Fashion has never been about mere clothes. It can serve as statement, rebellion, or in this case, a tool for the preservation of culture. Two Palestinian contemporary fashion designers who have embraced this concept in two uniquely different ways are New York-based Suzy Tamimi and Gaza-based Meera Adnan Albaba.

The blend of fashion and culture says more than just what a group of people wears, it's both who we are and who we want to be. Across the Middle East, from Egypt to Oman and from Turkey to Yemen, cultures and sub-cultures display distinct traditional styles. Each style — from Gulf countries' dishdasha to Sudanese thawbs all the way West to Morocco's kaftans — signature pieces tell us something about the culture. Through distinct embroidery, textile, or symbolism, garments tell a story through fashion. 

Suzy Tamimi's intricate embroidery work is an ode to the traditional Palestinian practice. Photo credit: Nadia Irshaid Gilbert.

Culture is more than the easily commodified objects of handicraft, art, architecture, and even fashion; it encompasses values, beliefs, practices, and language, to name a few. When fashion highlights these different aspects of culture, it preserves it perhaps better than any book can hope to, capturing a thread of history and weaving it into the design. 

The rich and complicated history of Palestine is replete with cultural markers that are often overlooked by the current state of affairs. Palestinian designers use fashion to highlight these cultural makers and shine a light on rich traditions.  

The purpose of my design is to bring awareness to the situation in Palestine. Many people do not know about the history of Palestine, and I was inspired to create something beautiful and bright that sees a brighter future for Palestine.

Both Suzy Tamimi and Meera Albaba reflect on the current situation in Palestine but both are using different methods to communicate the same culture. While Tamimi deploys traditional practices of Palestinian culture, Albaba uses fashion to speak against easy definition, highlighting the mood of a specific era through symbolism in her design.

Suzy Tamimi

Suzy Tamimi reflects on Palestinian culture by incorporating traditional Palestinian embroidery (tatreez). The pieces are all authentic, hand-embroidered by Palestinian refugees. Tamimi purchases the embroideries and incorporates them into her designs which include dresses, sportswear, and other unique pieces like body harnesses. Though traditionally meant for women's fashion, Tamimi pushes boundaries by including the embroidery in menswear as well. 

Suzy Tamimi, photographed by Udi Ela.

Tamimi skilfully highlights her traditional heritage by embracing the past through incorporating the work of local artisans, and through their work, creating a dialogue on Palestine. “The purpose of my design is to bring awareness to the situation in Palestine,” says Tamimi. “Many people do not know about the history of Palestine, I was inspired by hope and creating something beautiful and bright and seeing a brighter future for Palestine.” 

When you create something beautiful, everybody becomes interested and then it creates a conversation where you can talk about the culture.

Tamimi’s drive to create a line of clothing that incorporates her Palestinian heritage led her to the UN, where one of her dresses was featured in an exhibition called Palestinian Embroidery: Threads of Continuity, Identity, and Empowerment. The floor-length black dress is adorned with vintage floral embroidery made up of rich reds, yellows, greens, and other bold colours. The flowy black fabric is slightly see-through, with cut out shoulders that give a long elegant look with a modern edge. The dress also has a collar around the neck of traditional embroidery that attaches down the front of the dress in a long line going from the neck to the bottom of the dress. The embroidery on top of the black fabric creates a striking contrast highlighting the rich colour, and blending the past with the present.

Photo Credit: Diego Ramos and Paul Barcena Mapi.

Tamimi’s designs mix the traditional craft of embroidery with contemporary concepts.  “I am making it so that people can wear these pieces that are more modernised but still have the spirit of what our culture is all about,” she explains. “When you create something beautiful, everybody becomes interested and then it creates a conversation where you can talk about the culture.” 

Photo credit: Nadia Irshaid Gilbert

Her current collection, 'Freedom Fighters', continues with the motif of vintage embroidery, placing it on modern sportswear including jackets and track pants. Tamimi describes her designs as “walking art” that is accessible to all people. Her pieces are created for a large audience that can find beauty in both the design and in the culture. Tamimi’s use of her traditional culture is an in your face reminder that Palestine has a rich ancient culture that is unique to Palestine, and the people. It tells the story of people from the land of Palestine as a reminder that current borders cannot take away their culture and traditions.

Meera Adnan

Designer Meera Adnan Albaba created her contemporary womenswear label Meera Adnan out of her home in Gaza. Perhaps less overt than Tamimi's tatreez motifs, Adnan chooses to reflect on a more recent period of time in Palestine's history. Through her designs, she attempts to tell the story of the current culture, highlighting the need to empower the youth of Palestine to feel free to express themselves. “I want to have the past as inspiration but use what I have now,” says Adnan.

Meera Albaba.

Adnan's current collection harkens back to the 1980s, to an era when she thinks Palestinians could be more expressive, before the first Intifada. She invites us to take a step back, reflecting on how current social and political elements in Palestine have changed the way people interact with each other and behave in general.

I want to have the past as inspiration but use what I have now.

Adnan’s designs are reminiscent of the early '80s. With boxy shoulders and high waist pants, you are sent back in time 40 years ago. The simple clean colours let you focus more on the lines of the clothes. Her creations are clean and elegant as well as light and fun, invoking a leisurely stroll or a long afternoon in a café. 

Photo credit: Rehaf Albatniji.

When Adnan began to gather inspiration for her current collection, she looked through her parents' and grandparents' pictures. She noticed how happy and free people were and how they found pleasure in small details and immortalised them through photography. The images she saw depicted a Palestine that is no longer the norm.

Adnan's fashion pushes us to think about the individual and not the whole. Her clothes are a cultural statement on what has been and can be.

“There are so many elements that you can use to highlight your culture, and your story and your narrative,” says Adnan. Central to her label is her location, and there's something profoundly radical in choosing not to identify her culture through traditional Palestinian handicraft. Based as she is out of besieged Gaza, the arguable centre of the Palestinian cause, she's not using explicit cultural icons, but they're weaved though. It's a romantic, nostalgic style coming out of the world's largest open air prison.

Photo credit: @jenananan

Meera Adnan wants to dispel any idea that Palestinians are a people without a distinct fashion that defines their culture. They are, like those of all cultures, not the embodiment of a single narrative, but of many narratives that reveal individual stories, passion, desires and tribulations. Adnan's fashion pushes us to think about the individual and not the whole. Her clothes are a cultural statement on what has been and can be.

“The goal has always been to make a product that is made here with people who took the time to create something that includes all the things that, as Palestinians, we want to achieve,” she says. Adnan, through her 21st century designs that are inspired by the 1980s, promotes the concept of a Palestine that is free and open to expression. 

Whether it is through craft or symbolism, culture weaves its way into fashion. The threads of history help to preserve culture, and across the Middle East and the world, we see designers using unique aspects from their culture and weaving them into their designs.