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NEW YORK TIMES

February 11, 2011

NEW YORK TIMES

Women in the Orient

 

PARIS — The vivid neon lights act like beacons, leading past ancient artifacts carved out of wood and stone, toward an explosion of vivid color on elaborate robes.

 

The triangular lines of the high-tech lighting tell the story: This show is about one geometric dress taken to infinite levels of diverse pattern and decoration.

 

“L’Orient des femmes,” or “Women in the Orient,” at the Quai Branly Museum (until May 15) is a fascinating study of the vivacious variety of Oriental clothes.

 

Almost every misconception about “Arabic clothing” is challenged in this display of the power of individual personality and the artistry of human handwork prevalent before some Muslims chose to drape the female body in black.

 

At a moment when the Middle East is exploding with rebellion and a feminist movement is stirring, there could not be a better time to show the diversity and complexity of Oriental dress as it used to be.

 

Perhaps because the clothes are seen through the eyes of the designer Christian Lacroix, as the exhibition’s artistic director, there is as clear a focus on each country in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, just as there is on the shape of a single Arabic robe that the designer created in neon.

 

Historically, Egypt, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Babylon and Palestine were included in the area where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates juice the arid soil. The 150 costumes on display are mostly from Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian women, while images from Egyptian movies from the 1950s give a sense — even in black and white — of the exoticism associated with the region.

 

Hana Chidiac, the show’s curator, spent three years bringing together the museum’s own substantial collection, to which she has added a cache of exceptional private pieces from the Jordanian collector Widad Kawar.

 

The entire story of the fall of Oriental dress after centuries is encapsulated in what Ms. Chidiac witnessed in Amman in 2007: “An elderly Palestinian woman visited Madame Kawar, offering her a traditional festival dress that she had embroidered with passion and patience in her youth because, according to the rules of Islam, a pious woman may not leave the house in colored garments.”

 

The rise of Muslim fundamentalism combined with the global reach of Western fashion makes the Quai Branly exhibition an ode to a lost culture — one that stretches back at least to the 13th century, for the show opens with a child’s dress from that period that was found in a Lebanese cave and loaned by the Beirut National Museum.

 

The clothes on display are mostly from the 19th century, before the secular revolution in Turkey wiped out that country’s ethnic clothing.

 

The shape of all the garments is a T, with its vertical line spreading into a triangle. That applies equally to the silken drapes from Lebanon or to Syrian caftans, dating to the Persian era, and shown in the exhibition as a sumptuously embroidered combination of colorful stitching. Mr. Lacroix defines the work as “a shimmering kaleidoscope, a patchwork of inventiveness and a mosaic opulent with simplicity.”

 

The decoration, even when it followed age-old traditional patterns, was still deeply personal in the choices of color and its applications. Yet this was not royal garb. For ordinary village women or wandering Bedouins, clothing was joyous, whether it was a traditional robe, created from vast lengths of fabric, or the cropped “jacket,” vibrant in orange on violet velvet.

 

The Bedouin woman shown on a video screen covering herself in robes laughs with good humor as she solves the “mystery” of traditional wraps. And even the black satin robes from Jordan are alive with vertically and horizontally stitched lines. Other black garments, highlighted with bright orange and green embroideries, were made in Gaza in the 1930s, then sold and dispersed, along with distinctive hats and jewelry, after the 1967 war with Israel.

 

The exhibition’s accompanying catalog, although only in French, is a feast for the eyes with its collages of Lacroix drawings, its Oriental portraits and imaginatively photographed robes.

 

In the show itself, display cabinets, painted to resemble dowry chests, show traditional wedding accessories, like the amulet necklace, headdress and sewing kit of a Palestinian bride.

 

These scene-setting pieces, along with a carpet suggesting scattered Persian rugs, and a scrim with an image like a sepia photograph, all add up to a lyrical recreation of a lost woman’s world.