Syrian Lingerie is the broad term for a style of lingerie popular across the Arabic world. I first learned about it reading an article in the Sunday Times about the work of journalist Malu Halasa and designer Rana Salam exposing this unusual trend. Like most westerners, I associate the Middle East with modest clothing and stricter religious and socio-cultural dress codes, and the revelation that novelty underwear was incredibly popular was both intriguing and delightful to me.
Tucked away in the souks of busy cities, shops selling 'indoor clothing' boast more fantastical creations that would be at home at any Jean Paul Gaultier or Agent Provocateur showcase. Sex within Muslim marriages is given a sort of religious and moral importance - and under Islamic law, the failure of a husband to satisfy his wife sexually is considered grounds for divorce.
What I love most about the garments is how they incorporate humour with more traditionally 'sexy' designs. Remote controlled musical devices accompany crotchless leather, feather trims sit alongside plastic insects and flowers, some pieces even incorporate universally well-known cartoon characters like Tweety Bird... ironically the novelty and cartoonish nature of these items gives them a sense of innocence. Because Syria used to have an import embargo on foreign products, the designs and components were all domestically made, allowing for a very unique style to evolve. Rana Salam, the artist and photographer who created the imagery in the book referenced below, recalled that she once saw 'edible Nescafe flavoured' underwear in one of the lingerie shops!
The lingerie is traditionally gifted to the bride by her cousins, aunties and female friends and is intended as a tool for keeping a healthy marital sex life alive well beyond the wedding night. However, the manner in which these pieces are marketed is a reminder that there is much room for progress when it comes to Middle Eastern women being able to freely express their sexuality both in print and in mainstream culture .The lingerie catalogues displaying such pieces are modelled exclusively by caucasian European models, in poses that are counterintuitively unprovocative: standing, leaning awkwardly, sporting a beaming smile as opposed to a sultry pout. Their innocuous poses betray the true purpose of the garments, and they serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the double standard: that a healthy sex life within the constraints of a marriage is sanctioned, but expressing that same sexuality outside of these socially imposed frameworks is at best frowned upon.
You can purchase the book referenced earlier here if you want to learn more about lingerie culture in the Middle East.