In diaspora, one can become disconnected from aspects of their culture. In my case, I am of mixed race and was raised solely by the white American side of my family. My mother made little effort to have my father’s culture be a part of the household. Many meaningful connections to being Egyptian were only later formed when I was old enough to make my own choices. This made me keenly aware of the fact that what are, or once were, the norm for Egyptians in America had become for me differences to be ashamed of or a mark of pride – sometimes both at once. For example, I henna my hands and nails quite frequently. This is distinctive and I enjoy it, even though it’s rather time consuming. However, I have had people (pre-pandemic) angrily insist I wash my hands because they were “dirty” from what is in essence makeup.
Due to global westernization and the abuse of the global south to manufacture clothes for the American and European markets, cultural distinctiveness as expressed through clothing is far more complicated but still deeply valuable to people. What was casually worn may now be found primarily in more elevated forms, and is worn on special occasions – such as weddings, funerals, significant birthdays, and religious occasions like Eid. Over a year ago now, around Eid al Fitr, it was noted on Twitter by other North Africans that Egyptians were not dressing up in ‘traditional’ clothing as other non-Egyptians were and this led me to begin work on the video series and blog: Sartorial Egypt.
Egyptian cultural fashion to my knowledge does not have the same visibility as Magrehbi or East African cultural fashions. Class, politics, and the nature of tourism in Egypt have a role to play. Egyptians do have a cultural dress, including ones beyond Arab styles often assumed by some Egyptians as the baseline or “truest” Egyptian culture. And it is not pleated white polyester and gold lamé pectoral collars. In the diaspora, identity is magnified and spotlighted. The differentiation between Egyptian and more broadly Arab dress is more evident. For migrants, there is more to lose in terms of identity, and a tendency to romanticize one’s homeland. An earring is no longer just an earring. The earring now carries decades of pride and is a form of resistance against total assimilation. In addition, this resistance can be a reaction to the discrimination many Egyptians may face in diaspora. The combination of discrimination, romanticization, and an inaccessibility of fashion items (discussed below) elevates dress to a status it may not necessarily hold in the homeland.
Due to the petty horrors of things like linear time and distance, materials and objects are more difficult to acquire. These are not necessarily “ordinary” – I imagine such a label is not applied to special regionally woven fabrics. Because of this, innovation is necessary. Innovation is not, as one might think, the enemy of tradition. Tradition happens because of innovation, as necessity drives invention. Tradition is born of a reaction to changing circumstances in a group’s history, and, like history, tradition is neither rigid nor linear. Diaspora and homeland communities in general tend to have different attitudes to cultural dress because they are in different circumstances. Items are given significance in the diaspora in response to how immediately a group feels the assimilative pressures. As well, in Egypt there are an array of social pressures that, for example, may relate to a perceived need to modernize. For clothing specifically, the galabeya and other traditional robes no longer carry the same level of esteem they once held. Yet, to hold on to aspects of their material culture, immigrants will often seek to recreate what is familiar with what they have available to them. For instance, in the realm of food one may use Calrose rice instead of proper Egyptian rice or occasionally use dehydrated molokhiya rather than freshly chopped. How can those living in the diaspora innovate in clothing to fill emotional and material gaps?
I am a home sewist. A very slow worker, as I often work by hand, I have made a galabeya, a pair of sirwal, most of a yelek (which needs resizing), and I am embroidering a bag with an old Coptic design alongside a few other mostly unfinished projects. The impetus for most of my designs is to reflect on what I know to be a part of Egyptian cultural fashion and to play with it in some way. I split up patterns and pieces to create the opportunity for contrasting colors or textures. Designing with various aesthetics in mind, I identify similar elements or techniques from other times and places and use the elements together to think about how one can alter a technique. For example, one project – currently on the back burner – is a feminine robe that takes inspiration from Lower Egyptian floral dresses and the “strawberry dress” designed by Albanian fashion designer Lirika Matoshi. I intend to combine the pattern and silhouette befitting such Egyptian dresses and the colors and motifs from Matoshi. This particular approach is also influenced by “historybounding” – a trend where people intentionally wear period or period-inspired clothing in their everyday life. Those who do the latter often try to maintain the connection to the time period by keeping the appropriate silhouette, and allowing the fabrics and other details to deviate from historical examples.
Quite a few of my other designs simply play with idioms and phrases I’m familiar with. This approach is inspired by Japanese Lolita brands, which will name and theme different dresses and sets. “If wishes were fishes” is an idea for a Shom Ennisim outfit that would have dangling belt ornaments inspired by some kitschy fish ornaments and Egyptian balloons and perfume bottles I’ve seen. While I obviously like Lolita and it’s a cute subculture, I do dislike how elitist many people who engage in the subculture (and social media fashion personalities in general) are, and this impacts how I view fashion. I’ve never been able to afford to be “fashionable” and as such don’t care much about brands. To me, fashion is first and foremost not what people wear (like Chanel) but how they create a look they like and which communicates who they are (intentionally or not). More than Lolita or Couture, I engage in Gothic and alternative styles, which are historically more friendly to do-it-yourself (DIY). I see what I like, find out why I like it in a broader sense, and marry those elements with an existing fashion motif.
I recognize that there is a decrease in the production of cultural fashions by Egyptians and that they are inaccessible in parts of the diaspora. It is not enough for Egyptians to learn that certain things exist or existed in recent memory. That would only fulfill an intellectual need, not a practical or material one. I believe that the ultimate goal for those of us who study Egyptian cultural fashion is not a detached understanding, but to learn to create these fashions, record how to do it, and to make that information accessible. Traditional Egyptian craftsmanship, including the production of fabric and clothing, has historically been taught orally. We do not have, to my knowledge, things like Geometria y Traça by Diego de Freyle – a 400 year old Spanish manuscript that contains patterns and clothing instructions. Writing has become advantageous to information transmission, and in this state of economic affairs, it might be best for the longevity of traditional craftsmanship. It certainly would allow more Egyptians to learn these crafts, especially in conjunction with in person teaching, even if the latter is more generalized.
The diaspora separates us in many ways. This is often painful. However we are all still connected by our culture. This connection can be strengthened, and fashion is one of many avenues to do so. It is also one of the most accessible, because the diaspora at times offers unique ways to engage and play with fashion and art, as, for example, Ahmed Serour has in his collection NonEGYboi. Cultural blending has a role to play in this process, as does the innovation of tradition and the meeting of different social norms. Although in diaspora cultural fashions are different, this is not necessarily new since Egyptian cultural fashions have always been differentiated regionally and across time. Ultimately, it will still be Egyptian in origin or inspiration. Being in the diaspora does not take away one’s ethnic identity. It changes one’s relationship to their multiple identities. At times this can take the form of disassociation, while at other times a resistance to assimilation or a cultural blending. Ultimately, distance from the homeland has no power on its own but the many meanings we choose to derive from our place as part of diasporic communities do.
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Idris Arazi is a freelance researcher and home sewist. They do script writing and voice acting in their free time and hope to start training in metal working.