A Modest Proposal
There’s a scene in Casablanca where Elsa walks into the bar in a suit so fitted her figure has the dramatic proportions of the plot itself. I’m sure that the sensuality of that moment has stirred wanderlust in many an imagination. This mix of sentiment and sensation compelled me to move to Morocco for my first graduate job. In my imagination, Morocco was a landscape with all the black and white drama of the film, the shadows of arched doorways hiding intrigue and romance. In reality, alighting in Morocco was more akin to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz: my world turned to vivid Technicolor.
This applied as equally to the frenzy of Jemaa el-Fnaa square as it did to the unmapped ethical territory that I found myself in. My first experience living in an Islamic country was in no way black and white. It took time for me to figure out how to act as a women in Moroccan society – especially in regards to what I wore. Within an hour of me arriving in Marrakech – wheeling my suitcase past the snake charmers and storytellers of the Medina – I realised that the fashion of Casablanca’s famous ingenue would not translate to Technicolor. Hereafter, a chronicle of my sartorial escapades through Morocco.
My ‘husband’ and I used to play a game that could be best described as ‘spot the hipster’. The rules were simple. The game was only ever played at our favorite cafe on the main street of Auorir – a small town on the south coast of Morocco. It could be played at any time of the day, though the late afternoon was my favorite – dappled light and market throng. The cafe was the perfect place to watch the crowds go by on foot or donkey or truck. We would point out to each other those people who would look as much at home in the trendiest suburbs of Stockholm or Sydney as they did on that sandy stretch of street. Brogue shoes, chunky knits, tweed blazers and utilitarian beanies – The view from that cafe could have been a runway for Urban Outfitters.
Here’s the thing though. Whilst my husband’s style translated easily, I would not even have been in that situation – dappled light and market throng – if I had not carefully constructed my outfit. From my ankle skimming skirt to my fake wedding ring, dressing for the day was always a mindful process. Before I moved to Morocco I had worked in fashion magazines. Predictably, my packing involved research, fashion blogs and mood boards. A google search led me to mixed answers and misgivings. My style references – think Aladdin – could have be drawn from Edward Said’s Orientalism. Even once I was there, it took weeks, if not months, for me to figure out a way of dressing that was comfortable for myself and those around me.
To be honest, the word ‘modesty’ is among my least favorite in the English language. When it rests on my tongue I can feel the weight of the connotations that it bears. Normally, I am pro #freethenipple and I feel right at home on those beaches in Greece that bring many tourists to a blush. So when I read up on the appropriate clothing to wear in Morocco I was more inclined to align myself with the liberal opinions expressed on many a comment thread. I was prepared to be respectful of course, but I believed the trip advisors who told me that I wouldn’t have to change the way I dress by much. My experiences once I arrived taught me differently.
As a woman in Morocco I would feel safe dressing in my usual style. In fact, on that same street in Auorir I would see girls from the surf school strolling in denim cut-off and tank tops. I chose differently. After some time in Morocco I realised that whilst I might be safe in denim cutoffs, I would miss out on many authentic experiences and relationships with local people. At that cafe the owner would sometimes sit with us and learn some english. The butcher across the road knew our order by heart and the jewelers at the market would invite us for tea on Wednesdays. I doubt this would have been the case if I had been in denim cut-offs. I strongly believe that no one should be able to tell women what they should or shouldn’t wear. I am however confident in saying that for me, dressing for modesty was key to my Moroccan experience
I never really felt limited by this dress code. I took my cues from many of the women in town and extended my Scandinavian uniform to include the entire color spectrum. In Marrakech I stocked up on silk maxi skirts and palazzo pants in jewel tones. I collected enamel cuff bracelets, filigree earrings and antique rings – wearing them all at once. I draped scarfs around my shoulders with the kind of careless ease that I had always admired in the French. Magazines like to tell us that what we wear is a way of expressing who we are. With orange silk swooshing around my ankles and jewelry jingling at my wrists, when I walked though town I didn’t feel so much that I was covering myself up as I was shouting my existence.
In Morocco, you never know what bizarre situation you might find yourself in. When I dressed modestly I was glad to know that I was prepared for that. One night, we got on a bus to find it completely overrun by students from Marrakech University. The bus had all the attributes of a party with drums and tambourines, singing and dancing. Despite my best efforts to dress to blend in, the blonde hair was still a give away. I was swept into the middle of the bus by the crowd. I started to dance. Though I was spinning, I could hear their laughter and see their eyes on me. In that moment, I didn’t give one thought to what I was wearing or why everyone was looking at me. I just kept dancing. In hindsight, that’s really why I put so much thought into what I was going to wear when I dressed of a morning. I was dressing for those moments.
Photo credits. Top: Alexandra Lembke. Rest: Kenny Ross