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Volume 28, Number 2March/April 1977

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Couture Arabesque

Written by Patricia McColl
Photographed by Reginald Gray

In Paris fashion, these days, the wind is from the East. Billowing burnooses, drifting djellabas and clinging kaftans are turning up more and more in the top French couture and ready-to-wear collections. But while there is never any doubt as to the origins of these classic Arab-world shapes, the translations are very definitely French.

The French love affair with Arab-inspired fashions is a long one, dating back at least 65 years to Paul Poiret's "1002 Nights" party in Paris in June 1911. Poiret, the most famous couturier of his time, loved the lushness and rich color mixes of fabrics from the Middle East. Inspired by these fabrics, by Islamic miniatures he had seen in London's Victoria and Albert Museum and by the exotica of the Ballet Russe"s Sheherazade—first performed in Paris in 1909—Poiret decided to launch his version of Middle Eastern fashion.

The couturier received his 300 guests sitting on a green and gold throne, magnificently attired in a fur-trimmed, gray, quilted satin kaftan and a bejeweled turban. Nearby, locked in a golden cage, was "the Sultan's favorite"—Poiret's wife Denise—dressed in a short hoop skirt and harem pantaloons. Two months later Poiret presented a couture collection starring the pantaloons.

The public was scandalized and a rival couturier commented: "No one talks of art, literature or public affairs. All conversation is concentrated on that detestable garment." Poiret, however, persisted and when, a year later, he showed another collection of pantaloon gowns—in both day and evening versions—he received orders worth one million francs in one day. What appealed to Poiret—and to his liberated customers—was the freedom of movement that the softly looped pantaloons permitted.

While in 1911 Paul Poiret found his inspiration in a highly imaginative—even fictionalized—interpretation of Arab women's dress, many of today's designers are inspired by what Arab men wear—designers such as Yves Saint Laurent.

Saint Laurent, who is as influential now as Poiret was in his day, was born in Oran, Algeria. The designer, who opened his own couture house in 1962 when he was only 23 years old, now splits his time between Paris and his house in Marrakesh, Morocco. Whether designing for his couture or his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection, he always has an Arabian touch. Some seasons, it's as subtle as soutache braid and ball-button trimmings, but for last summer, his Rive Gauche collection was almost completely built around classic kaftan shapes.

"I love the simple, traditional forms of botb Arab men's and women's dress," Saint Laurent said. "To me, nothing in fashion is more beautiful than the hooded burnoose."

For his winter ready-to-wear collection, he turned his imagination loose on Middle Eastern split-level dressing. The starting point was a man's jacket worn over a tunic shirt and trousers. As put back together by Saint Laurent, it's pure fashion fantasy.

Three years ago. Saint Laurent opened a Rive Gauche boutique in Kuwait where. Rive Gauche directrice Clara Saint noted, clients picked almost the same models as Parisian shoppers did. The kaftan dresses from last summer's collection were best-sellers because of their soft, pretty colors and the lightweight Indian cotton fabrics.

And Saint Laurent is not alone. Two years ago Christian Dior designer Marc Bohan fell under the spell of the Middle East when he spent his holidays aboard a boat on the Nile. Since then, his collections have reflected his interest in things Arabian—from jewelry, freely adapted from Egyptian art treasures, to fashion shapes.

When you have Bohan's fashion eye, inspiration can be as simple as an Egyptian boatman's shirt. "It is cut very slim, but with deep arm-holes and a wide sleeve fot ease of movement," Bohan said. He has repeated variations of the shape for coats, dresses and evening tunics in both his couture and ready-to-wear collections. He also loved the contrast between these very slim shapes and the voluminous wrappings and folds of gallabiyahs—called djellabas in North Africa—and abas.

Then there is Damascus-born Thea Porter. Formerly a British Embassy wife in Beirut, Mrs. Porter has had her own boutique in London since 1966 and in 1976 opened a Paris boutique. "I've always felt very envious of Arab women because they can hide behind their clothes," said Mrs. Porter. "It is a very protected and secure way to feel."

In her collections Thea Porter is obviously inspired by the way Arab women dress. "It's important that the end result should never be a costume," she said, although she laughingly admitted that some of her creations are nothing an Arab woman would wear. "They are my own romantic fantasies." Among those who share Thea's fantasies by wearing her clothes are a Jordanian princess and many wealthy French and British women.

Mrs. Porter feels the present interest in Arab-inspired fashion is a fad, inspired by all the talk about petrodollars. "It has led to some awful parodies—exaggerated ideas of what harem dresses are," she said. Her own business, however, totally based on Middle Eastern inspired forms and, wherever possible. Middle Eastern fabrics, prospered before the so-called oil crisis focused interest on that part of the world.

French ready-to-wear manufacturer Georges Rech, whose best-selling coat for winter is a kaftan, disagrees that the current Western interest in Arab-inspired fashion is a fad. "We are just rediscovering classic forms which can be adapted to fit perfectly into our way of life, too," he said.

Patricia McColl, formerly Paris Fashion Editor for Women's Wear Daily, is a freelance fashion writer and consultant in Paris.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the March/April 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1977 images.