In Western imagination, the Orient represents a geographical and cultural space that stretches from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Indian Ocean, a set of countries along the southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean that includes Maghreb, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Palestine, as well as the Middle East. This is the old Levant, which is, for us, inextricably linked with Islam but also the birthplace of our Judeo-Christian civilization.
Moorish Spain architecture, Genovese and Venetian trade, Ottoman missions, Romantic literature, wars of conquest or archeological expeditions in Palestine and Egypt have fed our vision of the Orient while colorful Kasbahs, vast deserts, narghiles, tiles and carpets have added a new repertoire of motifs and subjects to XIXth century Orientalist Art.
Furthermore, languorous Odalisques, Turkish bath and harem scenes have offered Western art the opportunity to renew the old theme of the feminine nude in an exotic fanciful oriental décor, with a slightly voyeuristic display of exuberant eroticism. The sunlight, the bright warm colors, the sense of minute detailing and decoration, make the Orient all the more seductive.
When looking back at the history of costume, one finds that Europe’s attraction for oriental dress is very ancient. Made popular by costume books, the Turquerie style (XVIth – XVIIIth Century) with its loose, flowing, embroidered gowns, turbans, luxurious textiles, with stripes or floral stylized motifs, pantaloons, fitted sleeve-less boleros, long transparent veils and bejeweled headbands, reflects the growing trade relations between East and West.
Indeed, in 1914, the Orient had kept its hypnotic powers and was still a favorite source of inspiration as French Couturier Paul Poiret, nicknamed ‘Le Pacha de Paris’, designed caftans, ‘harem pants’ and turbans trimmed with exotic feathers… without having ever traveled to the Middle East!
Geometrical motifs, gold embroidery and the layering of different pieces of clothing, both transparent and opaque, arranged to reveal all materials separately, are some of the elements borrowed from Arab, Persian and Ottoman traditions, and reinterpreted by Couturiers since the 1920’s, for a wealthy Western clientele.
However, nowadays, French and Lebanese Couturiers propose sumptuous evening gowns and daytime wear to Middle Eastern royalty, who, despite the Chinese and Eastern European markets’ growing demand for luxury goods, remain Haute Couture’s most faithful clients. Gulf princesses, for instance, with numerous weddings and parties to attend to, have a much busier social agenda than American or European jetsetters.
Western designers have assimilated the contrast between the private and public spheres that defines Middle Eastern women’s social life. While they can wear any high-end designer model at home, their public appearance must respect Islamic modesty etiquette: non-revealing garments, headpieces, long sleeves, long skirts and high necklines.
French Couturier Stephane Rolland, for instance, successfully designs elegant, ‘closed’ gowns in a contemporary, almost futuristic style, for the beautiful HRH Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned of Qatar, a prominent figure and role model for women in the Middle East, and an active fashion supporter, having created the Qatar Luxury Group in 2008 and planned Qatar’s first Fashion Week, which should take place in Doha, in November 2012.
In a different spirit, talented Lebanese designer Basil Soda adds refined oriental touches with transparent fabrics, golden embroidery and draped layers of luxurious textiles, to his discreetly sensual mermaid gowns.
Last but not least, we see the rise of Middle Eastern designers such as Omani Nawal Al Hooti, who is well known for her luminous exceptional colors and a respect for her homeland’s traditions that doesn’t exclude sophistication and glamour.