Kathrina Dabdoub explores Palestinian fashion and the impact the conflict with Israel has had upon the industry and its traditions.
Popular conversation surrounding the Palestinian Territories and Palestinians is often politically charged, centred on the themes of conflict, nationalism, humanitarian issues and the like. In the midst of such debate, culture tends to be overlooked and so it is perhaps somewhat unimaginable that fashion could bear some importance.
Yes, fashion. In fact, traditional clothing and garment design has long been a critical feature of Palestinian culture, and even politics. Tatreez (or cross-stitch embroidery), a folk practice historically taught to daughters by their mothers, is just one such aspect of cultural life that has significantly contributed to socio-political identity formation and reification. Pre-1948, embroidered thobes (Palestinian costumes) were an expression of regional and familial attachment. An examination of the garments that a woman crafted and wore revealed the details of her background; the colours and material used, the density of the embroidery, and the motifs that were woven onto her dress told the onlooker where she was from, the wealth and social standing of her family, and her marital status.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, during the First Intifada, the practice was politicised by women who wove images of the Palestinian flag, maps of Palestine, and simply the word ‘Palestine’ onto their thobes. These ‘Intifada Dresses’ became a form of resistance and an essential part of “articulating an identity rooted in the land.” By breathing fresh life and meaning into a traditional art and wielding it as a tool of political self-empowerment, Palestinian women were able to make bold, new statements. On the surface-level, they declared their dedication to the national struggle. What is less apparent is the way in which they also subverted a heavily masculinised nationalist discourse.
Scholars such as Joseph Massad have shed light on the gendered dimensions of the rhetoric of Palestinian nationhood and identity. This is a multifaceted discourse, one that is too complex to recount in detail here. The relevant point to note is that the root of Palestinian culture was traced to the domestic sphere, and symbolic focus was placed on household objects and activities, namely embroidered cushions, women’s dress, cooking, and raising children. Likewise, the image of a Palestinian woman in traditional dress was a visual representation of patriotic expression and historical claims to Palestine/Israel. Implicit within this discourse was that female activity in the national project was limited to cultivating her household. Conversely, the men were the fighters, tasked with publicly defending the dignity of that culture.
This patriarchal rhetoric was prominent during the Intifada, as is evident in leaflets that were addressed solely to ‘Sons of Palestine’ or ‘Brothers’. Women were excluded, except where their ability to reproduce culture and offspring was concerned. Dubbed the ‘Mothers of Martyrs’, their worth was in their potential to bear sons who would become resistance fighters.
Nevertheless, the women of the Intifada period were vital actors who increasingly occupied public spaces. They openly and actively participated alongside their male counterparts, not least by joining protests. The ‘Intifada Dresses’ aesthetically manifested the tensions between this nationalist discourse and the reality of Palestinian women’s autonomous engagement. The act of reimagining the very same symbol that proscribed female national and political agency was a challenge to male domination. The art of embroidery was thus a language of identity, at once a form of personal expression and a platform for struggle against various forms of oppression.
Today, the practice of embroidery is being revived by a young, vibrant generation of Palestinian diaspora, among them Natalie Tahhan, Sasha Nassar, Jamal Taslaq, and Ayah Tabari, to name just a few. These talented designers synthesise modern Western styles with traditional patterns and techniques to create truly captivating, unique garments that are strongly evocative of their heritage. Their craft highlights that identity and the act of identity formation are far from fixed. Rather, they are dynamic phenomenon that evolve alongside their community.
As the art assumes new forms, so too does its symbolism develop. Fresh meaning is being injected into the historical custom of tatreez due to a burgeoning appreciation for artisanship and innovation. Akin to the way in which specific motifs once revealed a woman’s hometown, the stylistic fusion that characterises contemporary Palestinian fashion conveys a dual sense of belonging and connection with an ancestral heritage, on the one hand, and lived experiences in different societies, on the other hand.
Moreover, the primary aim of embroidering is no longer to assert political or national agency. Instead, these designers view their art as a universal language with they can present the world with another perspective of the Palestinian people. In specific, they aim to disrupt the negative, reductionist ideas of war, violence, displacement, and suffering that are almost immediately associated with Palestinians.
In November 2014, Jamal Taslaq showcased his designs at the United Nations as part of a series of events leading up to the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. In an interview, he stated, “I understood that I must do something for me and my people to show the world that we are the same as other people. We want a life. We want peace. We love. We have all the feelings that make us the same as other people.”
In a similar spirit, Natalie Tahhan affirmed that she does not view her work as a political statement. The ethos of her label is, on the contrary, “to continuously preserve and promote Palestinian identity by highlighting the beautiful and culturally rich elements of Palestinian heritage through contemporary fashion.”
The tone of the new era of Palestinian fashion is full of hope, vitality, and pride. The designs are undoubtedly innovative, their messages undeniably novel. Yet, in many ways, they are redolent of their origins. Tatreez continues to be a crucial aspect of cultural life that nurtures the Palestinian identity. For the younger generations of the diaspora, it is a compelling link to a heritage they likely have never truly experienced; it is a tangible way of expressing their belonging. For those still living in the Palestinian Territories, it remains powerful show of national resilience, as well as a means of economic, political and social empowerment.