believes that the best way to choose her clothes is by blending her personal taste with that of the fashion trend. "The latest from the best fashion houses as well as personal taste. The cut must fit you first," she said.
Eastern clothes, on the other hand, can also be related to religious rituals. Amir Hegazi, an engineering student at Cairo University, wears the traditional Egyptian galabiya during the Friday prayer. Marwa Salah, a government official, believes that "there are clothes for festivals and others for work." Salah, unlike Hegazi, believes that it would be a social faux-pas to wear a galabiya in outings, for people would be critical.
Said believes that it is only by going back to the national heritage that youth can get a distinctive look. "Now that there is globalisation, it is easy to get acquainted with the European and American culture via the Internet. If youth really turned to our heritage they would find beautiful things. In addition to this our factories in Egypt always copy Western models and designs. Where are our Egyptian fashion designers? For youth to choose they must have two things to choose from, but they have only one."
Reem Shahin, technical trainer at Egypt's Crafts Centre agrees, explaining that the centre, an NGO, promotes authentic patchwork and handicrafts and helps market them locally and internationally through fair trade.
El-Mekkawi nods in agreement, "Ibn Khaldoun said six centuries ago: The defeated is constantly bewitched by the victor and imitates him. Since we feel internally defeated by the West, we imitate it; hence, the imitation in clothing, appearance, accent and lifestyle in general."
But Amer believes that the Eastern identity has not been torn apart. He believes that it is the media and football players who determine what is fashionable and what is not, and that youth only imitate them. He remembers attending a conference in Sweden in 2005, during which organisers displayed a reproduction of a glove of Tutankhamen. A professor and fashion designer for the biggest fashion companies in Italy delivered a speech in which she said: "Tutankhamen is fashion."
Kefayah Ahmed, professor of fashion design and head of the Department of Clothes and Weaving at the Faculty of Domestic Economics at Helwan University, believes that, "we need a renaissance, a revival of the Egyptian heritage, whether the Oriental, Pharaonic, Coptic or Islamic. A renaissance so that our heritage can be transformed into a market-worthy product that can be popular in all countries of the world."
El-Mekkawi calls for a general mobilisation of people to conserve national fashions. He thinks every country of the world has a national fashion except Egypt. "The Sudanese citizen has a national fashion -- the galabiya and the emmah (the turban), the Gulf native has the ghotra and eqal (the head cord and scarf), and the Moroccan has the Moroccan galabiya. Our national fashion was the galabiya but it is now only worn at home."
Amer reveals the first nation to discover blue tint was the Egyptian. In addition, many colours were derived by Egyptians from oxides found in stones, especially iron oxide, from which the colours red and yellow were formed. The ancient Egyptians were advanced in planting cotton, spinning and weaving it into what is called cloudy linen, used in ladies' evening dresses. He adds that, "we lack nothing at all. It is only a question of marketing and having good connections abroad." On the academic level there are advanced designs and fresh ideas. With a little faith, much can be achieved, both domestically and internationally.
Ancient Egyptian clothing was mainly made of natural, washable fibres, especially linen. Wool on the other hand was considered unholy, so it was forbidden in temples and tombs.
Throughout the different kingdoms, Pharaohs and priests wore the kelt or shenti, which was a closely woven linen cloth worn around the waist and tied with a belt. Priests wore a linen shirt over the kelt that was similar to a skirt tied around the waist where all or part of the abdomen was bare. A transparent kelt was worn during rituals by princes and scribes, with the head of the holy serpent or lion on their belts.
According to the writings of Herodotus, in ancient Egypt common women were only allowed to wear white linen, while queens and rich women wore red and yellow. From the modern state onwards, the straps were a different colour to the dresses, sometimes with feathers, like those of the goddess Isis.
Later, towards the end of the 19th century, people in Egypt wore a special dress when they were ill and would cut a piece of this gown and nail it to what was believed to be a sacred tree or tomb to heal them. After they were cured they would wear another gown as a symbol of good health. They would also use colourful masks with terrifying features to scare away incurable diseases. Throughout the ages a robe was worn to distinguish the leader of a tribe, craft or religious sect. In Siwa Oasis a necklace in the shape of a fish was a symbol of plenty and prosperity. Trees and stars were embroidered on clothes for the same reason.
If Egypt has enough designers to keep creativity flowing, and a glance at history starts to reveal what can be used as ideas, then surely all that is lacking is the will to give Egyptian fashion a real kick-start.

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