Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Fashioning a Cultural Identity

I’m no fashion columnist – and perhaps fashion is too shallow a topic for the opinion pages anyway – but from what I’ve seen, some of the students at the American University in Cairo could give even Georgetown’s best-dressed a run for their clothes shopping money.

AUC students represent, for the most part, the wealthiest and highest-achieving elements of Egyptian society, and their style of dress reflects both their status and a keen awareness of Western fashion trends.

Girls discuss the merits of various brands of designer sunglasses and compare the high-end clothing offerings at Cairo malls that could rival New Jersey’s finest.

There are Gucci handbags, low-rise jeans and numerous pairs of those same pointy black heels for which many a Jane Hoya suffered to be stylish last spring.

During my first week here I felt a need to buy more Western-style clothing, as the clothes I had brought – long skirts and loose-fitting tops, per the cautionary advice of guidebooks discussing culturally sensitive dress in a Muslim nation – made me feel woefully underdressed on such a fashion-savvy campus.

Yet fashion at AUC runs deeper than cute sequined purses and pastel polos – elements of Egyptian culture show through in even the most Western-looking outfits.

One popular brand of Egyptian polo shirts, for example, features an embroidered camel in place of the trademark Ralph Lauren pony.

Many Muslim women at AUC wear the hijab, or head covering as prescribed in certain teachings of Islam, but the impeccable coordination of the colors of their scarves with the rest of their outfits shows that religion and fashion need not be mutually exclusive.

And although dressing in a revealing or overly sexual style while in public is socially unacceptable for Egyptian women (hence, wearing short skirts, shorts and low-cut shirts is out of the question), many AUC students dress suggestively enough in form-fitting tops or low-rise jeans to push the envelope to the edge without crossing the line.

Statement T-shirts are also a trend on the AUC campus this fall. Akin to the “Everyone loves a Catholic/Jewish/Italian/Irish girl” T-shirts that Urban Outfitters popularized at Georgetown my freshman year, statement tees are cute shirts sporting humorous phrases that range from the playful “Brunettes are so hot right now” to the sexually expressive “It’s not easy being easy” and “2’s company, 3’s a crowd, 4’s an orgy and it’s more fun.”

AUC sophomore Karim Molgneux Berry told The Caravan, AUC’s student newspaper, that he wore his tee to “make a statement about sexuality in Egypt.”

In a country where it is illegal for an unmarried couple to live together and where government censors cut anything more sexual than hugging from movies and TV shows, perhaps a T-shirt worn inside the gated compound of the AUC campus is the only place where such a statement is permissible.

As much as what a person wears is said to reflect their individuality, fashion is also a reflection of culture.

That the AUC students clamor to dress in the trendiest Western styles reflects the dominating influence of Westernization on modern Egypt. Yet the fact that their outfits still incorporate more traditional aspects of Egyptian culture, from the hijab to the polo camel, shows the staying power of such traditions in the face of rapid change.

Fashion at AUC attests to the sometimes mismatched and curious combination of Westernization and cultural tradition that permeates contemporary Egyptian society.

It’s a society where Islam is such a dominant force that Kentucky Fried Chicken boasts a special Ramadan menu and cDonald’s decorates to mark the holy month.

It’s a society where public displays of affection are forbidden and few college students date before marriage, yet lingerie lines the windows of designer boutiques and the movie The 40-Year Old Virgin will open next month.

And the wealthy AUC students, intimately familiar with both the tantalizing offerings of the West and the glory and comfort of their Egyptian heritage, must balance these competing influences daily. And sometimes in a single outfit. Westernization, religion, sexuality, and tradition come head to head as many of the AUC students dress in what they seem to define as a happy – or at least sufficient – medium. Their fashion is, for better or for worse, a synthesis between all of these competing influences in a nation that is itself wrestling with its identity following the convergence of tradition and change.

So I guess fashion is not such a shallow issue after all.

Kerry McIntosh is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She is currently studying abroad at the American University in Cairo. She can be reached at mcintoshthehoya.com. SALAMAT appears every other Tuesday.

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