Retro Middle East: The rise and fall of the miniskirt

Published August 18th, 2013 - 15:29 GMT

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Afghanistan airlines
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Image 1 of 12: Afghanistan- Before the rise and fall of the Russians, the Afghans had their own airline complete with stewardesses rockin’ high heels and bare calves. Kandahar International Airport was hopping and the local ladies were hardly distinguishable from foreign floozies.

Amman fashion show
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Image 1 of 12: Amman - The late King Hussein appreciated that age-old beauty found only in feminine form. His Hashemite Kingdom held this beauty pageant in 1963 at the Philadelphia Hotel that boasted ladies showing their hair, shoulders and a whole lotta leg. Imagine your ‘teta’ once owning the catwalk in a spring skirt and a sassy swagger!

Iraq fashion of the 70s
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Image 1 of 12: Iraq- No one-piece bodysuits for these ballin’ females! Apparently women could both play basketball and wear short shorts in Baghdad in the 1970s. If this happened in 2013 these innocent hoopsters would be charged with salaciousness and licentiousness at the very least. And more common versions to boot!

Oman fashion
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Image 1 of 12: Oman's hidden jewels- A Gulf state in the 60’s featuring women coming out unescorted, at night without hijab and sporting skirts!?? Believe it or not, this rare photo captures the norm for style and freedom for ladies in this now-covered country.

Syria's race woman sport
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Image 1 of 12: Syria's obstacle-defying girl- Silvana Shaheen was a Syrian hurdler that didn’t think twice about representing her country with knees exposed and hair aloft. In the early ‘70’s, this Homs native scored the national prize for both 400m and 100m hurdles multiple times.

Libya women protest '60s
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Image 1 of 12: Libya's ladettes- Khadija al Jaahmey leads women on a protest in Tripoli to support a Royal Declaration in 1963, which gave women the right to not only vote but to also run for political office. Though it was raining, the liberated ladies showed that Libyan lasses were indeed liberated.

Palestine 60s Beerzeit style
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Image 1 of 12: Palestine's pretties: In 1967 at the University of Beerzeit, the co-eds could not only mix, but they could have a riot together - and we don't mean a protest. Forget standing around drinking tea and eating biscuits, these students have a full out tug-of-war-- and the ladies heaved and ho'd in heels and skirts!

Egypt Cairo 1960s fashion
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Image 1 of 12: Egypt in its element- Whereas today, the overwhelming majority of women in Egypt wear a hijab to cover their hair and those who don’t commonly face harassment from men, these Cairo chicks had no such worries in the 1960s as they sported the latest fashions with an Arab spring in their steps!

Iran's fashion 70s
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Image 1 of 12: Immodest Iran - Believe it or not, this care-free scene showcasing student-abandon was all too familiar on college campuses prior to the Ayatollah’s crackdown. This Tehran snapshot of stylish students from the early 70's, shows girls with plenty of leg on show and not a hijab in sight. Until the Ayatollah had his wicked way, work hard, play hard.

iraq Mustansiriya university 1970s
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Image 1 of 12: School girls in Arabia: Iraqi students from the‘70s during Iraq’s educational ‘Golden Age’ in which school enrollment reached 100% and illiteracy dropped, shows schoolgirls sporting skirts above the knee. Iraq is now attempting an education overhaul following the US pullout, but female students will most likely be covering a bit more skin.

Tehran a woman on the beach
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Image 1 of 12: Tempting Tehran: This photo, from the 1960s, could be from any beach scene in the Western world, with a beautiful woman holding a seductive pose spread over a shiny sports car. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, women, if at the beach at all, will be draped from head to toe in black and, at most fashionable, might brave the burkini.

Egypt ladies bikinis
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Image 1 of 12: Egypt's girls in swimwear of the '60s were less camera shy than today's conservative Cairenes.

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.

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