The Shifting Cultural Role of Clothes

What we wear speaks volumes about our identities. But the history of fashion reveals that various traditions in attire are not necessarily cut from different cloth

The Shifting Cultural Role of Clothes
Women taking a selfie in Alexandria, Egypt / Getty Images

A family discussion about what constitutes traditional Belgian and Egyptian clothing, sparked by the curiosity of our Belgian-Egyptian son, got me thinking about the relationship between fashion and identity.

Iskander suggested that Egyptians and other Arabs were lucky because they still retain their own distinctive traditional dress, whereas Belgians had moved away from theirs. However, in reality, Arabs are not so different from Europeans.

Every society has its traditional clothing, and almost every society has moved radically away from these traditions in recent times, though some have moved much further away than others. This has not only resulted in the unfortunate death of numerous unique local fashions, but it has also enabled greater fluidity and change. Nowadays, different societies around the world are distinguished less by different clothes than by subtle local differences in the styles, cuts, colors, tones and combinations they wear, not to mention hairstyles and gaits. For example, it is often possible to tell an Egyptian apart from, say, a Lebanese, not by any distinct national costume but by the difference in the tailoring of their clothes and their hairdos.

This shift is not new — except in its global scale and speed. Despite what traditionalists would have us believe, fashions invariably change with time, if not always with the seasons, and what is viewed as traditional today was once new and was likely regarded by the conservatives of the time as radical and unauthentic. While traditional dress can liberate people from the hegemony of cultural imperialism, this quest for authenticity can, paradoxically, lead to inauthenticity and exert a stifling influence, holding back the change and innovation that is an intimate component of peoples’ relationship to clothes.

Clothes play a significant cultural role in creating a sense of belonging, unity and collective identity. This can be seen in everything from official group identifiers like team jerseys, school uniforms and military fatigues to the unofficial “uniforms” worn by people belonging to certain groups and subcultures, including gang members, skaters, business people and other professionals.

Only a small fraction of my wardrobe is made up of traditional Egyptian items, most of which I do not wear regularly. This is partly because too much time has passed since I may have worn them — I would feel like a tourist going “native.” I own a couple of galabiyas (Egyptian gowns), a pointy-hooded djellaba (Morocco’s equivalent to the galabiya) and an ebaya (a cloak). I seldom wore the ebaya, which has become foreign even to the modern-day Egyptian. Occasionally I wear galabiyas around the house for their comfort, but I rarely put one on to go outdoors. One particular favorite is my black djellaba, which I bought many years ago in Marrakesh; I like its warm softness, even if it does make me resemble the Grim Reaper or some kind of wizard. Generally, I prefer to accessorize my clothes with traditional elements, such as hats, scarves and embroidered shirts, not just from Egypt and the Middle East but also from Asia, Africa and Europe.

My preference to dress eclectically is not unusual. Traditional wardrobes have become “exotic” and even “foreign,” on the whole, to the average Egyptian. Although traditional clothes remain more prevalent in Egypt and much of the Arab world than in Europe, perceptions about modernity guide the dominant dress code, particularly for urban populations. In fact for millions of urban Arabs, dressing in traditional clothes is akin to a German strutting around in lederhosen or a dirndl (traditional dress) at the Oktoberfest.

Even in the Egyptian countryside and among the migrating rural poor, the last stronghold of traditional dress, the prevalence of these fashions is waning year after year. Although galabiyas and other traditional outfits remain a fairly integral feature of the countryside’s mode of life, far fewer people wear traditional clothes today than they did a couple of generations ago.

The tendency among some Americans or Europeans to describe Egyptians (or Arabs or Asians) dressed in contemporary styles as wearing “Western clothes” is bewildering. It implies that jeans, trousers, T-shirts, suits or dresses are somehow foreign to us and alien to our culture. Yet millions of Egyptians and Arabs, despite huge variances between countries, have grown up wearing this form of clothing, as did our parents and, for some, so did their grandparents, or they alternated between styles, as one of my grandfathers did. These items may once have been imported, but now they are as Egyptian as the galabiya. Besides, the styles that were in fashion in, say, 1920s America would seem foreign to today’s American.

This raises an important question about how Western “Western clothes” truly are. Just as the food we eat is a hodgepodge of mostly foreign ingredients and influences (as I discussed in my previous essay for New Lines), the garments we don are a patchwork of styles and fashions imported from various places and periods, the links to which are sometimes clear and obvious, other times more distant and remote.

In an era in which European and American fashions have conquered the globe, it’s hard to imagine that it was ever any other way, and many styles we associate with the West today are, in fact, restyled hand-me-downs from other societies and cultures. However, when you unravel the history of Western clothes, the thread you follow will often lead eastward. You could even say that, historically, it was Easterners who wore the trousers in this relationship.

Although trousers have existed since ancient times as practical wear for horseback warriors, in the 17th century, the modern bifurcated trousers or pantaloons (from which we derive the modern word “pants”) were borrowed and adapted from the Turkish şalvar (itself borrowed from the Persian wardrobe) at a time when there was a craze for Ottoman fashions in Europe.

Other Ottoman items of clothing that crossed the porous fashion frontiers separating these ostensibly warring empires and nations included the sleeved and fitted coat and jacket, the dress shirt worn as an overgarment rather than underwear and even the now-humble button. “Historically, there has been a tendency for fashion to be borrowed from centers of perceived power, even when the source is an adversary,” wrote the American scholar and fashion historian Charlotte Jirousek in “Ottoman Costumes: From Textile to Identity.” “Similarly, the dress of the seemingly invincible Turk made a great impression on those who faced them in the marketplace and on the battlefield, particularly from the 14th to the 17th centuries.” The growing sense among Protestants that the Turks could be allies against the hated papacy was undoubtedly another factor.

This “great impression” can be seen, for example, in the portraits of King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I in which they are dressed in clothes obviously influenced by Ottoman fashions. One example is the portrait of Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in which the British monarch is dressed in fashion strikingly similar to that of Süleyman the Magnificent, including a short, loose coat which exposed an ornate undersleeve, not to mention the newly imported button and loop. His daughter’s so-called Rainbow Portrait features Elizabeth I dressed in silks and jewels that are recognizably Ottoman and Oriental in style. It is possible the queen may have dipped into the ensemble of Turkish clothing sent her by Sultan Murad III around 1581.

The prototype of the modern suit, both as an outfit and its component parts, has been traced back by Jirousek and some other historians to the Ottomans, namely to the uniforms of the Janissary, the Sultan’s elite troops, and their marching bands, a musical innovation that spread across Europe. Then in the mid-19th century, when the Ottoman Empire began a top-down modernization drive to reverse perceptions that it was the “sick man of Europe,” it imported not only European technologies but also fashions, including the European suit, which local conservatives saw as alien despite the subtle thread tying it to Ottoman sartorial traditions.

Hard as it may be to picture today with the popular Western image of Muslim women as downtrodden and oppressed, some European and American women, especially early feminists, adopted Turkish women’s fashions as a form of emancipation. At a time when Western women were not allowed to own property, the early suffragettes looked to the economic and legal rights of Turkish women, for whom property ownership was possible, as an example to emulate. (That Muslim women were also subordinate to men and generally had less access to the public sphere than European women was overlooked.) Many of these same suffragettes adopted Ottoman styles including the famous 19th-century “bloomers,” also known as the Turkish dress, that consisted of a short skirt and trousers, which shocked polite society by revealing the shape of women’s legs. Bloomers were so far more practical than the elaborate women’s fashions of the time that many suffragettes called them “freedom dresses.”

Occasionally, politics and conflict can lead to a revival of traditional dress, as can be seen with some Palestinian attire. Once upon a time, the now-emblematic keffiyeh was worn only by farmers to protect their heads from the harsh Middle Eastern sun. The keffiyeh then began its journey as the checkered banner of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab revolt against British rule in the 1930s. Decades later, Yasser Arafat raised the status of this humble scarf and made it a worldwide symbol of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance. Contemporary urban Palestinians now wear the keffiyeh in a completely different fashion, draped around the shoulders and neck. It has also become a unisex headdress (or shoulder dress) among secular Palestinians.

The thobe is another item of Palestinian clothing that has seen a renaissance. A thobe is a colorful, traditional dress adorned with embroidered geometric patterns stitched by the women who wear it. Traditionally, these patterns told stories about which town or village the woman was from. However, after the Nakba, women embroidered patterns that reflected the collective Palestinian experience of displacement.

Despite these patchy revivals, even the most conservative in society have succumbed to modern attire – at least when it comes to men, with their womenfolk left in public, though not at home, to carry the heavy, suffocating burden of regressive traditions. Just as the narrow-minded believe that a family’s honor is dependent on what women do, they are also convinced that conservative female attire is the only thing holding together the close-knit fabric of society and any freedom granted to women to dress as they please would tear the community apart and invite down the unadorned wrath of God.

I find it a form of bare-faced hypocrisy and naked misogyny how certain conservative Muslim men can dress in modern, even suggestive, outfits while expecting and forcing the women in their lives to cover up in “traditional” garments. This trend is epitomized, in my eyes, by the hipster Salafist trend. From the neck up, he has the beard associated with his creed, but he is so well-groomed that the casual observer may be unsure whether the facial hair is religious or simply a 21st-century cultural affectation. From the neck down, he is dressed in what he regards as a trendy outfit designed to showcase his body.

The hipster look is contradicted by the woman beside him. As if to say that men and women are cut from different cloth and to accentuate the chasm between male privilege and female under-privilege, the fabric saved from his skin-tight wardrobe has found a home in his wife/sister/mother’s outfit. In contrast, the shadowy figure by his side is wearing a black garment so roomy that it could house a small family, concealing not only her womanhood but also her humanity.

Yet even under these circumstances, some innovation in conservative women’s fashion is visible, for example in the plethora of styles and colors of modern hijabs. There are also women who have embraced and propelled a conservative revival by reintroducing or reinventing traditional dress. Some women have restyled and reappropriated the hijab to make it an accessory of modern female liberation by using it as their ticket into the public and professional domain in conservative, male-dominated societies.

The revival of traditional dress rarely involves an exact replication of styles from a bygone era. Even where authenticity is the goal, traditional styles evolve according to current circumstances and are filtered through interpretations of the past, which may be skewed or biased. This can result in people dressing in ways that would have looked outlandish to their ancestors. In Egypt, for example, this is embodied in the ihadist chic prevalent among a certain cohort of Salafists who wear a short galabiya over loose-fitting trousers. This shalwar kameez fashion is not Egyptian but was brought back by returning Arab mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.

A similar historical confusion afflicts women’s attire. In Islam, the scriptural evidence that women are required to wear the hijab is weak or confusing. In numerous societies which adopted Islam, women did not (initially) cover their hair or veil their faces, including the Turkic peoples and Indonesians. Moreover, in many places, such as in Egypt, historical practices were the inverse of contemporary “traditions”: It was wealthy women who covered up when and if they went out in public, while women of more modest means dressed more practically and permissively.

In fact, historically, class was as much a determining factor of what people wore as gender. And the attribution of gender to particular items has changed over time. Consider the case of high heels. Centuries ago, high heels were the exclusive footwear of warriors and kings and initially served a practical purpose. High heels were used in the Middle East to help secure archers and other horseback fighters in their saddles. In the late 16th and 17th century, when a vogue for Persian fashions swept across Europe due to the popularity of Shah Abbas I, upper-class European men enthusiastically embraced high-heeled shoes to literally lift their status, raising them inches above the common folk.

The same goes for other mostly gendered items like cosmetics, jewelry, perfume and rich fabrics like silk. Go west or go east, if you travel back in time, it was not your gender that determined whether you dressed in finery but your class.

If it is “unnatural” for men to adorn themselves, as conservatives often claim, our ancestors did not agree, as can be seen in the royal courts of Europe during the early modern era when men’s plumage was as fine or finer than women’s. In centuries past in many Muslim societies, it was men who provided the color in public spaces, strutting around like peacocks in their finest clothes, while the women, stripped of their finery, resembled peahens.

Even those who believe they are driven by tradition may be unaware that contemporary perceptions, concerns and prejudices distort their view of history. Rather than seeing history as a complex and diverse tapestry, they may attempt to tailor it to fit their own ends, cutting away or patching over the fragments that do not chime with their vision. The quest for authenticity too often masks a historical trauma, disaffection with the present or fear about the future. In contrast, as history shows us, a confident, self-assured society may seek lessons from history but has no trouble in shedding the adornments of the past, innovating in the present and borrowing from the rest of the world to create a new and unique future befitting of the time.

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