Lacroix celebrates allure of the Orient

The Orient has long held a fascination for westerners, conjuring up exotic images from historic lands where few travellers ventured before the advent of trains and steamboats.

As a child in the 1950s French couturier Christian Lacroix recalls the inscription on a monument in the port of Marseilles, "Gateway to the East" was enough to fire his imagination and later inspire his designs.

An exhibition at Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which he has helped curate, celebrates oriental women through some 150 examples of their traditional costumes, with their lavish embroidery and vibrant colours, from northern Syria to the Sinai peninsula.

Curator Hana Chidiac, herself Lebanese, told AFP they deliberately avoided city dress, too influenced by the Ottoman empire, and concentrated on rural women and Bedouins, who in the early 20th century were still wearing the clothes of their ancestors.

Embroidery goes back to the earliest antiquity. One of the most moving exhibits is the dress of a 13th century girl, whose mummified body was found in a Lebanese cave, with its bib neckline and sleeves in red cross stitch.

It was a skill transmitted down the generations from mother to daughter. Almost a soon as a girl could hold a needle they would work together on her trousseau, which could contain as many as 13 richly stitched dresses as well as belts, veils and headdresses, even make-up pouches.

Examples of dowry chests are scattered through the exhibition and can even be opened for closer scrutiny.

The quality of the wedding dress was almost as important as the beauty of the bride.

Every village had its own distinctive styles and motifs, which were a source of local pride. Some, like Ramallah and Beit Dajan, became well known hubs, while Bethlehem was the acknowledged fashion capital.

Colours were significant too. Indigo and black were believed to ward off the evil eye, even protect against scorpions, while red was credited with boosting fertility.

Styles varied enormously from region to region.

Jordan was particularly rich in diversity and originality: in the north women wore black satin dresses embellished with bright embroidery, while in the far south they favoured vivid silk and headbands covered in tightly-sewn silver coins. But in the area of the ancient cities of As-Salt and Kerak, there was a puzzling fashion for outsize dresses as much as 3.5 metres in length.

An old black and white film of a woman dressing resolves the enigma, showing how the excess material is folded up and secured round the waist with a belt, forming an outer skirt that doubles as a handy carrier and can even be transformed into a natty papoose.

Queen Rania of Jordan still wears traditional costume to help keep it alive, says Chidia.

Most of the exhibits in the show are from the early part of the 20th century, when the materials used were mostly cotton and linen and garments were hand-embroidered with silk thread.

Today's equivalents, made in synthetics with machine embroidery, are a poor second, Chidia notes.

"When I was growing up in Lebanon, my father used to take me to choose material for a frock and then a seamstress would make it up for me. I used to complain and ask why I couldn't have a ready-made dress like my classmates. How wrong I was! I'd love to have that choice now."

The exhibition is open until May 15.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

    £35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

    £50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor