The Fashion Cities of The Middle East

By Nargess Khodabakhshi

            In summer 2020, the British supermodel, Naomi Campbell, opened the Paris Fashion Week Online with these words: “… Paris, key of the enlightenment century, home of the revolution and now the city of lights, is the fashion central stage and its leader”.i So for the majority of the fashion actors and researchers, fashion is the face of  European urbanity, with Paris, Milan and London considered to be the fashion centres both culturally and economically. But where do Middle Eastern cities stand in a global fashion discourse?

Figure 1 Sir Robert Shirley, British traveller and advisor of the Safavid court, in Persian Dress, unknown artist, ca. 1627

From a historical perspective, European fashion has always had an exotic approach to the Middle East and its people. This approach is rooted in the binary concepts that consider Europe and the Middle East as counterpieces. While the term “Europe” suggests a precise geographical definition as well as a homogeneous political idea, “Middle East” proposes an uncertain definition, that since the beginning of the 20th century has been a substitute for the region in Southwest Asia, formerly known as the “Orient”. Due to the context, the term “Middle East” signifies 18 to 27 nation-states in the region, with Arabic being the official language in most of them.ii Therefore, Western media and academia often use this term as a synonym for the Arab countries or the Arab world; even so, this region has been a home to multilingualism and multicultural coexistence for thousands of years.

During the 16th century, the region’s diverse textile production and clothing practices were a significant subject of the silk road’s reports written by the European travellers and representatives.iii

With the rise of Oriental studies since the 18th century, the European dress historians partly praised these non-Western vestimentary cultures as the roots of modern fashion.iv By the 1920s, fashion became an important subject in the interaction between Europe and the Middle East. On one hand, the non-Western cultures were the sources of inspiration and experimentation for many European designers such as Paul Poiret, Mario Fortuni and later, Yves Saint Lauren.

On the other hand, the heads of the Middle Eastern states deployed their power to cultivate the European fashion and styles in Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran in context of their modernization politics.v During the 1960s-1970s, the freedom of fashion practices and liveliness of fashion productions in several Middle Eastern capitals such as Tehran, made them the centre of attention in Western fashion magazines. This interest gradually dissolved, as Europe and Middle East relations worsened due to the radical political changes in this region from the early 1980s.

Figure 2 In December 1967 Vogue contributed a story to the works of the Iranian renown designer and architect, Keyvan Khosrovani

A part of these changes has been related to “Islamization” actions taken by the Middle Eastern politicians who have generally condemned the freedom of fashion as a “Western threat” to the Islamic and national identities in their countries. In this regard, European and North-American media and academia have introduced an opposing argument through anti-Islamic texts which connote the popularity of fate-based clothing in the Middle East as signs of backwardness and radicalism. Focus on Islamic veiling in the increasing body of these texts, specifically after the 9/11 attacks, shows that journalists and scholars, similar to the Middle Eastern authorities, mostly consider religion as the only remarkable source for studying the vestimentary culture in this This approach recalls what Edward Said introduced as the orient’s dual meanings within the Enlightenment literacy. He stated that the oriental harems symbolised the West’s sexual fantasies in this literature, otherwise they portrayed the Easterners as uncivilized, compared to their Western contemporaries.vii Due to this, the deviation from Western clothing and styles was crucial evidence for their wildness and remoteness in colonial texts . It is not exaggerated to say that still today many researchers hesitate to investigate the fashion and clothing of the Middle East for similar reasons. From the 2000s, the growing body of critical fashion studies shows more interest to deconstruct Eurocentrism by investigation of the South-East Asian, African and indigenous fashions. Nevertheless, a similar attention regarding the Middle East is still deserted within these studies.

I believe that growing the academic interest in filling this gap depends on a paradigm change. In order to investigate fashion in the Middle East, we should primarily focus on the local fashion system rather than the interpretation of clothing. Based on my research work, I suggest that these fashion systems do not necessarily conform to the European and American norms. In cities like Beirut, Dubai, Istanbul and Tehran, the fashion system involves intensive relationships between fashion experts, political and economic actors and the fashion wearers.viii

Dubai is an example that shows how the economic and political actors contribute to the emergence of a fashion system. Since the 2000s, Western luxury brands have been striving for wealthy social groups from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar as their potential consumers for whom they have established premium department stores such as Tyrano and Lafayette. Furthermore, several brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, fast fashion providers such as H&M, and retailers such as such as Uniqlo or Marks & Spencer have been working on the individual collections of Muslim fashion for this target market.ix As a response to the expansion of the global fashion economy in Dubai, the authorities have been enforcing a local fashion system through establishment of design schools, fashion shows and distribution firms in the last decade. The fashion actors in Dubai seek to change the city’s image from a consumer market to a stakeholder of the global fashion economy.

Furthermore, social and political factors impact the creation and practice of fashion in Middle Eastern cities different from the European context. Figure 3 shows a young woman in a Park in the centre of Tehran. Her style includes a long arm top, a thin waist and a transparent black skirt, completed with stockings and red converse shoes. This look is one of the many different ways through which young Iranian women in urban areas express their sense of fashion and individuality in margins of official dress regulations. In a personal communication with the model, she mentions that wearing the long arm shirt and stockings on a summer day had to do with the public dress laws, rather than being a personal choice. However, selecting a transparent skirt and stockings or rolling up the sleeves was a way to bypass the rules. She adds, the photographer chose a less crowded corner to capture this photo without getting in trouble, since covering the hair in public is also an obligation in Iran. I have noticed that for similar reasons Iranian fashion and style photography mostly take place indoors, in private gardens or even remote natural sites. Such an experience is unique to the situation in Iran and hardly comparable to style photography in a European city. So knowing about the contexts of fashion creation is essential to understand the relationships within the Middle Eastern fashion systems.

Figure 3 Style photos are mostly used in influencers blogs or in photographers professional portfolio.

Finally, I want to point to the individuals’ role within these systems. All over the region, fashion enthusiasts and experts use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote their creations and expand their professional networks.  Mr. Erbil, a men’s boutique based in Iraq, promotes a style of the Kurdish outfit, figure 4, with this caption: Kurdish Traditional outfit made from Krr (Shall/Bergiz). Kurdish Fabrics are [made from]100% natural wool (Mohair Wool) and handmade [in] some small villages around Kurdistan region [in] northern Iraq. During the spring Time farmers trim their goats (Angora Goat) and make our fur friends ready for the summer heat which is above 50C• here. There is no colouring process or any harm against the Fur friends.x Plenty of similar contents within social media reflect how actors of the local fashion systems, including the micro-systems, are strongly affiliated with the global themes such as fair trade, sustainability and slow fashion.

Figure 4 A new style of Kurdish men’s outfit known as Kawawpatol

Furthermore, social media users, similar to the youth globally, deploy these platforms to express their interpretations of belief, gender and cultural identity through sharing fashion related content. In this regard, social media turns to a stage for interactions between fashion wearers and fashion creators, despite having different cultural, religious and political interests. Such interactions form a micro-system within the official fashion economy in Middle East’s fashion cities in which designer and client are not directly connected to each other. For example, the comments section in Instagram channels such as Mr. Erbil, Souchen and WWAGS is the place where designers, photographers and fashion wearers negotiate for fashion identities beyond political, geographical, and gender binaries. At the beginning I mentioned the gap in study of Middle Eastern fashions.  To engage fellow researchers, I introduced three attentions about fashion production in the Middle East through this text. Interactions with the global fashion economy, socio-political contexts of the creation and individuals’ role are features that signifies the region’s fashion arrangements from the normative European-American system. I believe that considering these themes is an important step, for both local and outsider fashion researchers, to investigate fashion and its debates in the Middle East.

Nargess Khodabakhshi is currently a PhD candidate and lecturer at the academy of fine arts Vienna. Her main research interests are Middle-Eastern fashions, history and theory of design, and social media studies. Contact:


i “Paris Fashion Week: Pandemic forces Haute couture to go digital,” France 24, July 7, 2020,

ii David Seddon, A Political and Economic Dictionary of the Middle East (London: Routledge, 2004),

iii Ambrosio Bembo and Anthony Welch, The Travels and Journal of Ambrosio Bembo (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2007),

iv “The Gifts of Western Asia to the Mode”, Vogue, June 1921, 46-47;106; 108; 110; 112.

v Bianca Devos, Kleidungspolitik in Iran die Durchsetzung der Kleidungsvorschriften für Männer unter Riżā Šāh (Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag, 2006) and Hamideh Sedghi, Women and Politics in Iran. Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

vi Annelise Moors and Daphne Grace works on veiling.

vii Edward W. Said, Orientalismus, trans. Hans Günter Holl (Fischer Verlag: Frankfurt, 2009), 237.

viii Nargess Khodabakhshi, “Zwischen Konsum und Underground: Modebeziehungen von Dubai über Teheran bis Istanbul,”, informationszentrum 3. welt 377, March/April 2020, 35-36.

ix Parallel to the fashion industry’s reach to the middle east, specifically the UAE countries, academia slowly started to work with a new approach to this region. An achievement has been the body of research on Muslim and faith-based fashion that mainly focus on the Middle Eastern subcultures in Anglo-European societies.

x Mr. Erbil. “جلی کوردی دروست کراو لە قوماشی سروشتی کوردی کر(شاڵ/بەرگیز) لەگەڵ کەمەربەندی گوڵ گوڵ کە سەداسەد کاری دەستە و دروست کراو لە ناوچە گوند نیشینەکانی قەڵادزئ.”. Instagram, September 18, 2019.


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