The Cultural Identity of a Black Gown

Adele black gown

An overwrought demure rose after the renowned British singer, Adele, made her appearance at the Glastonbury festival in a fancy Chloé black gown, covered with special buttons and hand embroidered shells.

It was stated that the beautiful black gown was inspired by style of the 70s, without the designer fashion house making any reference to its obvious inspiration from the local fashion of the Siwa Oasis, which lies deep inside the Sahara desert in Egypt. To some Egyptian eyes, mine included, the connection was clear like the eye of Heaven.

Adele black gown
Photo of a traditional dress from the Siwa (left) and Adele in her black gown from Chloé (right) provided by the author of this post.

Many people interested in fashion, art, and culture began to express their utter disappointment as the traditional Egyptian style was not mentioned, which raised numerous questions concerning cultural identity. However, the whole issue surrounding the high-fashion garment gives way to many perspectives, more miscellaneous and more arcane.

The majority of Egyptians do not even realize that Gaby Aghion, who founded the Chloé fashion house in 1952, was an Egyptian-born French fashion designer. It is even less common to find people who know that she was married to Raymond Aghion, who belonged to the Aghions of Egypt.

The Aghions were wealthy cotton exporters and one of the most renowned Jewish families of Modern Egypt, along with the de Menasce, Rolo and Tilche. Gaby and Raymond were also personal friends of Louis Aragon, the famous French communist poet.

The bitter irony that cannot be neglected is that the fancy Villa of Aghion in Alexandria, Egypt was partially destructed in 2009 with absolute ease and insistence to be completely destroyed in 2016; exactly like the villas of Cicurel, Sednaoui, and many other fine architectural masterpieces of the great city of Alexandria.

The Villa Aghion, one of the very important works that reflects the modern and rich architectural heritage of cosmopolitan Alexandria, was built between 1926 and 1927 by Auguste and Gustave Perret; better known as the Perret brothers.

The Perret brothers were world leading architects whose work was once recognised by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Sites. The destructive scene was very provocative to take place, a mélange of a helpless minority of people and ignorant uncaring authorities. Woefully, it is often said that nothing could have saved such a building that stood for a whole belle époque full of events, names, art, culture, identities, genealogies, history, and pride.

Based on these horrendous historical events can we expect a real reaction in order to preserve the cultural identity of a black gown?

In better circumstances authorities might take great strides in ensuring its people are well educated about their heritage and their unique cultural identity at least, if not to preserve it, to take pride of it and promote it.

However, let me demarcate the galling fact that Egyptian authorities, as well as the majority of people in our society, will not be aware of the existence of such topics in the first place. In case they might be slightly aware, I am afraid that such topics are definitely not an enticing interest to them.

People need to get in touch with their cultural identity; embrace it and practice it. In order for people to do so, they need to be introduced to culture and a developed system, which embraces cultural education.

We need to come to terms with the fact that culture is not meant to be monopolised by a specific coterie of people, who were lucky enough to be introduced to this realm of beauty and openness. All people need to have access to their culture, even if it is only a very brief introduction to it.

It has always been a matter of education; art and culture are egalitarian, and they should always be. Forget about authorities and formal education, as we all know how louche and disappointing they are.

Visit the posh Arab Folk Art permanent exhibition of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where you will find the captivating and rare collection belonging to artists and folk art scholars, Raaya El- Nimr and her husband Abdel-Ghani Abou El-Eneni. They toured Egypt and the Arab world to collect stunning costumes and elaborate jewelry, which stood for our unique identity and rich heritage.

Go on your own, or with friends and children, and seek out a unique treasure. If you have the opportunity, do not forget to take lots of photos to share with people all over the world, so they will also experience our various and exquisite styles of costumes originating from Egypt and the Arab world.

It is our duty to propagate our superabundant culture and heritage. Maybe one day, our grandchildren will feel the urge to express their disappointment that a renowned singer put on a black gown of a particular Egyptian style, while no one felt any need to promulgate that.

Heba Essam

Heba Essam

Heba Essam was born on January 01, 1990 in Alexandria, Egypt. She studied English Literature in the Faculty of Arts, University of Alexandria, and then she worked on some Gender and women’s studies in the Middle East and North Africa. She is indulged into arts, civilisations and comparative cultural studies, and she is interested in preserving heritage and promoting cosmopolitan culture. Among her various interests are writing, ballet and photography. She is also a women’s rights activist and a humanitarian who successfully executed advocacy campaigns. She has been working for years with prestigious INGOs as a translator and a project coordinator, serving disadvantaged children and refugees. She was trained as a curator and tour guide and she shows around the city of Alexandria in a very different and bounteous stratagem. She is also an active volunteer in ecological and wildlife rehabilitation activities.

  1. A very interesting read. It shows how fashion is an integral part of our cultural identity and how the former reflects the latter, as well. The article introduces its readers to a story, rooted in history, behind this ravishing gown. A must read for any Alexandrian or Egyptian who takes pride in his/her own heritage.

    1. Dear Gilan,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Please feel free to share Heba’s insightful analysis with other Egyptians you might know. Everyone at Middle East Collective would love to see more commentary regarding this piece.

      Thanks again!

  2. It gives me exquisite delight that the article appeals to you. Though, I am more delighted as you could receive the loftier essence behind the piece of writing. It is our duty to propagate for our prodigious culture and enticing folk heritage; this is the only way it can survive. Finally, I am humbled at your thoughtfulness. Have a very nice day ahead.

  3. Thank you Heba.

    I am Australian, but Egypt is my home. I lived in Siwa for more than a year and have been visiting the oasis since 1995, and know many of the women there. Like many people who appreciate the unique traditions of Siwa, I was dismayed by Chloe’s blatant appropriation of the artistry of the women of Siwa and their traditions.

    Each motif in their embroidery has significance, and the depth of meaning of their work should not be so lightly made a commodity.

    As a fashion journalist and university lecturer for 20 years, I have always explained to my design students why claiming another culture’s designs and craft skills as your own, with no credit, is completely unfair, colonialist, and condescending. It is something a true designer should not need to do.

    Chloe and their designer are giving the same inadequate response to anyone who asks them to credit the origins of the dress (and there are many of us commenting on their Instagram and on the articles that feature Adele in the dress.

    They respond: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Our Fall-Winter 2016 collection was directly inspired by adventurous women who travelled around the world, bringing back meaningful memories from as far as North Africa and further afield east. Their journeys will forever inspire us… Love, Chloé x”

    That trite response just shows that Chloe do not understand the issues of cultural appropriation, or simply do not care.

    Those of us who believe Siwa and Egypt deserve more recognition for the “inspiration” of this dress, will keep pushing until Chloe makes a public statement recognizing the artistry of the women of Siwa.

  4. Susan, we are delighted to hear from you and we send our ardent love to you and all over Australia.

    Actually, we got the same exact reply from Chloé; which I find sort of cliché and rigid.

    Siwa is a spectacular milieu, wrapped with inspiration and magic. A great place to dig for stories and hidden treasures. Siwan art naturally, is as particular and unique;it is a realm of its own. Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense that during post revolutionary periods and under the rule of uncaring authorities no attention will be paid to promote art and culture or preserve heritage and identity.

    As a matter of fact, the real predicament is many levels higher than only discussing the origin of a black gown. It is part and parcel of discussing preserving our heritage and promoting our cultural identity. The thing that we should be doing by our hands.

    Egyptian heritage has always been of an outstanding cosmopolitan nature, though in a globalised world many perspectives are dragged to the morbidité of Industrialisation and materialism. That’s why I think Chloé would never make a better statement.

    Thanks a lot for your explicit thoughts and we look forward to having you in Egypt for one more time.

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