It may be an eye-opener to first-timers in the Middle East - those who envision Arab women as Hollywood’s depiction of them in burqas and abayas - to find out that all Arabs are not cut from the same cloth. Although when walking the Arab street you will see women decked from head to toe in conservative Muslim attire, you will also see female fashionistas kitted out in the latest designer gear and towering high heels. And of course, the trend differs from the Levant to the Islamic Republic of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Ladies' fashion in the Middle East is becoming more daring – just one night out on the town in a cosmopolitan city like Beirut will leave you with no doubt that these girls can dress the part (and party) just as seriously as their counterparts in the West. However, accompanying the Middle East's modern movement is a concerted campaign from those who reject Western traditions to move back to a simpler, more Islamic style. For every woman accessorizing a low-cut top with a perfect Prada purse and killer stilletto heels, there are two wearing headscarves and a third in full-blown face veil.
This relatively recent resurgence of conservative Islam, and the subsequent multitude of ladies covering up their bodies, has not always gripped the Middle East. Forty years ago, a radically different picture prettied the veiled vistas of today. If you have Arab grandparents, no doubt you have been regaled with stories of a more risque time and the Islamic backlash that followed in a 'dark age' of fashion.
Before the spread of conservative rule in countries such as Iran, the miniskirt, that Western cultural cornerstone, could be seen riding up many a leg across the Middle East. Miniskirts were bang on trend and you couldn't walk round a street corner or curve in the region without spying a pair of bare thighs. The popularity of this naughty apparel - that like hot-pants would now be anathema for the ME - was unmistakable across the Arabian Gulf to the Levant.
Why was it acceptable for Middle Eastern women to wear miniskirts in the 1960s but not now? Not simply because the now retro party-piece has been consigned to fancy-dress attire. Fashionable heels and glamourous hair dominated the urban scene that is now populated by scores of burqas. Unlike most fashion revolutions, this one was caused by politics, not pop culture.
The rise of the skirt
The colossal spread of colonialism is responsible for the Western values that seeped into every day Middle Eastern life in the 20th Century. Although secondary to cultural influences such as political systems or language, fashion and lifestyle choices were a key import that colonial powers, such as Britain and France, brought to the region whilst they controlled the Arab lands and established puppet governments. It wasn't just women that eschewed traditional garb in the face of liberal threads – in spots such as Bahrain, men began to don Western fashion imports, such as suits and bowler hats, instead of their traditional thobe.
After countries across the region shook off the colonial shackles, new Arab regimes, often procreated through military coups, took on a radical and secular nature. Egypt’s Jamal Abdul Nasser, in a manner foreshadowing Egypt’s recent developments, came to power in 1956, executing opponents of his secular style, often members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba was a secular fanatic to the point that he even banned Tunisian women from donning a hijab in state offices. In place of formalised political power, expatriates moved to the Middle East in the millions when the rest of the world was waking up to the reality of oil reserves in the region. Alongside liberal gains for women in the region from the advent of expat members of society came the ability to work and participate in classic Western pursuits such as beauty pageants.
The fall of the skirt
For every clothing item, a season...
Iran can be credited with killing the craze for the micro-skirts - and ultimately the demise of the bare-legged phenomenon. The lax, Western-looking, and somewhat misguided Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was toppled by uber-conservative Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. The Ayatollah swiftly created the Republic of Iran under Shia Islamic rule and installed himself as Supreme Leader. Engaging in confrontational politics with the West, Khomeini transformed Iran from a country that strived to imitate all aspects of Western life to one that rejected its influences and refused to compromise its Islamic identity. As a result, women were forced to don Islamic attire, including the headscarf and loose fitting clothes. The miniskirt was ousted and in its place came modesty with a vengeance. Minis were no longer fashionable but more importantly no longer tolerated or acceptable in the mainstream Muslim modes.
The Iranian revolution had a domino effect across the region. Neighbouring Sunni-dominated countries feared Shia influence and developed a conservative Sunni identity that kept up with the popularity of Iran and the Islamic principles that dictated the country. Middle Easterners became more concerned with the opinions of religious teachers as cultural guides than Western style icons, and they developed a religious conscience that hadn't existed before. The shift to a more conservative adherence to Islam was reflected in the region’s fashion that sacrificed flesh and curves for decency and dark dress.
The rise and fall of the miniskirt in the Middle East can be attributed to so much more than fickle fashion trends – so let's take a trip down memory lane to the liberal era that existed across the region before the 1979 revolution.
We visit a bygone era where bare legs and gravity-defying chic hairdos were rife and niqabis and muhajabeen stood out like sore thumbs. Here's our gallery of glamor and glitz before there were gillabs and gutras.