We’re still mulling the implications of the Givenchy couture runway show at the recent Paris Fashion Week, with its perhaps lucky, maybe deliberate, coincidence with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condemnation of the burqa (a specific garment that in this instance seems to stand in for any face-obscuring garment with a Muslim-y connotation) as a “walking prison.”
The blogosphere certainly recognizes the coincidence, if not quite sure what to do with it. Going for the morbid commentary, Fashionologie calls them “couture corpse brides.” At the Lux Style File, they note that, “[Givenchy's] creative director, Riccardo Tisci, definitely struck design genius and political controversy by showing two burqas in the famed houses’ [sic] line. Givenchy’s Modern Arabian Nights theme paired well with the landscape of current political events in France.” Meanwhile, the lone comment ups the ante by assigning value to the artistic efforts of the couture house (including, presumably this latest couture collection) while denying it to the sartorial practices of Muslim others. “The house of Givenchy is excellent. I agree with French President Nicholas Sarkozay to ban the burquas [sic].”
There is also confusion about the direction and meaning of influence. Style Guru finds that Givenchy’s runway suggests the “Middle East [is] catching up with Western fashion,” an odd statement considering that influence would seem to flow in the reverse. Could the colonial divide between the “(modern) West and the (premodern) Rest” be organizing this appraisal — what Johannes Fabian calls “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse”? Meanwhile, New York Magazine’s fashion blog The Cut argues that “Just because it looks like a burka doesn’t mean it was inspired by a burka,” citing the Luxist’s “Middle Eastern-inspired Fashion Pushes Buttons:”
Were designers stating they were for or against the ban? Do they endorse freedom of religious expression or were they speaking out against the oppression of women? Besotted with so many images of the controversial garment in the news recently, perhaps they were simply inspired to put a piece or two on the catwalks. Or, were they out to get press?
“When I ask designers questions like these, they always look confused,” says David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, whose job is to predict trends for fashion professionals. “They operate so much from their gut. Whatever the media focuses on, the sensitive designers pick up the vibe, whether consciously or subconsciously. Fashion is an endless drug and designers look for the new high-anything that hasn’t been seen or worked to death.”
Cutting through the obfuscating hand-waving, why should we interpret any particular designer’s confusion as borne of a lofty mind, rather than shallow waters? Why insist that the garments on the Givenchy runway are not “inspired” by the burqa (besides the fact that it is the abaya, and not the burqa, obviously referenced by these garments), just because a designer might be inarticulate or uninformed, or otherwise denies the influence? Whatever the “controversial” garment or pattern in question –harem pants, kimonos, Indonesian batik– it circulates throughout political, social and cultural discourses that precedes the designer, that the designer does not author and is not their point of origin. We would do well to recall here art critic Rosalind Krauss’s critique of the originality of the avant-garde as a modernist myth. And, with this critique in mind, what does it mean to argue that the abaya or the burqa “hasn’t been seen or worked to death” before, by whom? (And, in any case, Hussein Chalayan already did it.)
Others are sure there must be a purposeful connection, even a deliberate intervention, at work. Glam Damn It New York applauds Givenchy, in an ode to the unifying power of beauty: “Leave it up to the fashion world to take something that is so politically controversial and turn it into something chic enough to inspire people of all faiths to wear it. This seems to be a trend in Paris fashion as designers such as John Galliano and Carolina Herrera have designed abayas, similar to burqas minus the face covering, and plan to sell them in Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile, Starworks calls it a brilliant move by Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s greative director, and, referencing the French debate, opines, “Personally, I feel you shouldn’t dictate what people wear. But when Riccardo makes them look this good… Monsieur Sarkozy, will you re-consider?”
Some commentators have taken note of histories of Orientalism with regard to these collection. Streamline Moderne raises an eyebrow at some of the runway’s aesthetic details: “This new collection was shown in Paris, but the girls all had their hair dyed black, everything was reminiscent of Morocco and the Odalisques in harems which were so popular during the colonial period. The musical accompaniment consisted of musicians playing karkabou.” Meanwhile, Quizilbash ponders Givenchy’s collection in light of Sarkozy’s statements to spin out their potential for disciplining moredifference:
To be fair, a lot of people throughout the world, Muslims included, don’t particularly fancy the Burqa, or the Abaya (which is more commonly seen in France.) But what many protest is the idea that it is an impossibility for a woman to want to wear one. It smacks of the Orientalist idea of the submissive Eastern woman without a thought of her own. France is a great place because a woman or a man, can walk down the street completely covered or half-naked. Why change that by picking on one religion? If Sarko is successful how long until Sikhs can’t walk down the street in turbans, and Hasidic Jews have to shave off their beards and cut their hair?
There seems to be considerable category confusion about the burqa and the abaya — put simply, but certainly not comprehensively, are they religious garments, or garments adapted for religious purposes? (This, on top of the erroneous interchangeability of the terms for distinct garments.) In an article for Reuters about the French export of couture abayas to wealthy clientele, Sophie Hardach captures the “border trouble” of these distinctions and the uses to which such slipperiness might lend itself. Here, a designer claims the abaya is “just” a garment in order to decline comment on veiling controversies. Hardach quite deliberately juxtaposes his statements with those of a young, presumably Muslim, girl who finds it less easy to escape the political consequences.
“If someone tells me, ‘design an abaya,’ why not, I’m proud of that. It’s just a garment,” haute couture designer Stephane Rolland, who has made many abayas for Middle Eastern clients, told Reuters backstage after his fashion show in Paris.
When asked about the broader debate whether veils are a sign of subservience and should be outlawed, his confidence wavered.”I don’t want to speak about religion, that’s a different subject. But I don’t want to cover the woman — alas, I don’t want to think about that,” he said before turning away.
While French designers are wooing Saudi clients in airy showrooms, across town in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville the picture is very different.
“If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist,” said Ikram Es-Salhi, a 20-year-old student standing outside the Zeina Pret-A-Porter shop that sells mass-produced headscarves, tunics and abayas.
Finally, Karl Lagerfield breezes past all the debate with an airy bon mot: “‘It might be quite nice to wear it, you don’t need to go to the hairdresser and you can see everything without being seen, I find that quite comfortable,’ he remarked after the Chanel haute couture show last week. ‘Veils, tunics, I’m not against all that, I find it picturesque. Live and let live!’” Picturesque? Oh, Karl, you never change!