The Iraqi House of Fashion was established in 1970 with the aim of conserving ancient Iraqi culture.
For the next 33 years the team turned out hundreds of dresses — “perhaps even thousands,” says Shireen Mohammed Arif. The creations were displayed at “fashion shows” that are more theater resembled than modern-day catwalk extravaganzas.
“In the shows we’d start with the Sumerian fashions, and then move through the Babylonian era and into the Assyrian era — then right on up until the start of the Islamic times,” explains Arif, an Iraqi lady in her forties who happily admits her life revolves around the fashion house. Arif is acting general director at the house.
The interest in Fashion grew in the early 1930’s, after Iraq’s Independence from Britain, Fashion shows were popular and paved way for the Beauty Pageant Industry which was established in the 1930’s with the Miss Baghdad beauty competition and then later in December 1947 when the very first Miss Iraq, Renee Dangoor, was crowned.
Models were organized under a union called the Iraqi fashion house, the age limit was confined to girls between the ages of 17 to 25 and men 18 to 30, the fashion house consisted of 307 designers, artists, embroiderers, dressmakers and models who recreated dresses and costumes in styles dating back 5,000 years and more.
Copying images from ancient pottery and drawings, designers were inspired by these images, experts sourced natural fabrics in local markets, embroiderers created the motifs, and dressmakers sew them onto dresses which the models then displayed.
Do not even ask about the price of these exquisite hand-crafted garments bearing colorful motifs representing either the Sumerian period (2330-5000 BC), the Babylonian era (1750-2330 BC) and the Assyrian epoch (613-1800 BC) and on up until the start of the Islamic period in the 6th century AD.
“They’re priceless. They’re not for sale,” says Feryal al-Kilidar, the former Director of the Iraqi Fashion House and a fashion designer. “Some of them have taken a year to complete. How can you put a price on that? Many people have wanted to buy them but we’re making these dresses to preserve our culture. They’re just for the pleasure of seeing”.
The robes, some of the type worn by the kings and queens of Mesopotamia — as the land between two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, was known — are made solely of materials that would have been available at the time.
Being a model in Iraq is different from being a model in Europe. It was confined to cultural shows and festivals, fashion designers often resorted to their own finances when organizing an event in a hotel or club, apart from the Iraqi fashion house, the beauty pageant industry kept the modeling scene alive, a beauty queen is often identified as a model in Iraq, where girls who wanted to land a job in television or as actresses often started working as fashion models then entered the prestigious Miss Iraq pageant and then either sought after a career in television or as actresses, but this however changed in the 1980’s, as the Iran-Iraq war started, the industry declined, pageants were not as popular as they were back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Lebanon’s Georgina Rizk‘s win as Miss Universe 1971 helped the pageant industry boom in Iraq and across the Arab world.
In present times, Iraqi fashion designers can obtain funding from private institutions or the state, they are working around the clock to obtain recognition and raise awareness in the fashion weeks of Milan and Paris. You have to check out designers like Ziad Al-Athari’s work or Sinan Kamel who has redefined the Arab Abaya with a modern approach and look.