Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Big And It's Bland/ Full of Tension and Fear/They Do It Over There/But We Don't Do It Here*

Photo credits: Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo, Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times, Giulio di Mauro/EPA, Karl Prouse/Chris Moore for The New York Times, Benoit Tessier/REUTERS, Remy de la Mauviniere/AP

I am not a fashion guy. I pretty much wear the same pair of jeans/shoes over and over until they fall apart and then buy another pair. I like getting cleaned up every now and then and putting on a suit... but I don't really have a "wearing a suit" kind of life. (And lets face it, a well-made suit kind of does all the work for you, doesn't it?) So I suppose, despite living in New York and seeing models wobble down the street on their determined stick-legs on a pretty regular basis, I never think about fashion.

So when I came across an article about the influence of traditional Middle Eastern clothing on current men's fashion in the online version of the New York Times Style magazine T, during research for something else, I skated right past it. But then, out of some weird habit I checked the comment thread and became fascinated by the responses so I went back to read the article, and I thought perhaps it deserved a once-over in this space.

From Paris | Designers Look East

by Stefano Tonchi

"We live in a time where images of the Middle East are everywhere and nowhere.

All around America, every morning when we pick up the newspaper and each time we turn on the television, we see faces of the Middle East, women and men dressed in a mix of Western and traditional clothes; then we hear the reports from Baghdad and Kabul.

We cannot, for a minute, forget the identity of these peoples and cultures, but, at the same time, we are removed from their experiences. In Europe, the cultural impact of Middle Eastern peoples on everyday life is much more integrated, more visible and deep. Because of the continent’s history of colonialism — from the Ottoman empire through the expansion of French and British rule — Europe lives with the memory of political and financial domination, which also includes a few ironic reversals of fortune: some of the most exclusive addresses and institutions in Paris and London are now largely owned by people of Middle Eastern backgrounds who once lived under colonial rule.

In France, the speed of integration has been a political football for President Sarkozy, who has more than once called out the police to monitor head scarves in public schools. More positively, the actor Tahar Rahim was the main character in the French movie that won at Cannes, and the artist Adel Abdessemed had the best spot in François Pinault’s collection shown during the Venice Biennale. Indeed, Arab surnames are now part of mainstream French culture, and not just among inhabitants of far-off suburbs.

So it is no surprise, then, that French designers often look to the Middle East as they recently did in Paris. I am not saying that they do it consciously — I never think of fashion designers as sociologists or philosophers — still they have more sensitive antennae than most and, somehow, they are able to catch, usually subconsciously, the spirit of the times.

Some of these references were already present in Milan in Donatella Versace’s collection and in a general trend for washed linen and light cottons in multiple layers worn over floppy pants. The look relied more on Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” and Tyrone Power in “Beau Geste” than on any contemporary street fashion. Paris was different. How Middle Eastern immigrants dress on the street made it to the runways.

Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy did it better then anybody else, leaving behind nostalgia and vintage references and looking straight into the eyes of modern immigrant youth culture mixing Western pop references — he was working on the costumes for the Michael Jackson “This Is It” tour — with graphic black-and-white keffiyeh-esque prints, baseball hats, long-tailed shirts and sweats with punk tartan for a raw but sophisticated, Arabesque grunge look. Tisci is the youngest of the established designers in Paris, and he showed that he still has his fingers on the pulse of what happens outside the doors of the Avenue Montaigne atelier.

In his own collection, John Galliano traveled to the shores of North Africa but more in time than in space. Galliano always keeps moving but never leaves his own comfortable personal history. So, this time, the Galliano man was a French soldier, a Napoleon Bonaparte, visiting Egypt and sending home beautiful memories.

In the same day, Kris Van Assche raided the North African wardrobe too and borrowed the djellabas, the long shirts and the roomy pants for alight-headed pastiche of voile and mussoline, losing along the way that strong masculinity that makes the Middle Eastern look so intense and opposite to our Western, almost unisex fashion.

Stefano Pilati at YSL and Rick Owens had their own deeply personal take on the trend. Rick Owens is not new to layering long T-shirts, shirts and jackets over pants of different lengths. His men always look like fashion soldiers, draped in mad, greige jerseys over heavy military boots. Pilati’s take is part of his ongoing research into redefining the canons of contemporary men’s wear outside the French tradition. Starting with the fabrics and following with his reshaping of the jacket, short and lean, and the pants, wide and high-waisted, he layered each garment on top of each other to create a metropolitan time traveler much in synch with the mood of the season.

Behind the surface of men’s fashion something is changing and, as different ethnicities melt into every neighborhood, so wardrobe elements from different cultures mix into our way of dressing. It is not only in President Obama’s Cairo speech that the change is showing but also in our attitudes and our clothes."

And then, below the main piece:

"Update | July 10, 1:09 p.m. The post has been edited to correct inaccuracies pointed out by several readers. The original article misidentified several cities and countries as Arab."

While it seems that Tonchi had good intentions he went ahead and perpetuated several of the same myths about the Middle East and its peoples that conservatives do, which goes to show how pervasive they are. In his zeal to make the point that Middle Eastern images penetrate western culture, despite its antipathy toward the region and its peoples, Tonchi flattened various cultural, ethnic and religious differences into an undifferentiated mass. As several comments pointed out, his mistakes would have been easily corrected, but the fact that they went unquestioned --not only by Tonchi, but his editors-- shows the ubiquity of orientalist and Islamophobic thinking, even among liberals.

The first comment on the thread, by a poster named Mary-Laure called Tonchi out on his various mistakes, writing:

"It’s really sad to see that despite the coverage that the Muslim world gets, such a publication as yours gets basic facts plain wrong.

The Afghan people are NOT Arabs.
The Ottoman Empire / Turkey is CERTAINLY NOT Arab.
Again: all Muslims are NOT Arabs. The country with the most Muslims for instance is Indonesia - not Arabs.
(Incidentally, some Arabs are not Muslim: Maronites in Lebanon, Coptic Christians in Egypt etc)
Arabs are mainly found in the Middle East (bar Iranians) and in Northern Africa (bar Berber groups).

Please get such basic, basic facts right. You’re showing much disregard for accuracy and disrespect for people beyond our borders."

These sentiments were cosigned by several others, prompting the update and re-edit.

Zaaviyah wrote,
"I hope the author realizes that he has bunched a whole variety of people into “Arabs”. Are you somehow suggesting that Kabul is in the Middle East?"

NK wrote,
"Does NYTimes employ 'Accuracy Editors'?
Or, is there deliberate attempt to portray 'others' in a certain way? 'All the people to fit our agenda' ?"

Sarah wrote,
"How inaccurate…it is Pakistani style that has flooded the streets in the last few years…Paki and Afghan baggy trousers and long shirts..not Arab…and yes Afghans are not Arabs and neither are Pakistani’s and none of this is new, it’s been around for 2 years at least…but nobody noticed..because officially we must hate everything about them….Men covering their faces is Tuareg, Berber and Afghan…none of that is Arab..Muslim yes Arab no…where did this reporter get their job? Friend of the family? No wonder people are so ignorant of other cultures…guess where they get it from..and then they say that reading is good for you."

(..And I thought to myself, "Interesting point, Sarah, but isn't "Paki" a slur? Sigh.)

Sherif in New York wrote,
"Wait a minute, did you just say that Kabul is an Arab city?

Uhm, are you serious? Is this some kind of ignorant joke?

Can you people get anything right?

Kabul is in Afghanistan. There are many ethnicities in Afghanistan, unarguably, none of them are Arab.

Arabs live in the Arab World. 22 countries where the main language is, you guessed it, Arabic.

Please, please, for once, just do your jobs. Write facts, don’t make up stuff. Please, why is it so hard? If I don’t do my job right, I get fired, you don’t do your job right, you get published in the Times. Weird!"

Joe (not me) wrote,
"The notion that all Muslims are Arabs would be an amusing statement if it wasn’t in the New York Times. Did Sarah Palin do the editing for this article? I understand that this is just the style section but even an elementary understanding of geography and access to wikipedia should have prevented this error."

A poster named Ge-Jian put the fashion trend Tonchi was focusing on into a political context, writing,
"How ironic. Burqa is virtually banned in France by the president, but the Parisian designers exoticize Arab clothes including the headscarf…"

Of course, since the Middle East and its peoples were the topic there were inevitable slurs as well.

Michael wrote,
"Another manifestation of the 'Stockholm Syndrome.'"

... Which shows that he does not understand what "Stockholm Syndrome" means... unless Michael imagines himself the helpless captive of expensively dressed Arabs (perhaps in his fantasies?).

Julie A. wrote:
"'… the most exclusive neighborhoods and institutions in Paris and London are now largely Arab-owned.'

This is the frightening thought I took away from this otherwise inconsequential article.

Look out America — we’re next!"

Julie's horror at having to purchase her expensive luxury goods from Arab shopkeepers is too sad to be offensive (at least to me). Although embedded in this silly woman's "fear" is an echo of the orientalist terror of conquest/contagion from the East, so it shouldn't be overlooked or excused because it appears on a fashion page. A similar example of venerable Islamophobic sentiment is on display in a comment left by Tom Jones, who wrote,

"Baloney. Why dress like a slave to some backward 7th-century thinking?"

Luckily, these sentiments did not go entirely unchallenged. Liz Easely commented:

"#10 Julie A - you’re racist. As for the article, Poster #1 is dead on - please Mr. Tonchi - stick to fashion and fabrics, not history and ethnography - you really do not know what you are doing. I understand the spirit of you observation/argument, but it rests on wrong data."

Some posters focused on the clothes themselves and not on the misguided (and arguably unintentional) misstatements within the article itself.

Lorraine wrote,
"living in Israel (and being a stylist..) i see some beautifully dressed muslim (sic) young women dressed in modest by very beautiful clothes. They are covered - only their faces and hands are shown but beautiful clothes. I am most impressed… what these girls where on the street are better than the “fashionable boring” clothes in the article! Look to the streets designers and get a view of real people!"

RCH wrote,
"I expect the Pushto pants and Qamees or shirt to fly off the shelves as obese, wealthy westerners discover they can conceal their guts with style and sass! The colors, on the other hand, look like the stuff worn by the big-bottomed ladies in Pushtun musicals…or the 'Peach Boys'."

Arab_Guy wrote,
"Those 'designs' are more of an insult to Arab culture than anything else. Not even Arab hobos dress that way."

And Megan brought the two lines of though together, writing,
"Since when do all Arab men dress like Alladin?"

... Exactly. Once, during my Masters a classmate suggested, since our class was so diverse, that we all come to class in our "native dress." I pulled at my t-shirt and glanced down at my sneakers and said, "This is my native dress, I was born in Delaware."

* While you are contemplating the above please enjoy David Bowie's Fashion.


  1. Very interesting, and sadly, very common! The problem is that most people in the West see Muslim countries as monolithic. I guess this wouldnt be too bad if any of these people also had a good hold on the society and peoples of any one Muslim country, but they dont.

    This is how people can get away so easily with talking about "all Muslims" or "all Arabs" because they just dont have a clue. As if a Muslim in Yemen will think or act in the way that a Muslim in Indonesia will.

    It is hard to encompass it all in just comments as well. Someone mentioned in the comments about Iranians being non Arabs in the Middle East...they could have mentioned Kurds (A name Westerners will be getting to know better soon due to land issues in Iraq) also Circassians, with significant populations in the Middle East, especially in the Levant, not to mention other non Arab minorities in the Middle East (Armenians anyone?).

  2. what an excellent read. I was also appalled by that offensive, ignorant article... I'm glad many of those commentators called out on the author's ignorant bullshit.

  3. Abu Sinan, DIMA:
    I posted this because I was surprised--not by the lack of knowledge Tonchi displayed in writing the article, but by the articulate objections people raised in the comments. I guess I had a preconceived notion that people interested in fashion wouldn't also have a good grasp of global politics, but that obviously isn't true. I really should have known better than to make such an assumption in the first place... The responses to this fashion article are better than a lot of what I see on political blogs re: the Middle East.