“Islamic chic,” locally produced
Western “chic,” and so-called “ethnic chic,” all of which have emerged
in parallel to imported Western fashions, which have a long tradition
in Egypt. These new trends are interpreted as part and parcel of the
processes of globalization.
Written a century ago, Georg Simmel’s work on fashion remains
one of the most inspiring works on the issue. Simmel saw that fashion
entailed a paradox, a tension between the opposing poles of uniformity
and imitation, and of the individual and the social. Fashion as imitation.
Shifting Landscapes of Fashion in Contemporary Egypt 283
The popular market of Bulaq.
Photograph: Mona Abaza.
or rather as a “charming imitation” fulfills the role of social adaptation.
But it also provides a feeling of differentiation and dissimilarity.
According to Simmel, imported fashion has high value because by
definition it comes from somewhere else and is therefore a rare good.
Some aspects of Simmel’s observations are still valid for today’s Egypt.^
The fact that imported clothes have often been clear-cut status markers
dates back to as early as the beginning of the twentieth century owing
to the large number of foreign women who “played a key role in fashion
transmission providing journals, patterns and stores” (Micklewright in
Russell 2004: 30). Travel guides written during the first two decades of
the last century, state that Cairo competed admirably in the realm of
fashion with any European capital. In other words, demonstrating one’s
social distinction through wearing Chanel, Dior, and Cardin designs
and through an obsession with ‘”griffe” (branded) items has been an
important practice for generations of upper-class Egyptian women
and continues to persist today. One important aspect of conspicuous
consumption of this sort consisted of boasting of travel to Paris, Milan
or Rome every year, if not twice a year, specifically for the purpose of
purchasing the latest fashions. This is still the practice amongst rich
Egyptians, even today.
Pierre Bourdieu discussed fashion from the perspective of the
“sociology of intellectual production.” He looked at the competing
forces in the structure of the “field of production” in Erench haute
couture. For Bourdieu the dominant actors are the ones who have the
power to constitute the so-called scarce and rare objects by means of
the “griffe” (1980: 197-8). He analyzed their strategies of conservation
284 Mona Abaza
as well as the strategies of subversion, by which newcomers respond
to these. Bourdieu reminds us that what is at stake are the dialectics
of pretentiousness and social distinction that generate transformations
in both the fields of production and consumption. Bourdieu’s analysis
is very applicable to Egypt, with its ascending competing agents, who
aspire to promote differing and counter-current trends in fashion.
What is striking about the current fashion scene in Egypt is the
extraordinary variety of different fashions that coexist in the same
streets, especially among the youth. Some would interpret this as a
dissonance of tastes; others might see it as a case of “anything goes.”
Some women look fashionable and sexy, wearing bright colors, tight
jeans, lipstick, makeup, and tight or short skirts.