All things bright and breathtaking: A selection of the underwear on sale in Damascene souqs
Nowhere is immune to kitsch. Even in Damascus, with its conservative society, ancient Ottoman architecture and picturesque dilapidation, kitschness shimmers with all its novelty and luminous color. Kitsch thrives just under the cultural radar, and, it now emerges, just under the modest outerwear of Syrian women.
Rana Salam, now based in London, is a Lebanese designer who has taken inspiration for her clothes and interior design from her “obsession” with the gaudy street culture of the Middle East. While trawling the souqs of Damascus for inspiration, she kept finding a curious phenomenon – lingerie brighter than an Warhol painting, briefer than a Wildean epigram and with decoration falling somewhere between candy store and toy box. Salam discovered that in Damascus, in their underwear, women were having fun.
The project inspired a book: The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, about which Salam will come to Beirut to speak on October 31. Talking to NOW Extra, she says that she first came across the distinctive Syrian scanties, “six or seven years ago. I started collecting all this lingerie, and when I would bring it back to Beirut, people would go completely mad; they would say it was crazy.”
The underwear is unique for several reasons, she says. “It is locally made, by local people who have never been to any design school,” and for this reason, she enthuses, “it was fascinating to see this creativity coming out from a regime that is meant to be repressed, a culture that has no fun and is meant to have no creativity whatsoever.”
The underwear is certainly skimpy and often overtly, if playfully, sexual. There is pink PVC and there are zipper crotches. There are nipple tassels and fringes and zebra print, accoutrements of sexual adventure rather removed from the conventions for modest dress and behavior in Syria. But what is most striking about the lingerie is its appropriation of all that is modern, fun and silly. Toys are attached: Tweety Bird flutters his eyelashes from the front of a G-string. A matching set is made from a child’s map of the world. The whole ethos is gleeful, slightly mad and utterly disrespectful of the satins-and-lace conventions of the lingerie world.
“It's not La Perla,” says Salam, “but when it came to real fun and entertainment under the veil, I found there was plenty of it around.
“It's very surreal,” she goes on, “the way a designer could run down to the toyshop and pick up a few plastic mobile phones or birds or cockroaches and could collage them onto what was literally home-made lingerie.” Some of the underwear, she adds, can play music, some of it is edible, some is scratch and sniff and some is Nescafé flavored.
“Some of them you clap and they fall apart,” she goes on, as if just getting going, “some of them are stuffed inside chocolate hearts.” It is, she says, “complete madness, yes, completely mad.”
Salam spent several weeks in Damascus, researching the underwear underworld for her book, discovering among other things that no Syrian girls are prepared to model underwear, and that Russian women are recruited from cabaret shows to model. She recounts with delight her discovery that “there’s a local photographer, who shoots the lingerie for the shop. He collects them into a plastic folder, and inside each shot is just a six-by-four print.
“To me,” she says of the scrappy snapshots taken against a painting of Swiss mountains, “that was ultimate Arab photography, contemporary Arab photography.
“I was on to something completely different,” she adds, “and extremely kitsch of course, and badly taken, but so spot-on and very telling about the environment.”
Samal is in the process of launching an online accessories company called Mishmaoul! (not possible), which will sell, among other things, plastic cuffs decorated with the lurid design classic that is Chiclets packaging. Dorothy Parker said that brevity was the soul of lingerie. Rana Samal, with her eye for all that is funny, tacky and yet somehow gorgeous about the Middle East has discovered that, sometimes, in lingerie, lays the hidden and hilarious soul of a society.
Rana Salam will speak about her work and her upcoming book in the Architecture Lecture Hall, AUB, October 31, 6.30pm