Fashion, Sahara style

It is getting hot, 30 degrees most days and the reflection of sun on sand makes it seem hotter, and I must to get used to being completely covered in the heat instead of taking layers of clothes off as I would in Australia.

Between previous visits to Egypt and Siwa I had added to my Melbourne woman’s wardrobe more clothes made from linen, cotton, hemp and silk which would cover my arms and legs, not show cleavage, and not boil me alive, because most days in summer Siwa temperature is 30 to 40 degrees, dropping to high 20s at night. If you are travelling somewhere like Egypt where modest dress is required and you are eco-conscious or sustainability minded, can’t afford designer pieces that fit those criteria, and want to avoid the mass market chain stores, I can recommend Savers in Sydney Road, Brunswick. Regular hunts through the racks there found me plenty of pre-loved pieces in great condition, each cost between $5 and $20 – $5 to $10 for a pure linen or cotton shirt, $10 for cotton pants or long skirts, and $20 for a really swish dress, suitable for an evening out in the city.

However I have found many of the clothes I thought were modest enough for Siwa are not when it comes to daily tasks. For example, if I bend to put food or drink on the floor (everyone eats at floor level here), the neckline on my dresses or shirts that was fine when standing becomes too revealing. My collection of scarves is being used fully to cover necklines, and also my hair if I am walking through the more conservative parts of the oasis. Getting into a donkey cart or tuktuk (motorcycle with cart attached), the common modes of transport, requires hitching up skirts, so it is necessary to have pants under your skirt if you think you will be doing any clambering.

I have a collection of leggings which were intended to avoid showing bare legs under long skirts, make my calf length skirts wearable and protect against ever annoying mosquitoes, but while these are fine for winter’s nights and colder days (late November to January), since late February it has been too hot to wear them. My ankle length dresses, skirts, loose long pants and long sleeved shirts are good, but only those in the lightest cotton and silk, anything heavier than t-shirt weight is too hot – and we are only in Spring. Problem with some of the very light cotton is that it is transparent, so that also makes it unsuitable to wear outside the house.

Inside dressing is easier. The windows here are triple layered – outside are wooden louver shutters and the inner shutters have two layers – mossie screen in one frame and glass on the inner frame. You can have the outer shutters and mossie screen layer closed, with the glass layer open; this lets in air and filtered light, but hides you from sight. The windows in the kitchen and bathroom are not large and at the level we are used to in those rooms, but small and placed high, so the Siwan women can work in the house and not have to worry about covering or being seen by outsiders. That is, providing you don’t have a neighboring house that is two storey, or where people use the roof to house water tank, chickens or other reasons, because then of course they can still see in through your high windows.

I have been getting around the house in just underwear, with suitable clothes at hand to scramble into when neighbors or friends come to the door – visitors are often unannounced by a phone call, they just turn up. I need to be dressed even to hang clothes on the line just outside my front door, even though it is somewhat screened by a palm leaf fence, as there are always people passing the entry and also there is a two storey house being built next door, and the workers stop work when I come outside to have a look at the strange foreign woman.

I brought some fabric off-cuts from Australian label Bird Textile with me and I am making false petticoats from these. You can buy off-cuts, the fabric which would otherwise become waste from when Bird garments are made, at Woods and Fields ethical fashion store in Sydney Road, Brunswick, Melbourne and find your own uses for their delicious prints on organic cotton. False petticoats are strips of fabric, neatly hemmed, which can be attached to the hems of shorter skirts and dresses by press studs, hook and eye or button and loop closures. As the petticoat part gets dirty before the rest of the garment, just from walking around, you detach this part and wash it, then reattach. In Australia you may simply throw the whole garment in the washing machine, but when you are hand washing everything and trying to conserve water, as I must, washing a whole long skirt every time you wear it is a huge waste of water and energy. The same false petticoat idea can be used to make shirts and t-shirts longer, if you intend wearing them over pants and want them to cover your thighs to meet modesty codes. Some of the fabric will also be used to add pockets to shirts that don’t have them, as I soon tired of getting sweaty patches from wearing, or sweaty hands from carrying small bags for my purse/phone/key/camera which go everywhere with me.

I will also make some false sleeves in natural fabrics. In the cities here you can buy false sleeves which are like leggings that reach from the wrist to just higher than your elbow, but they are in the same sweaty synthetic fabric as most leggings. They are a great idea and I carry a pair in my handbag in the cities here; there I can wear t-shirts, short sleeve shirts, and even calf length skirts, but sometimes I want to visit a mosque or more conservative area and can quickly dress appropriately just by adding the false sleeves, leggings and a scarf. Some false sleeves in cotton will mean I can wear more of my shorter sleeved shirts in Siwa.

I also swim fully clothed, and I swim most days in the cool, beautiful spring water pool known as Cleopatra Spring or Cleopatra’s Bath (Ain Guba for the locals), or one of the hot springs. Leggings and a thigh length, long sleeved t-shirt work for this, but the shirt clings and feels clammy when you are out of the water, and also looks a bit frumpy, especially when I admire the costumes worn by some Muslim visitors from Alexandria and Cairo. These resemble a black, neck to ankle cat suit, fitted with a colorful, patterned mini length skirt which often has a matching headscarf. Some day one of these will make it into my wardrobe and make me feel more stylish in the water, and more especially getting in and out of the pool.

To fit in a bit more I am watching what the Siwan women wear in their houses, usually long, loose dresses in elaborately colored or decorated fabrics. Outside they are completely covered in the traditional, blanket like covers, which are beautiful and sway when they move and definitely protect against the constant sun and sand dust, but which I am sure must be stuffy and hot. I will not be taking on one of these, because I am outside and moving around far more than the women who are housebound for much of their time.

For styling tips I am also reliant on seeing women from the cities, who are very up to date with world fashion trends, but interpret them to meet their individual ideas of modesty (or maybe their family’s accepted codes) and with a distinctive Egyptian love of color and accessorizing. Some of them look exquisite, as many of the women here are very beautiful anyway, and they really know how to highlight their beauty.

Another source of inspiration, when I feel my wardrobe is a bit of a mishmash and need some alternative ideas, are the websites of labels like Sydney based Baraka and blogs such as The Egyptian magazines I pick up on rare city visits are also helpful with fashion shoots tailored to Muslim requirements, though they also showcase music and movie stars and socialites who dress more Oscars-red-carpet-style than appropriate for Siwa, or even for everyday Egyptian, reality.

I am learning to wear headscarves, not for religious reasons but for their practicalities, and my male friends tell me I look more beautiful wearing a scarf (I have to add that the men exaggerate, they think even very plain, aging Western women like me look beautiful, simply because we look different to the majority here with our light eyes and hair). One friend told me that because his wife’s hair is covered when others see her, this makes her always exciting for him to see when she is uncovered. For me, it means not having to wash my hair twice every day to get rid of sand dust and spring water residue, and gives some sun protection. Wearing a sunhat does not work here because there is a constant breeze, it feels light but is strong enough that you can’t keep a hat on, even tied under your chin. I also have a Chinese paper parasol for walking in the sun, which gets strange looks but does at least protect my already browning face and hands.

Coming soon to this blog – more on fashion for men and women, the horrors of what tourists wear, and cosmetics / beautifying treatments, Siwa style.

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