Monday, July 6, 2009

Fashion Forward

I don’t have enough appropriate summer clothing.

I have about five outfits that I consider fitting for the Rbati* summer streets. By week’s end, I’ve rotated through them, and my sense of fashion-consciousness dreads having to bore my colleagues with the same ensembles during the next week. Once my financial situation stabilizes a bit, I definitely plan to devote some time and funds to the pleasant task of shopping.

Rbati girls and women do not walk around in the long black abayas you may associate with women in Saudi Arabia. You may be familiar with the Moroccan jellaba – the hooded dress/coat that is worn by men and women alike and comes in all colors of the universe – but even this garment is worn mostly by generations over forty years of age. Moreover, I’d estimate that no more than thirty-five percent of young women wear a headscarf, or veil. Fashion in Rabat, in other words, comes across to me as a colorful and very eclectic mix of styles and tastes, where nearly anything goes.

Of course there is the occasional individual with a somewhat challenged sense of style, but overall I get the impression that Rbati girls and women take pride in their appearance. Their outfits are always perfectly put together. They are color coordinated to the smallest details (the colors and patterns may be a bit too bright for my taste, but I think this is a cultural difference), their shoes always match their purse, and they never forget to accessorize. A headscarf always matches the color of the clothing, and some women even skillfully combine multiple scarves to create an intricate pattern effect of colors on their head. And by the way, a headscarf by no means implies that you can’t wear fabulous earrings (or even flowers pinned by your ear), and the effects of eye-shadow and kohl always beautifully accentuate the eyes.

This fashion sense comes in all varieties of modesty. There are girls and women, of course, who choose to cover themselves. Underneath their brightly colored spaghetti-strapped dress they’ll wear a turtleneck sweater, and underneath a knee-length skirt they’ll sport a pair of leggings. Should they choose to wear (tight) jeans, they’ll combine it with a longer cardigan or top that covers their behind. Some women go a step further and noticeably take care to hide the shape of their figure, choosing loose-fitting ensembles such as wide skirts and a longer variety of the headscarf.** But you will also come across the occasional girl who wears less than what I grew accustomed to among the eighteen year old Californian college students I taught last year. I see girls who’ve chosen to wear leggings as pants and pair it with a low-cut halter top, the straps of a brightly colored bra conspicuously showing on her back.

I often find myself at Marwa, a home-grown chain of stores not unlike H&M, fingering ambiguous clothing items. Among the harem pants, leggings, summer dresses and checkered blouses hang certain patterened and multicolored items (further adorned with bows, lace, pleats, and so on – nothing is ‘too much’, it seems) whose purpose I can never determine. They’ll be too long for a top, too short for a skirt, and I’ll wonder, how on earth one is supposed to wear such a thing? And these slightly see-through pants, are these meant to be worn on their own, or underneath something else? Unsure of what to do with such items, I usually abstain from making any purchases. The girls I see on the street, however, have clearly chosen to interpret this ambiguity as they see fit. I’ve seen the same item worn as a top by one girl, as a dress by another. I guess these multifunctional garments are ideal in a society where the meaning of ‘modesty’ can vary so greatly from person to person.

So what do I mean when I say that I don’t have enough ‘appropriate’ summer clothing? What implicit rules am I referring to, if this truly is a city where anything goes?

The truth is, of course, that it’s not. One might see all varieties of skin coverage, but this does not necessarily mean that everything is equally accepted. Modernization, and the tendency to associate this development with ‘westernization’, have certainly led to a greater acceptance of more revealing style, and lends girls more freedom to dress themselves like the women they see on satellite television or in French magazines (in fact, this style now shows up in Moroccan magazines, as well). But the ambiguous value that always sticks to the whole notion of ‘modernization’ also colors evaluation of these new trends in fashion. A short skirt means ‘modern’, but for many it also still means ‘loose’, ‘immodest’ – and thus suggests ‘immoral’. In a society where people are often judged by behavior rather than intentions, this can be a dangerous and harmful association.

The reason these styles are worn and seen more and more commonly in Morocco’s larger cities has to do, for one, with the fact that this ambiguity does create space for it (‘ambiguous’ is a step up from ‘not done’, of course). But I also think it has something to do with the fact that judgment seems to be more important for some than it is for others. I don’t mean that some girls simply don’t care about their reputation. What I mean is that I’m getting the impression that some girls have certain buffers to protect them against the harmful effect of social judgment. Perhaps it’s money, perhaps it’s a good education and a respectable job (though these are always bought with money, of course) – but whichever it is, I am starting to get the sense that a certain social gravity, or position, elevates one’s reputation above the harmful effect of someone’s gossip. Though it may, of course, depend on who’s gossiping. I’m reminded of a comment Ilyas made to me, that night that we went to see Amours Voilées. In this film the protagonist gets pregnant out of wedlock, and the movie remains strikingly non-judgmental about the whole affair. Ilyas suggested that this had something to do with the fact that the protagonist was a doctor. This elevated status bought her a certain freedom of action, he explained. He did not elaborate and I retreated into silence as I tried to make sense of this seeming moral relativism.

This greater freedom to experiment with the traditional rules of propriety seems a lot like the same kind of situation. Come to think of it, we see that same kind of relativism every day in the US and the Netherlands. And so I’m left to wonder, what is the logic behind it? Are moral rules ultimately pragmatic, designed only to keep us on the straight and narrow until we ‘make it’ – and do they thus fall away once we do? Are girls more free to dress revealingly because they’ve already ‘made it’ by virtue of their money, education, or profession? Or does this say something about the corrupting effect of such status symbols, the immorality of them? About the corrupting effect of social power, perhaps?

My reputation as a western woman is weighed on an entirely different scale, of course, with an ambiguity all its own. Always already considered as outsiders, western women are not judged by the same standards of propriety as those that apply to Moroccan women. So why not wear whatever I want? I don’t have to worry about being considered ‘loose’ and unfit for marriage. But at the same time, I always already am considered ‘loose’. Created for us by the worst examples of televised western promiscuity, our reputation in some sense always already is that of someone who would never live up to Moroccan standards of propriety. And as much as we’re explicitly not being judged by Moroccan standards, everyone is aware of the fact that we’d never pass if we were.

I feel that wearing spaghetti strap tops ultimately only confirm a reputation that we don’t deserve. I know that my personal choice to cover up just a slight bit more than usual won’t make a dent in the larger reality, but at least I feel like I’m doing my part in promoting some kind of deeper cross-cultural understanding. Also – despite the fact that some Moroccan girls are getting away with ‘new’ styles of clothing – it’s a matter of respect for local mores, to me.

And secretly? I see it as a way to set myself apart from the average tourist. It’s my way of trying to blend in just a little bit more. Of trying to look as though I belong here, walk around here every day, and have accustomed to the surroundings.

* The –i suffix makes a noun into an adjective; ‘Rbati’ thus means something like ‘of Rabat’. I don’t write ‘Rabati’ because the capital city’s name is actually pronounced something like ‘Rrrbat’.
**Yes, you will also see the occasional woman dressed head to toe in black and who leaves only her eyes for the public to see. But this happens very, very rarely.

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