To many Westerners, fashion and Middle Eastern women are difficult to reconcile. Popular wisdom likes to dictate that a woman who covers her body for her religion lacks control over her appearance. Instead, the occidental mind stumbles over stereotypical images of the standardised black burkha. How wrong such ‘wisdom’ is. And stalwarts of Western design know it. Leading couture houses, like Chanel, are responding to the increasingly immense buying power of Middle Eastern woman by focusing and investing huge amounts in the UAE market. Today in the East, fashion is more a symbol of style, power and freedom than it is in the West, and this is becoming impossible not to realise.
To hold the stereotype that Islamic women and fashion are incompatible is worse than a question of misunderstanding – it is one of ignorance. In the West, the mini skirt has become a staple garment, even in a British winter, and a lack of cleavage is more surprising than its presence. We are accustomed from a young age to expect, rather than to accept, a woman showing as much of her body as she wishes. A woman covered from head to toe in black robes perplexes us. Yet the recent expansion in the Middle Eastern market is proof that women in Abu Dhabi have as much control over what they wear as women in Leeds.
Although Muslim women may choose – and it is a choice for the vast majority – to wear a burka in public, what happens underneath the robe is a different story. The heavily criticised scene in Sex and the City: 2 in which a group of Middle Eastern women reveal ‘this spring’s catwalk’ underneath their burkas makes a valid point. In the company of other women or at special events, Muslim women wear the clothes that are found in the glossy pages of Vogue just like any Western women would. The fact that couture only comes out on such occasions valorises it more than in the West: fashion is a true luxury and statement, rather than an everyday commodity. For these occasions, the richest women buy the right to exclusively see and reserve a new collection. On a normal day, accessories, sunglasses and bags are the fashion focal point for women in the Middle East. These women take pride in their religious values, and prove that style is not about clothes, but about attitude.
Western designers’ expansion into Middle Eastern fashion markets is tailored to the women’s demands. Over the last 10 years, Chanel has created 6 new boutiques in the UAE, and both Harvey Nichols and Hermès have 3 stores each. The big designers understand that women being in control of their money is as much a tenet of the Islamic faith as wearing a burka is. It would be a marketing disaster to follow stereotypes that suggest that a woman’s sartorial decisions are controlled by her husband. If women cannot go to the stores, the internet brings the brands to them. Net-a-porter and Moda Operandi have a huge Middle Eastern reception. Not only is the desire to bring fashion to the Middle East alive in the community, but the economic power is there, too.
It is not a one-way street, either – Westerners freely borrow style from Middle Eastern designers. At the 2012 Lollapalooza festival, Florence Welch wore a full length Kaftan by Qatar-based designer Toujouri, which specialises in infusing Eastern style with Western fashion. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian was the cover star for the Middle Eastern women’s magazine, Hia, in which she wore beautiful veils and long gowns by Stéphane Rolland. Rolland’s entire SS 13 collection is made up of long dresses, which are striking in how little they reveal, making flashes of skin even more seductive. The rich fabrics and designs are replacing the black material of the traditional burka, and catching the longing eye of Western designers. Not only is the fashion of the Middle East completely different from what we experience in the West, but we can learn a lot from their different take on style.
The longer hems of the Middle East are by no means trailing behind the West in the fashion world. By contrast, Muslim women occupy a unique position with the ability to inspire the most feminist of Western women. While we might still find the custom of concealing one’s entire body daunting, by doing so, Muslim women ensure that they are not consumed by their outward appearance. Fashion is a luxury, and when women choose to spend their own money in Chanel boutiques, they do so with precision. These women love Western couture – on their own terms, and are increasingly paving the way to a fusion between Eastern and Western fashion. Such a lifestyle cannot be said to be true for all women in Islamic communities, nor does such control prevail over all aspects of life. Nevertheless, fashion is an industry that exhibits the modern Middle Eastern woman’s power, control and above all happiness with her appearance. It gives hope to those who do not yet share such freedom.