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.

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