The Spring/Summer cruise collections always evoke a certain kind of escapism, conjuring up images of sun-soaked sand and secluded retreats; the kinds of places you imagine the fashionable elite would wear such mid-season delights. So it is no surprise that during the collections this year a similar mood emerged, and for this season this atmosphere was conjured up by way of various details with a very Middle Eastern twist. It is clear that designers have been dreaming of the Arabia of popular literature, given the emphasis on statement gem jewellery, the dominance of the harem trouser silhouette and even the appearance of checkered detailing on pieces.
It is no secret that fashion has always had a certain fascination with going East, but this particular love affair with all things Arab goes back to the beginning of the 17th century in some areas of Europe. In 17th century France, for example, members of the court adopted oriental affectations such as the turban to symbolise power, status and rank. More recently, Egyptian style motifs appeared on evening wear during the 1920s in Western Europe, in particular thanks to Paul Poiret. The French fashion designer, who had a huge influence on the fashion of his day, showed his particular interest in ‘oriental’ details (a broad term that actually encompassed all the dress styles of Asia, from Japan through to the Arabian Peninsula) through the use of bright, patterned fabrics, more draped silhouettes and even the inclusion of turbans in many of his collections. Popular also in the collections of Poiret was the Ottoman slipper, which came heavily embellished and in richly coloured silks. Another designer who helped to establish this new aesthetic in the early 20th century was Leon Bakst, whose flamboyant costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes productions made use of the embellishment and bright fabrics that were by this point synonymous with Middle Eastern culture in the minds of Europeans.
Since this early popularity, Arab influence has remained as an undercurrent in Western fashion, with looser silhouettes in Eastern-style patterns always popular in the summer months and distinctly Arab jewellery a permanent fixture on the necks and wrists of the fashionable set. The appearance of the kufiya as a fashion accessory in the early noughties among young people in the US and Europe is yet more testament to the endurance of Middle Eastern influence in popular fashion.
And for S/S resort, many designers drew on this long history of ‘orientalism’ in fashion, with Karl Lagerfeld unsurprisingly leading the charge at Chanel. In what may have been a rather unexpected move to appeal to his Emirati clientele seated at the Chanel cruise show in Dubai in May, Lagerfeld reworked various pieces from the Arab tradition: the harem trouser, statement jewellery and the checkered pattern of the kufiya, producing pieces with a strong link to the past but that feel so right for now. There were even a few hints at the beautiful turquoise patterns typical of the tiling on traditional Islamic architecture, cleverly printed on shimmering chiffon or cropping up on necklaces and brooches. He even added his own special touch to this new Middle Eastern-inspired aesthetic, with crescent-moon headdresses reminiscent of the brand’s enduring logo, the interlocking Cs.
But the question remains of how the modern girl is to interpret this new aesthetic without crossing over into anything too gimmicky. Taking inspiration from Chanel, the best way to make this new look work in real life is to take traditional styles and hint at them in the small details. A turquoise print here, a cuffed balloon hem there, and referencing the Arab tradition changes from fancy dress to fashionable in the blink of a kohl-lined eye.