Sunday, May 2, 2010

Egypt Fashion

A question I got asked quite a bit when  I came home to the US this past winter was, "what do you wear in Egypt?"  which is a completely different question from "what do people wear in Egypt?" but hints at that.  I think it's time to answer both on the blog, so that people get to know something they're curious about, and people thinking to travel here get a better idea of how to blend in and dress appropriately.

On the Street in Cairo
Men: Doormen, some laborers, some small shop-owners will wear a garment like a long robe or shirt called a galabeya which falls to the feet with whatever shoes.  Most Cairo guys on the street wear jeans (of the semi-not-total-ball-crushing variety) and a T-shirt or casual collared work shirt in either long or short sleeves or a full-on suit if going to work.  Young men usually stick to jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers almost unanimously.  If they're real local they LOVE their fake designer-wear. If you're wearing a suit you better have some pointy-ish black leather shoes with either squared off or truly pointy toes. Extra local points if they're dusty and turn up at the tips from a rigorous life.  Shibshib is what we call the Egyptian version of flipflops and they are considered very casual wear, mainly worn around the house, so not many men wear these outside and barely any women except in the poorer areas as it's a bit like going out in your sweatpants in the US.  Because of that you can sometimes see people going around in shibshib, but not if they're going much farther than down the street to the store.

Women *: Here there is a huge mix, which you can see if you ride the women's car on the Metro.  Many young women wear hijab here, but they also dress in often very colorful, tight clothing.  The tightness seems immodest, so I don't exactly understand it except as a way to somehow make the clothes fit in with "modern" western clothing more. Matching is very popular, down to the accessories, no matter what esoteric hue they might be, so you can often see young hijabii girls rocking an outfit in 2-3 colors around town in a very fashionable way to them, which I as a Westerner could never pull off. Colors are matched from the (often layered) headscarves, to bangles, to footwear.  Long, A-line or trumpet skirts are popular here (but not to the exclusion of pants which are usually skinny jeans on the younger girls), including in denim, which I thought was cute enough to buy a couple. Older women usually will wear simple long pants or skirts and blouses or long casual dresses like the male galabeyas, but a bit more form-fitting.  Oddly enough it's my impression that is a generation of older women present in Cairo that don't veil possibly because of the events during their lives when the veil was considered "backward" or restraining.  Few women wear complete veils, but maybe 3/4ths cover their hear.  During the winter many girls were wearing skirts at the knee with tights or pants under tucked into cute ankle or knee boots.

*Please note: The veiling issue is very complicated and women on an individual basis have many different opinions and feelings about their personal choices regarding to be veiled or not. There are many works of scholarship out there about what veiling means or doesn't mean, but I think the most important point is to try and understand what veiling means to the individual and react to it on an individual basis, not on the penalty of assigning group homogeneity.  There's my two cents!  Lots of info out there for people to check out!

Women: Women are pretty safe in most major areas wearing long jeans, pants, or a skirt which falls beneath the knees; and any shirt that has at least short-sleeves.  Sleeveless is a no-go, or at least throw a scarf or shrug on over your shoulders.  Anything that shows much cleavage is probably best left at home or to other areas to be discussing following this section. No short shorts. Ever. Sensible footwear is good as the streets can go back and forth from sidewalks to none, to an inch of sand, to rubble, to puddles.  However, Cairo is a major city, so impractical, flashy footwear and short heels will make you blend in more. 

I typically wear:  I have a certain way of dressing that I consider a baseline of modesty to go on when in Cairo or traveling in Egypt in general.  It's important to wear long pants or skirts, and keep your arms partially covered, so I usually wear jeans and a T-shirt with a 3/4 sleeve shrug over, cute ballet flats for around town, or short wooden heels if I'm going to school or getting around on my own.  If someone is driving me, I will wear heels if I know for sure we won't be walking far or taking the subway.

Men: Foreign guys pretty much wear what Egyptian men wear, with the exception that shorts are probably best left at home if you want to blend in at all, and the foreigners are usually the ones wearing more baseball caps than Egyptian guys because the latter don't like to mess up their carefully gelled hair-dos.

Nightlife and Clubbing in Cairo
There is no distinction between foreigner/local wear at clubs in Cairo, because the kind of Cairenes who go out to clubs are usually pretty westernized, international, and not conservative.  I think most of my Cairo friends are conservative enough to not go clubbing, or they keep it to mainly dance-themed things like Salsa nights which are a bit more fun and innocent in a way than a hip-hop club or a belly dance cabaret.

Women:  Hiiiigh heels, skinny jeans, mini-skirts, skanky earthquake-inducing tops--pretty much the same as the US.  You will probably never see a Hijab while out clubbing, or if you do the girl wearing it is probably not going to be flouncing around like she owns the place as the truly outrageous Cairo girls do.  I have seen Hijabii women out salsa dancing though, but not much in hip hop clubs or some of the racier venues.  Egyptian ladies certainly like to dress it up, and then some though.  And hey, why not?  Egyptian girls are gorgeous!  Us foreigners just drag out one of the two clubbing tops we brought "on the off chance I would be on the Red Sea or something.." and jeans.  The key to getting in and out without being ogled to death on the street? Shrugs, scarves, jackets, getting rides from a friend or jumping into a taxi promptly after exiting any building, and large purses in which to stash a change of clothes to switch into in the bathroom!

Guys: Um...not much new here, jeans and T-shirts.  Big watches.

Weddings in Cairo:
Guys: Suits, many suits.  I've seen shiny platinum-colored ones, but most are basic black or navy with a tie that goes with it nicely.

Ladies:  Huuuge variety here. Weddings are a bit of a chance for people to let their hair down as they're just around family and friends usually, which shows in women's outfits.  You can see sleeveless and strapless dresses here on non-hijabii women from the mid-thigh to full-length ballgowns.  It's always good to bring a scarf or shrug though in case you get a bit self-conscious and for walking to/from the car. The hijabii ladies just throw on a mesh long-sleeved turtleneck undershirt and are good to go! The bride will usually wear the hugest cupcake dress she can manage while still being able to actually dance, with a slightly-less-huge veil.  It's adorable in a "awww, I fantasized about that as a little girl!" way.  Usually the sisters of the couple will be in full-on gowns hovering around offering tissues and carrying stuff for the bride, while the mothers of the couple stalk around in pant suits beaming and joking for some reason.  I don't get the pantsuits, not the beaming and joking of course.

Boys (there are no men at AUC except professors):  The foreign guys obviously wear whatever they would wear at their home college.  Egyptian guys like their designer shades, their brightly-colored T-shirts over carefully worked abs and biceps of a size that makes them walk around with their arms always slightly bent, designer jeans, designer sneakers.  Huge, expensive, imported watches. They can afford it because this is the most expensive college in Egypt. Even the more modest guys are usually a bit better dressed than in the US, sticking to smart short-sleeve, button-down shirts and designer glasses.  There is definitely a uniquely AUC fashion trend that's hard to put your finger on until you come here.  Oh, also Egyptian guys wouldn't be caught dead carrying more than one single notebook at a time, if that.

Girls:  Again, the foreigner girls wear whatever they would at their home college. The Egyptian girls at AUC are usually decked out in a way that makes foreign male tongues wag and foreign females roll their eyes.  There is a specific co-ed group called the "Guccis" that everyone refers to as the absolute consumer-whoreist group of students at AUC and who are the butt of every joke, but besides them the girls in AUC generally make me wish I: a) had Egyptian genes, b) a lot of money, c) could actually justify buying skinny jeans, d) had more time in the morning to look like something other than a colossal wreck e) a driver so I could wear whatever I wanted without worrying about the gauntlet of the open street.  Skinny jeans are prevalent.  Everyone carries large purses instead of backpacks. They can afford to get their hair "did" regularly and stuff waxed and plucked to perfection.  They look fabulous, and that sucks because Egypt hates my skin and my body generally.

On the Red Sea:
The Red Sea is home to many major tourist towns, and I think they've pretty much seen it all.  Women can wear bikinis on the beach or in the club (which is also on the beach), or a mini-skirt, or tank-top.  No one cares enough to give you crap or really say much about it, although expect the Egyptian males around to give you "a look" in a certain way at times.  Again, guys pretty much wear...yep, jeans and a T-shirt or a T-shirt and swim trunks on the beach or even in the club.

I wouldn't say Alexandria is much more conservative than Cairo per-say, but I haven't spent much time there.  There are certain beaches you can wear bikinis, but beware strong surf causing boob-escapage (seriously, been there). When in doubt, throw on a long T-shirt over your suit and you're good to go! I'm not even going to mention guys this time, too boring.  Otherwise I would say just do as you do in Cairo, although somehow I got away with wearing a tank-top one night, but I was accompanied by an Egyptian guy friend.


  1. WOW. That was quite an entertaining read. You, young lady, do not lack observational or descriptive skills!

    I'm a Canadian-born Egyptian, spent 17-years in Egypt before returning back to Canada, and I felt that you gave a pretty accurate description of everything you've covered. I haven't been to the new AUC campus (only the one in downtown), but I wish they were able to re-create the busy, bubbling atmosphere the old one had (it was located in one of the busiest spots in Cairo, after all).

  2. This sounds like an amazing place to be! I would love to visit and share some of your experience of Cairo.

  3. You are a great writer - I am leaving tomorrow for AUC and just did a random search to find out about the fashionable choice for female shoes. I think I got the idea now :)


  4. I appreciate your helpful comments as I am preparing to go to Egypt. Thanks!!

  5. I'm moving to Egypt in two weeks, your description was extremely helpful, thank you.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post.........really appreciate ur ideas!!!!!!!!!!!!!