More than fifty years have passed since Lawrence of Arabia brought the desert worlds of the Middle East to cinema screens around the world, and still the image of Peter O’Toole overlooking the Nefud Desert in his white traditional robes lingers brightly.
It’s a stark symbolic departure from when O’Toole’s character first appears in the film sporting the conventional desert uniform of the British Army, but also an immensely practical decision. T.E. Lawrence was given his thobe and keffiyeh for his role in the Battle of Aqaba in 1917, when he helped lead Arab forces to victory against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The Middle Eastern deserts host some of the most hostile environments in the world, and yet the Bedouin nomadic tribes have thrived on its great expanse for centuries. Their iconic white clothes are purposely made loose to keep the body cool at all times, fan the flames of their fires at night, and carefully cover exposed skin from harsh sunlight. By presenting Lawrence with the tunic, they gave him comfort, and in an unforgiving place like the desert, the value of that cannot be underestimated.
Functional clothing is as old as time, and yet it often seems to be an increasingly obscure notion for daily wear. The fashion industry regurgitates new trends and styles every week, let alone by the season, and it often seems like no thought was put into the functionality of the cut and fabric. A cheap polyester-based fabric can ruin a hot summer’s day, trapping heat and lacking the absorbency of other fabric choices such as lightweight cotton. Activewear brands investing in functional fabrics have generated some amazing technological breakthroughs in the garment industry, but while fashions fade, synthetic fabrics don’t.
It’s refreshing, therefore, when we chance upon designers that stand on the shoulders of our ancestral giants, and combine modern design with traditional wisdom. Shanghai’s Urban Tribe, for instance, uses natural vegetable dyes exclusively, and the fabrics are crafted with Urban Tribe’s own interpretation of “Ci,” a traditional Chinese way of stitching. This form of stitching used to be popular with southwestern Chinese tribes, and features patterns densely embroidered onto cotton in order to create a sturdy, neat surface. Their pieces have proven to be resilient and functional, demonstrating there’s still a lot to be learned from traditional tribal methods. On the other side of the globe, our pals at Battenwear continue to carve their mark in the world of functional fashion for cityfolk. Battenwear’s climbing pants live up their name; cushioning knees from bruises, and giving just enough space for movement without sacrificing form.
Traditionally, the Bedouins leave the clothes of the deceased atop their grave for needy travelers. This seemingly unusual gesture is logical when you think about it: clothing is precious. It’s not garbage you discard with the seasons, but an elegant and valuable tool if you let it be.
Written by Anne Berry / Images from the film “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)