Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

What to wear come the revolution

Back in the 1970s a few people brought back from their trip to the Middle East a keffiyeh, the black and white scarf worn wrapped around his head (reputedly in the shape of Mandate Palestine itself) by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Arafat wore his as headgear; on the streets of London it was wound somewhat sloppily about the neck and had the same sartorial signification as Doc Martens in that period. Don't mess with me. I am anti-fashion! Fashion is for superficial materialists! I have bigger things on my mind!

In this period, I have to concede, I was wearing a man's jacket, its lapels covered in badges announcing my allegiance to the Ant-Nazi League, CND and various other causes, over a 1930s tea-dress which smelled of mothballs and old stains, bought at a stall on Portobello Road market, Mary Quant green or pink tights, and Converse All Stars. This get-up was to indicate that you wouldn't catch me in Chelsea Girl, oh no. I didn't have a keffiyeh because I wouldn't have known where to get one, and to be honest, I knew next to nothing about international relations. And if I were to wear a keffiyeh, and were my mother to have found out what it meant, she would have poured a pot of boiling chicken soup over my head. Much later I discovered that you could buy a keffiyeh at that time in blue and white, decorated with stars of David, to symbolise . . . something else.

The keffiyeh continued to be worn as an emblem of political defiance and international solidarity with the Palestinian cause until about a decade ago, when they started turning up tied around the necks of motorcycle messengers in London. I was surprised that so many of these knights of the road had such an elevated political consciousness, until I read that they were sold in biker shops as 'desert scarves,' advertised for their warmth, when hurtling through London traffic on a cold wet day.

And then they started to be worn by teenagers. A few weeks ago, at the local farmer's market, I bumped into a woman I know from the gym. We sometimes go to the Designer Warehouse Sale at Kings Cross together. She's South African, Jewish and spent some time in Israel. Her daughter was wearing a keffiyeh. Do you know what that means? I asked her. No, she replied. She bought it in Top Shop, where, I now read, they knock them out as a Tablecloth Scarf.

Over at Faking Good Breeding Meg writes:

. . . last year TopShop and Urban Outfitters began stocking and promoting the scarves, causing a backlash that forced the stores to pull the items. Ironically, considering the item's contentious message, Urban Outfitters titled the product "Anti-War Woven Scarf". . . Interestingly, each color and pattern represents different political sympathies. The black and white pattern is generally worn by members of Arafat's Fateh [sic] party, the checkered red is the signature of the radical Leftist PLO factions and the green is often worn by Hamas,* the Islamic terrorist organization.*

In the Guardian today, Jess Cartner-Morley announces a new development, the Balenciaga £3000 keffiyeh. Such is the long journey between an act of political solidarity with the Palestinian people and the high street that Jess provides us with universally useful advice on this season's way of tying that Balenciaga scarf, or indeed any scarf:
Having got the right scarf, please try not to ruin it by wearing it the wrong way. The doubled-over-and-looped-through technique is no longer an option unless you are a French exchange student. The tucked-under-the-lapels technique suggests that you're concerned about draughts. The authentic catwalk look is triangle-fronted, like a baby in a bib. It looks slightly less ridiculous if you leave a gap at your neck, to avoid the Desperate Dan effect. But, to be honest, if it cost three grand, you probably want to wind it as tight as possible. Oh, and try not to leave it on the bus.
It is the opinion of The Thoughtful Dresser that whenever fashion designers try to enter the political sphere by Making A Statement (cf Katherine Hamnett and her t-shirts) they invariably wind up devaluing whatever it is that they wanted to say in the first place by the muddled thinking and airy conceptualism of those who spend all day designing mini-crinis. Would you want Jamie Oliver designing your little black dress? Or Karl Lagerfeld in charge of upcoming negotiations at Annapolis? No?What you wear on a demo is a separate question, and one I'll deal with in the unlikely event that I go on one, but fashion is a business, a capitalist business and it will absorb any influence and drain it of its original meaning. There is nothing more pathetic than a £3000 keffiyeh, and nothing more dispiriting than designers who think they can cast off their reputations as coke-fuelled bird-brains by throwing them down the catwalk along with the eight-inch platforms. And nothing sadder and more deluded than those who think that the teenager who was forcing her sausage legs into skinny jeans last year, or exposing her slab of goose-pimpled midriff in a crop top and low rise jeans the year before that, has now discovered a political consciousness by wearing a Top Shop keffiyeh.

* This is not a political blog so any discussion of the aims and methodology of Hamas will have to take place elsewhere, and not in my comments box.


Meg said...

Great post, Linda! And thanks for the link, always appreciated.

jakjak said...

It is the sort of action such as this by the large fashion houses that make me think of them as nothing more than expensive chain stores. No thought, no connection with the wider world, just sell it because its "in".
When I was young a shop near me started selling Kamikazi motif clothing which made me start a small "one kid protest".
Aside from that I would LOVE to see a picture of you in your 1970's garb it just sounds fabulous.

cassandra said...

Thankyou so much for posting this - seeing every utterly clueless hip young thing and their dog (literally) wearing the keffiyeh infuriates me no end.

Paul said...

It's not correct that Hamas wear green and white keffiyehs. Hamas in general dont bother with keffiyeh-symbolism at all, which is all too secular nationalist for them. The identifying thing for them is green caps or green pieces of cloth tied around the head. For the girls, astonishingly, a hijab is also de rigueur. I remember being in the territories in the election period last year, and thinking that there was something symbolic about this - the way that the Hamas people casually brushed aside the iconography of Palestinian nationalism to that point.

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