Dress and Identity - The Zay Initiative Talks With Shahira Mehrez
Written by: Nikoleta Morales
This week the Zay Initiative finished another one of its series with a dialogue about dress and identity. The conversation was held between Dr. Reem El Mutwalli, Founder of the Zay Initiative, and Researcher, Collector, and Promoter of Traditional Arts and Crafts, Shahira Mehrez. Mehrez has been collecting Egyptian dresses since she was a teenager and has one of the largest collections of Egyptian dresses in the world - over 500 dresses.
“The oldest piece I have is from the end of the 19th century. I also have some Ottoman outfits since the 17th century.,” said Mehrez, who also has a book coming out this year about her collection.
Mehrez began collecting as early as 16 years of age. She didn’t want to wear traditional Western clothes but rather clothes that showed her Egyptian heritage. “Why did I, as an Egyptian girl, have to be dressed in Western clothes? I wanted to look and dress Egyptian,” she said.
Mehrez said that the search for Egyptian dresses helped her in the search for her own identity. Raised in a conservative family and sent to a French school, she was told not to speak Arabic.
“Growing up, I was an Egyptian that had to dress and talk like a foreigner, but why shouldn’t I be proud of my heritage?” she thought.
Mehrez started buying her clothes while on a tourist boat in Cairo. In her presentation, she showed different Egyptian dresses with a variety of styles, embroideries, and colors. She spoke about Egyptian villagers who preserved the craft of broidery.
“The Paradox of Egypt's general outline of dress is inspired by the Western world, but the material is not traditional and the embroidery is reproduced of pharaonic jewelry,” said Mehrez in regards to the first dress, Delta, she collected. The name of the embroidery was called “the necklace,” which was related to pharaonic traditions.
Mehrez said that the traditional dress shape in Egypt was a T-shape. It wasn’t until the royal Egyptian family adopted the Western style of clothing in the mid-nineteenth century that exposed the Egyptian people to Western clothing.
Mehrez discussed how people in the oasis areas used coins. The pharos interspersed their costumes with metallic objects. People used coins as pharaonic embroidery to reflect light and as telesmanic. She said some were trying to perpetuate the addition of metal and replaced it with the Mother of Earth buttons. The tunic she showed was part of an old Egyptian tradition.
Mehrez also spoke about how pharaonic costumes were made out of white linen and were decorated with beats. She said that initially, indigo was the color worn by Egyptian peasants, but it was later replaced with black. Peasants were considered a rich part of Egypt.
“We had many examples of literature telling us discriminatory marks were not implemented. People wore what they wanted,” she said in regards to remarks made about the blue indigo color worn by Egyptians. “Blue persisted till the end of the 19th century. because at the time Egypt was transformed from a linen to cotton-producing country by the British.”
She said that Egyptian peasants were accustomed to weave linen and didn't have a knowledge of how to weave cotton. The black color was very difficult to attain, and it was expensive. “There is a misconception that Arab women were dressed in black because of submission, but in reality, this was lost in translation. They [people] do not understand how the indigo dye was used in the region and how it was cultivated,” added Dr. Reem.
“Black as a natural die was very expensive. The Spanish were dressed in black to show their wealth. Black was the color of aristocracy and the rich. The virgin is dressed in black to show the importance of religion in society,” added Mehrez.
She said that up to the nineteenth century all brides in Egypt were married in color. “It seems that Queen Victoria decided to get married in white and the rest of the world followed her,” she said.
“The popular jewelry in Egypt was always silver. In pharaonic times silver was more precious than gold and more difficult to have,” Mehrez said.
Mehrez said that most costumes of women in Egypt were layered. “Noone would be wearing a T-shape dress without layers underneath. It was keeping them warm in winter and isolated in the summer.”
Mehrez mentioned how a married woman wore a face veil, and the unmarried had no face veil. The face veil she said was hiding the respiratory tract and protecting women in the desert from the very hot winds of summer and cold winds of winter.
Mehrez also showed a black T-shaped dress of a commoner woman of Egypt from the 18th century. The dress had an opening of the breast, and she said that in the old traditions this was seen as normal because women were respected as mothers and not seen as sexual objects like today. She said men would look away when women were breastfeeding because they respected them. “Now this tradition has been lost, and any piece of skin is considered a sexual object,” Mehrez said.
“It is interesting how with time and religious interpretation, connotations can change with time,” said Dr. Reem.
“It's a social thing. Men have to respect women, and the respect should be materialized by not getting excited about every part of the body of the women,” added Mehrez.
Another point Mehrez made is that in Egypt the memory of traditional clothes has been lost. “Today the memory of our beautiful costumes has been lost. Usually people don't want to wear anything that looks traditional. People have forgotten traditional and wear dresses that have nothing to do with tradition. Designers have decided long dresses with decoration can be labeled traditional,” she said.
Mehrez urged women who want to wear a traditional Egyptian dress to either wear an old one or with a traditional embroidery. She urges designers to get to know the traditions and dresses of the past so they can make better traditional designs.
“Traditional dresses have been discontinued, and what designers can do is simply design on the knowledge of traditional, modernized traditional cut, or embroidery. We should dress with identity. When we want to dress Western we dress Western. I think that fashion was created at the end of the 19th century. to change every year to force people to accompany impractical purchases. Fashion was created for the Western markets. We are the best customers because we get hooked by massive propaganda and disrespect our culture and dress in a way that is not ours. Our tradition should be revised in many ways,” said Mehrez.
Mehrez said that in the past women would buy one piece of dress and wear it for ten years because the fashion wasn't changing as fast as today. She says now fashion has been commercialized to sell and not to emphasize tradition.
Her advice to designers today is to use traditional embroidery on simple cuts. “This is what contemporary designers should do - they should be able to study the past to innovate the future. In the past, the traditional craftsman learned from the master until he became free. This is what we need front designers now.”
Mehrez said that metallic embroidery was made by machines and men, and it was more expensive than the one made by women because women didn't have the capital or money to buy machines.
For more on future Zay Initiative talks, visit: thezay.org.
Shahira Mehrez holds an MA degree in Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo and has conducted post graduate research at Oxford University while teaching at the faculty of Tourism of Helwan University. Her concern for endangered traditional Egyptian heritage led her to change her career and for the past forty years she has been researching and collecting Egypt’s unparalleled but hitherto little-documented costumes and jewellery.
A Creative Advisor to the Zay Initiative and lifelong supporter of Middle Eastern arts, Mehrez began collecting and archiving Egyptian peasant dresses as a teenager. She holds a master’s degree in Islamic art and runs El Arish, a Sinai-based women’s collective that produces hand-embroidered Bedouin pieces. She is passionate about preserving traditional crafts and domestic resources while updating them for contemporary audiences.
Shahira’s collection of over 500 dresses, which is the largest in Egypt (and possibly the world), ranges from heavy black wool Bedouin Sinai cloaks to bright cotton Nile Delta prints decorated with ribbon and Siwan dresses finished with mother-of-pearl buttons.