From Trendsetters to Traditionalists: Evolution of Women's Fashion in Egypt

(Photo courtesy of Richard Avedon )

Beyond a utilitarian function of warmth and protection, clothes are highly politicized, as they enfold us in socially constructed meanings.

Consent among several people reveals that in Egypt, women have become more conservative in the way they dress in recent years, compared to the utter liberty they experienced during the 1950s.

Based on several photographs of vintage advertisements, during the 1950s, women's clothes were best-described as “feminine.” The majority of Egyptian women wore ankle or knee length dresses or skirts, which were usually puffed out. Dresses with flowing skirts in bright colorful fabrics were ever-present. Other dresses that were not flowing were tight, in order to complement a woman’s hourglass figure, which was a scale for measuring beauty at the time.

Now, the majority of women in Egypt wear the veil and other urban women who may be less conservative, still would not dare to wear outfits that may be deemed as “revealing” such as knee-length skirts or even sleeveless shirts.

This phenomenon burdened many people in the fashion industry to design or wear things that seem more culturally acceptable, rather than being trendsetters and following their creative intuition in the way they want to dress others or get dressed.

Amal Mohsen, a former Egyptian fashion designer, stopped working in 1990 due to the fact that her clients began asking her to design gowns that were “ruined” due to the cultural mentality that women conform to now.

“My goal when I first became a fashion designer was to bring back the golden ages' fashion again, little did I know that gradually all my clients would either wear the veil or tell me that my dresses are too inappropriate to wear in Cairo,” Mohsen said frustratingly.

Mohsen also explained that women’s attires illustrated self-empowerment, independence, and freedom, even if that was not what was happening politically in Egypt at the time.

“What people don’t know is that we are the ones who set trends during the 1950s and 1960s, meaning that Paris and London used to follow our fashion trends, not vice versa,” Mohsen said proudly, “It saddens me that an Egyptian woman is now only comfortable wearing long sleeves and pants, rather than embracing her femininity.”

Accordingly, Hakem Al-Rustom, an anthropology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), explained that the public sphere makes women more prone to harassment, so women tend to wear more conservative clothes as a shield, rather than wearing fashionable clothes.

“People need to understand that most women are not covered in veil because they’re more conservative, it's just part of the way they can go in the public sphere and be able to walk in their neighborhoods,” said Al-Rustom.

Additionally, Mohsen explained that the first thing that triggered her decision to stop working is when she saw many of her clients wearing long sleeve shirts underneath her dresses.

“I’m not opposing any religious views,” Mohsen said, “But the thing is women here [in Egypt] tend to be more conservative in the way they dress in order to conform to the society or to avoid being sexually harassed, not for practicing their religious views.”

Even though the country's elite are starting to embrace “Hollywood’s fashion”, most of the women in Egypt tend to wear the veil, or conservative clothes in general, to guard themselves from the harassment they experience in the streets of Egypt.

Egyptian women have changed from being trendsetters in the golden ages of the 1950s to being traditionalists in the way they dress. Here, the question arises: are the majority of women not into fashion, or are they conforming to a cultural way of clothing?

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