I often think about fashion as something that is relatively superficial, something that people spend too much money on, something that deserves very little to no reflection. We try to say so much of who we are through what we look like. But the fact that it is so close to the mundaneness of every day life – we dress and undress today, tomorrow and yesterday – makes clothing tell so much about people, their stories, the trends in their lives.
The history of Palestinian fashion develops alongside the history of its people. A couple weeks ago we went to the Palestinian museum in Beirut “Dar el-Niwer” at which we saw an exhibition on the evolution of Palestinian fashion trends. “At The Seams” chronologically depicts the changes in embroidery as physical reactions to political trends and occurrences in the world. The exhibition showed how powerful it can be to study a trend in fashion, because it can reveal those in politics in a material way. History books may permit you to imagine while art physically manifests what you’ve imagined.
The Nakba, or the Catastrophe, broke the daily life of around seven hundred thousand Palestinians. The craft of creating traditional Palestinian dress became a social activity in refugee camps both inside and outside Palestine. During the 1960s, machine-made dresses increased in popularity because of the lack of resources in the terrible conditions of the camps. These left no time and no money to properly conserve a tradition that became luxury – a problem that surely persists today as locals compete with multinational industries.
The new trends of the 1970s highlight the changes in Palestinian power structures. The Palestinian Liberation Organization emerged as a more structured form of resistance and as an embodied form of nationalism. This naturally coincided with the development of Israeli settlements, as did the feeling for a revival of heritage. The PLO’s economic arm claimed that “the worker behind his machine is no less important than the combatant behind his machine gun”. It seems to be that when the role of resistance was given to the entire nation, each individual assumed a particular form of executing this. The female peasant became associated with endurance both symbolically and physically: the female was both the mother and the land, and her embroidery the preservation of a fractured identity.
And no culture is isolated from the international sphere. Palestinian fashion trends evolved as they inspired themselves from foreign clothing. For example, during the 1980s, experimental colors and motifs surged as a result of the Gulf oil boom. The use eight-point stitches instead of crosses necessitated twice the amount of thread – evidence of regional politics playing out in Palestinian dress.
The beginning of the first Intifada in 1987 also shows its traits in traditional Palestinian clothing. As the exhibition curator puts it, it was the time of the “conceptual militarization of embroidery in the Palestinian resistance” of the 70’s and 80’s. Flags were confiscated, so Palestine was embroidered onto the dress. I liked the point made that “resistance is usually associated with immediacy and urgency, while embroidery is by its nature hand-made, labored, private and slow.”
And I think that this idea is then applied to embroidery as an art in the globalizing world. What is the future of such a delicate craft in the globalized world? What is the future of a tradition as such when many Palestinians can only dream of going back? The progression shown in this exhibition was a beautiful way to understand the abstract patterns of ‘influence’. It exhibited trends in fashion and trends in politics and how closely knit these two are, if they are even two separate threads at all.