Saturday, January 19, 2008

New Statesman articles on kufiya fashion

Continuing in my hysterically-obsessive effort to fully document and understand the kufiya craze, I came across these two articles from the British magazine New Statesman (analogous to The Nation in the US), from 2007 and 2005. The 2007 piece, by Allegra Stratton, discusses how Urban Outfitters, seemingly in response to the controversy over the firm's kufiya marketing in the US, opted to sell it as the "shemagh" in Britain. Ben White, writing back in 2005, worried that the keffiyeh was on its way to becoming an empty symbol of radical politics, just like Che and Martin Luther King. "Rather than its [the keffiyeh's] increased popularity signifying a politicisation of fashion," White concludes, "it simply means more people will be wearing something they know little about and which represents something they do nothing for." Good question: how keffiyeh wearers care at all or even know anything about the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza? The letter in response to white claims that British bikers, and some Goths, have been wearing the keffiyeh/shemagh for decades.

"Bedouin couture," Allegra Stratton (New Statesman, July 19, 2007).

You've just attended Glastonbury in the worst June since records began and could have done with your grandmother's shawl. A pashmina might have helped - but you're not Kate Middleton or Sienna Miller. Besides, you've got some rubber wristbands left over from last year and know that we live in political times. You opt for the shemagh.

The shemagh is the headcloth worn by Arab peasants for centuries, which now features in the autumn collection of the haute couture fashion house Balenciaga. That really is rags to riches. Something Yasser Arafat spent an hour intricately folding around his head each morning so that its tail formed the shape of Palestine, has spent most of 2007 as a fashion accessory.

Readers of Grazia magazine will have seen David Beckham in, variously, an orange and a green shemagh. Sienna and Kate were there at its beginning; one has even been seen round the neck of Jade Goody.

The main purveyor of the reinvented shemagh is the high-street chain Urban Outfitters. Black-and-white in Palestine as a symbol of nationalism, plain white in the Gulf, red and white in the Jordanian army. At Urban Outfitters, you can buy your shemagh in any colour as long as it's nu-rave fluorescent. In pink and purple, with added hearts against the classic checks, it has become the £18 Heart Woven Desert Scarf. "It won't provide you with much camouflage in the desert," says the catalogue, "but it sure is pretty."

Pretty? The Jewish and Palestinian lobbies united in fighting what they saw as trivialisation and the product was pulled from American shelves in January due to what the company acknowledged was its "sensitive nature". An inkling of this may have been why the store chose to name its scarves by the obscure name of the shemagh - something British soldiers called them when posted in North Africa during the Second World War - rather than what Arabs call them, keffiyehs.

In London's Urban Outfitters, the shemagh remains a bestseller. At the Covent Garden branch, a place so glibly political the male mannequin in the forecourt wears a T-shirt slogan, "Drop Acid Not Bombs", I ask one assistant why they're still selling shemaghs. "What, because of the whole Afghan thing?" she asks, making rabbit ear shapes with her fingers. Another assistant wore her shemagh on holiday to America. "Like Iranians, or whatever, would come up to me and say, 'I'm really proud of you for supporting us.'" Close, but not quite.

Centuries ago, shemaghs were a means for Arabs to protect themselves from the wind, sun and storms of the Middle East. Only latterly have they morphed into symbols of Arab nationalism. If the weather continues like this, the bedouin look could spread still further and return to its practical use in northern Europe.

"Fashion claims another symbol: Observations on radical icons," Ben White (New Statesman,
February 14, 2005)

I have seen it several times in Cambridge, and my friends report seeing it in London: the black and white chequered headdress, or keffiyeh. All of a sudden, the instantly recognisable symbol of Palestinian resistance is being adopted by the fashionistas.

As a supporter of the Palestinians ever since I went up to Cambridge in 2002 - I am now president of the university's Palestine Society - I wonder how I should respond. Do I quietly celebrate this adoption of the emblem of Palestinian nationalism, or do I bitterly resent these Johnny-come-latelies and the ignorantly casual way they swing the black and white scarf over their shoulders? As it is safe to assume that those sporting keffiyehs are not new card-carrying members of Fatah, is this phenomenon a "good thing"?

You might say that this anxiety is typical of the miserable left, moaning about the gradual acceptance by the trendsetters and taste-makers of a cherished symbol of resistance. To combine cliches, we never miss an opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But it is not as simple, or uplifting, as that.

In the past few decades, radical icons have been appropriated by market forces and rendered politically impotent. The archetypal commoditisation is Che Guevara or, more accurately, a picture of him. Once confined to posters in student digs, Che's mugshot has since appeared on, well, mugs, along with T-shirts, beer mats and other merchandise. He is now high-street fashion attire, at best worn in a spirit of ironic acknowledgement of his radical politics.

It's not just symbols that undergo a revision; entire moral and intellectual legacies can be transformed. Martin Luther King has become a contemporary saint in the US, complete with a holiday named after him. He has become a marketable meaninglessness, providing suitable quotations for all occasions, and reinforcing self-comforting American ideas of democracy. Meanwhile, his attacks on US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex are forgotten.

The keffiyeh could be heading in the same direction. Rather than its increased popularity signifying a politicisation of fashion, it simply means more people will be wearing something they know little about and which represents something they do nothing for.

Letters - Worn to be wild (New Statesman, February 21, 2005)

Ben White (Observations, 14 February) should know that the black-and-white keffiyeh has been worn by bikers, and the occasional Goth, for decades. It is noted for its warmth and dustproof properties at speed. The bikers buy it from that London purveyor of high fashion, Silvermans, the military clothing supplier, where it is known as a shemagh. [Silverman's still has them, for 6.99 pounds--just search for Shemagh. T.S.]

William Black
Scarborough, North Yorkshire


C3R3S said...

check this out:

Emily said...

Shameless Plug:

ISLAMOfashion -- a hilarious mock-umentary created about the kuffiyeh kraze. You've got to check it out!

Jason said...

I spotted my fist keffiyeh back in england in about 87 or so it was a bit of leftist punk/goth fashion statement. Something about solidarity . Then on my first trip to israel and
egypt in 95-96 I became more aware of it and have worn them ever since. I do it in some ways as a show of solidarity and because I am still some what of a leftist punk/goth but when i wear mine out i am amazed at how many people ask me if I am making some sort of political statement but that is here in SF every where else I have worn it in north amercia people just seem to think it is a big scarf.