What to wear (and what not to wear) in Siwa

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Arabic saying “Al Aleb Ghaleb”
translation: the inside is the winner (you are more beautiful than your dress)

I was going to write a detailed post about what has worked or not worked for me in trying to dress modestly in Siwa, but instead decided to share with you some examples of fashion from the Middle East that gives me inspiration in drawing from the clothes I brought from Australia.

Most of my clothes are cotton, silk or linen, essential due to the climate and my being a sweaty person. I usually need to wear several layers to be properly covered, not showing too much bare skin or transparency; singlet tops or t-shirts must be under a long sleeved shirt or draped cardigan, and long pants are worn under skirts or dresses that are shorter than ankle length (and even under the ankle length skirts and dresses, if I am going to be climbing into donkey carts).

I used to tell my Fashion students in Australia that my idea of perfect design was clothing as comfortable to work and play in all day as silk or cotton pajamas, but more elegant and beautiful, so you could wear it outside the house. In Siwa, this is more than ever my ideal for clothes. Some of the designers I am finding in the Middle East are achieving this, and producing clothes I would be pleased to wear not just in Siwa, but in the big cities of Egypt where many women and men are keen fashion followers. The slideshow above includes some current favourites, some of them I hope to interview and do articles on soon. There are also designers who embrace modest dress for women with a strong sense of style in Australia, such as Baraka, and in the UK my favourite is Dina Toki-O, see their www and Facebook pages for examples.

I am sure some of my layered combinations look outlandish to the Siwans, but I am trying to stay modest as their customs dictate but still be comfortable. Most days I look better than I did when I came as a tourist, when I was more limited by packing space and weight and before I knew which styles would really work here.

So far I only wear a headscarf if walking through more conservative areas, or sometimes to protect my hair from the constant sand dust on longer walks. T. likes to see me wearing one, perhaps because he is so used to his sisters and other women around him wearing hijab. He has never suggested I should wear hijab, just tells me that when I wear the scarf it is “very beautiful”. Then again, he also likes to see me in Western clothes; a black velvet, just above knee length, sleeveless dress with a low neckline is a favourite of his, but only at home of course, and not if we are having visitors.

Some of the tourists dress appropriately and look good, but most look like hippies or are so inappropriate, exposing what now to me looks like acres of flesh, and often not very attractive flesh. Last night I saw a classic – a woman in skin-tight white jeans and a transparent white singlet top so clinging I could clearly see her navel and every ripple of stomach. She looked like a white sausage made by a very inexperienced butcher who had not managed to smooth the filling evenly into its skin.

Another recent horror was a Russian woman (the worst offenders generally) wandering through the Friday market, which is 99.5 per cent Siwan men crowded together in a small street. This woman was wearing cut-off jeans and a bright racer-back singlet, showing off bra straps, running shoes, heavy makeup and jewellery, Botoxed lips and an overdone tan. I actually approached her, the first time I have done this with a tourist, and suggested she cover up a bit in Siwa. I was embarrassed for her, but she seemed oblivious to the looks she was getting.

Bikinis show up sometimes at Cleopatra Spring, which is more isolated from the crowds of the centre and has only a handful of locals swimming there, and of course the men who are there gather round to stare, not always admiringly. These dress choices give non Egyptian women a bad reputation, and make it difficult for those of us who live here to overcome the stereotypes most Egyptian men have of us.

The tourist men can be almost as lacking in dress sense, even though it is permissible for them to be less covered. Not only the male tourists, but also many visiting Egyptian men, including those from other cities who now work in Siwa, wear short sleeved shirts or t-shirts. Mostly these are younger men, often keen to show off toned torsos, and of course I don’t mind at all watching them wandering the streets, or swimming…so maybe I have, through changed circumstance, been converted to the double standard on male/female dress that I used to rail against.

As my research is into the dress (Fashion) of pop musicians, I have to share my current favourite here, the Lebanese singer Najwa Karam. I first heard her on one of T.’s mix tapes (or whatever you want to call the USB equivalent of the old mix tape) and I liked her voice and the rhythms, so I tracked down some of her videos. What T. didn’t tell me was that she is also gorgeous, 45, and has a wardrobe (and curves) up there with Beyonce’s. Take a look at these videos; clothes NOT suitable for wear in Siwa, but I like her style…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgDz7c250_Q and you will get a laugh from the dancing soldiers in this one

NOTE: the images in the slideshow are not my photographs, but drawn from websites – the photographers are not credited on the sites, but I have named the designers if they are identified. Some are drawn from blogs or retailers sites where the designers are not named. If I am able to find out who the designers are later, I will update.

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