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Heritage Through Fashion: Shahira Mehrez’s “Costumes of Egypt: The Lost Legacies”

A deep-dive into Shahira Mehrez's latest book

Egyptian designer Shahira Mehrez launches her book

Shahira Mehrez’s new book Costumes of Egypt: The Lost Legacies magically encapsulates Egyptian heritage. The author’s work as an academic researcher and long history with fashion acquisition brought her to where we are now, documentation and celebration in book form. Mehrez is an Islamic art expert, fashion designer, and the owner of a chain store selling artifacts inspired by Egyptian heritage in Cairo. 

BEHIND THE BOOK: WHEN DID IT START?

Traditional Egyptian garments as seen in Shahira Mehrez's shop.The book covers decades of research and offers unprecedented documentation of Egyptian heritage through fashion. Costumes of Egypt: The Lost Legacies is the first of four volumes the author is set to publish. This volume focuses on the garments of Nubians, Nile Valley peasants, Bedouins, and oasis dwellers.

“Growing up, we used to go get our clothes tailored. There were tailors for weddings, gatherings, and day-to-day life. I noticed we would get our clothes tailored based on the designs we’d see in foreign magazines like ELLE. We would buy the fabrics and go to a tailor and show them the pictures to replicate what we saw in these magazines. But I didn’t like that, and I started to look for clothing that was unique to our heritage and our culture, clothing that was Egyptian.” Mehrez tells ELLE “This is when I started to rebel, ‘Why should I, as an Egyptian, dress like an English girl, or a French girl?’ It was one of the things that really woke me up.” 

HISTORY & HERITAGE: SHAHIRA MEHREZ

Mehrez plans to follow up on this book with three more volumes, each capturing a different facet of Egypt’s authentic fashion. This volume offers evidence that despite the apparent differences in clothing from various regions, a closer study reveals a common origin. “You find that the heritage is the same, regardless of the geographic location. You find the same symbols in Nuba as you find in Siwa, Sinai, and the Delta. This proves that our nation, and our people, respect and cherish its culture regardless of different bloodlines and religions.” 

The author often ventures into conversation about the importance of a unified heritage. She believes that it is a people’s one true strength to have deep, unshakable connections with their roots. “The purpose of this book is to show that our heritage was the same, and our inheritance (of culture) was the same and that we were not divided as Western societies were divided based on their retrospective backgrounds.”

Traditional Egyptian garments as seen in Shahira Mehrez's shop.Mehrez embarked on her journey with authentic garments at a young age, “I started collecting dresses at 16 because I wanted to look Egyptian.” Mehrez tells us. She has since been building her collection of authentic traditional Egyptian garments, which is now the biggest in the world. Some of which you can find in her atelier in Dokki, along with the inspired pieces she’s created specifically for the atelier. 

COMMEMORATING EGYPTIAN GARMENTS

“One of the first dresses I found and wore was an embroidered dress from North Sinai, a Bedouin dress. That was what drew my attention to the fact that we had beautiful garments in Egypt. When after 1986 I eventually was able to go to Sinai, I discovered an array of these beautiful embroidered garments. During that visit, I was introduced to a collective of Americans, called Mennonite Central Committee of North America, who were trying to build projects to increase women’s income in the area. They faced some issues and had to close up the project, so they proposed that I take it over. Al Arish Needlework Project is not a profitable project, it’s developmental. Which is something I had never worked on, so I was a bit hesitant. However, I felt that they were doing very important work. The project enabled these local women to have an independent income to support their living at a time when the unemployment rates were staggering.” 

“These people, the Bedouins, make beautifully embroidered garments, but each garment takes a year to complete. This isn’t sustainable if you’re trying to build a steady flow of income, so what Mennonite Central Committee of North America did was suggest they make smaller products that take less time to make, so they could sell them faster and more, and contribute to their income.” 

Shahira Mehrez’s Costumes of Egypt: The Lost Legacies, published by The French Institute of Oriental Archeology, is available locally at Diwan Bookstore and internationally at Amazon. 

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