Mirroring Change through Intangible Heritage: Cairo, European Contact and Fashion, 1805 – 1952

By : Mayar Kotb…

“Heritage is not just something that we do on holiday,” claims Ian Mortimer, a writer of the UK based magazine History Today. For indeed, it does not end at monuments and the collection of objects, but is in everyday doings that are central to human existence. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines heritage as consisting of traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants. These include oral traditions, performing arts, rituals, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. All this constitutes what UNESCO refers to as “intangible heritage.” Transmitted from generation to generation, it is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.

Although not explicitly mentioned by UNESCO, fashion styles can be regarded as a form of intangible heritage. Despite the fact that clothes are concrete in terms of their actual tangibility (and the tangibility of their means of production), the ideas, social identities and living expressions they signify makes them, however, a form of intangible heritage. As UNESCO claims, the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the “manifestation itself” but rather the “wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.” Another reason why clothing and fashion styles can be regarded as a form of intangible heritage would be that there is not really a tangible or definite way for one to conserve them, the way in which one would conserve a building or monument. 

 As the scholar Nancy Micklewright points out, clothing is at once a “personal and public way of expressing social identity.” But what is exactly meant when using such a nonspecific term such as identity? To borrow the words of the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, from his documentary film titled, Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989):

“We are creating an image of ourselves. We are attempting to resemble this image. Is that what we call identity? The accord between the image we have created of ourselves and…ourselves?”

The visual element of clothing plays an important role in the creation of this image and thus, to an extent, in the creation of identity. It can therefore be claimed that heritage itself has a role in forming an image that creates a certain collective and local identity. Additionally, in relation to other production processes (such as the construction of buildings for instance), the process of producing new clothes is relatively inexpensive. It is also relatively simple given that it does not necessarily require complex tools or technological modifications in order to alter styles.

Clothes, as a form of heritage, and relative to monuments that are more static in nature, can therefore serve as one of the quickest and most inexpensive ways of reflecting the transformations of a certain society at a given time period. As anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen notes, dress is a “product of changing relationships between a variety of local, regional, Western, and, in some parts of the world, Islamic influences.” This article aims to use the changes in fashion that took place in Cairo between 1805-1952, to explore the most crucial transformations and influences that happened over the country’s modern history.

The presence of Europeans in the Ottoman Empire and the growing familiarity of the Ottomans with European culture had a critical effect on the political and social changes of the 19th century; one which has been extensively studied. European influence was strongest in the major cities of the empire, most notably Cairo. During the regimes of Muhammad Ali and Sultan Mahmud II, the emulation of European methods of administration, education and political organization brought about a continued expansion of the role of the state. (Cleveland) This evidently had an impact on varies aspects of the city’s cultural heritage at the time; including its architectural style, interior furnishings, literature, music and, undeniably, clothing.

The way in which clothes have always been tied to the human experience, makes fashion an interesting lens that can be used when examining how Cairo chose to present itself, or re-present itself in the face of prolonged contact with Europe; encompassing themes of nationalism, gender, hierarchy and class. The article will not focus on how heritage itself should be dealt with, but rather concerns itself in merely highlighting the factors that end up affecting the cultural heritage of a specific place, contextualizing the changes in which they emerge in.

By using visual sources in the form of drawings and photographs, the issue of costume change in Cairo during 1805-1952, usually from traditional costume to a European-influenced style, will be the focus of this article. The choice of visual sources is fitting given that fashion itself is widely seen as an aesthetically apparent apparatus with strong visual connotations. While 1805 marks Muhammad Ali’s rise to power in Egypt, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, at least for the sake of this article, marks the end of the dynasty rule he established. Such a broad duration will be examined assuming that change in clothing happened gradually and over a long period of time. Indeed, it is usually easier to condition younger generations to dress in a certain way than persuade older ones to change their long held habits of clothing.

Given that fashion is usually treated as an urban phenomenon, and because changes in dress tend to occur more in cities than in rural areas, the article chooses Cairo as its main focal point. Due to space restrictions, the main focus will be on dress customs of the upper middle class of Cairo at the time. This in no way indicates that those belonging to other classes did not necessarily engage with, or respond to, the changes in fashion that were occurring in the city. However, the elite’s accessibility to varies resources often meant that they were the ones immediately impacted by cultural changes coming from abroad.

What is meant by ‘European influence’ here will be broken down into three main criteria: 1) military reforms and diplomatic missions 2) the industrial revolution and its impact on Egypt’s economy 3) education. Although the countries of Europe will be grouped together and often referred to as a single unit, this in no way suggests that they were culturally uniform, but for the purposes of this article there is no need to separate the different strands of influence from one another. It should be noted, however, that in terms of fashion trends, France was generally the leader in style, but British influence remained significant since it was British manufacturers who often supplied the textiles and costumes accessories. (Micklewright)

Theories on clothing and fashion

For centuries the phenomena of fashion has been the varied subject of social analysts, cultural historians, moral critics, academic theorists and business entrepreneurs. Early 20th century writer Willett Cunnington, along with sociologist David Durkheim, distinguish between clothing and costume arguing that while clothing is functional, costume is used in order to express ideas. Social anthropologist E.R Leach takes this theory further by claiming that a garment has a technical and ritual aspect to it where it can be both costume and clothing, serving a social or ritual function while meeting at the same time basic needs of shelter and protection. Historian Sydney Mead comes to define fashion as the “synchronic dimension of style,” present in primitive as well as modern societies. Style and therefore fashion, he argues, change continually, but change may be hastened by local invention, social unrest, major catastrophes, and particularly by culture contact situations.

Art historian Quentin Bell regards fashion as a European phenomenon that is not present in parts of the world that are untouched by European influence, implying that dress in those areas is unchanging. Micklewright, however, claims that although the rate of change in traditional dress may not be as fast as in the fashion world of Europe, she argues that there are certainly significant changes taking place. The issue this article aims to examine is not necessarily whether or not it was European influence that was changing fashion in Cairo between 1805-1952, but what was happening during that time period (that led to such changes) as Cairo came to growing political, economic and social contact with another continent.

Several obstacles, however, exist when using fashion as a lens to examine a certain society at a specific time in history. Firstly, is it always assumed that costume choices made by an individual are indicative of his identification with certain ideas or social groups? Secondly, the actual costumes of the certain time period are often no longer present to the historian and therefore one has to often heavily rely on written and visual sources including photographs, travellers’ descriptions and paintings, postcards and costume manuscripts. Although these sources can be limited in terms of subjectivity and representation, in the absence of the actual costumes and specific information pertaining to their date and provenance, they come to be of primary importance when examining the general dress code of a certain time and place.

Illustrations of changes in fashion:

piccccccLeft: A tattooed girl (most likely from the upper and middle classes) as illustrated by Lane, published in 1836. Right: Illustrated by  Lane, published in 1836.
c3Downtown Cairo, 1941.



CCCCCLeft: Men of the middle and upper classes as illustrated by Lane, published in 1836. Right: Mohamed Ali St. near Azbakia district, 1949.

The above images demonstrate the fashion changes that occurred in Cairo between 1805-1952 ranging from galabiyas and turbans to blazers and trousers, face veils to European hats and dresses, and henna and kohl to foreign cosmetics and make-up. Such changes emerged within a context created by European contact. Generally, Cairo at the time was undergoing contact with Europe through Istanbul – the assumption being that change originated in the center of the empire and then spread to the peripheries. The following three factors, however, help in understanding, in a more specific manner, the context in which this contact emerged in:

  1. Military reforms and diplomacy

Until the 19th century Ottoman borrowings from Europe were very specific, concerned mostly with military technology. Following a series of military defeats and disadvantageous treaties throughout the 18th century, the Ottoman sultan and his advisors were forced to acknowledge European military superiority and the need to form diplomatic alliances with foreign powers in order to protect themselves. With the creation of the Tri-Partite Defensive Alliance in 1799 between Britain, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Empire became part of the European alliance system, reflecting the increasing importance of diplomacy in its relations with Europe. (Micklewright) While military students, bureaucrats and diplomats were often sent to Europe to study and receive training sessions, Europeans came to the empire as instructors and military advisors. Indeed, the program for military reform and diplomatic missions that was carried out throughout the 18th century led to a larger European presence in the Ottoman Empire as well as growing exposure to European manners and customs.

The military uniforms that were adopted as a result of these reforms majorly influenced the dress code of Ottoman society. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire initiated extensive reforms of the military by introducing western style uniforms and the fez (a western hat) with a cloth wrapped around it. In 1829 he ordered civil officials to wear the fez, while banning the wearing of the turban (a traditional headgear usually associated with Islam). (Jirousek) The fez eventually became a symbol of modernity in other nations, particularly Egypt. The intention was to coerce the population at large to update to the fez. It was a radically egalitarian measure, which replaced the elaborate restrictive laws indicative of rank, religion and occupation, foreshadowing the tanzimat reforms that sought to modernize the empire in the face of growing European dominance.

ONELeft: Officer of Janissaries in Egypt donning a turban. Right: Soldiers in Ottoman Egypt each donning a fez.

In the course of making Egypt a military power, Muhammad Ali also brought the country, most notably its capital, into sustained diplomatic contact with Western Europe. Impressed by what he had seen of British and French troops, he determined that his military would be modeled along European lines. In particular, he established an officers’ training school in Aswan with European instructors. (Cleveland) Attempting to produce a future cadre of Egyptians with an understanding of European military sciences, Muhammad Ali sent several training missions to Europe, mainly France. The students who went on these missions usually returned with experience and exposure that extended beyond the military origins of their training.

  1. The Industrial Revolution and its impact on Cairo’s economy

Ottoman knowledge about Europeans and their ways also came to the ottomans earlier through trade and merchants. The economic developments associated with the Industrial Revolution, however, hastened the spread of this knowledge, exposure and ability to borrow certain ideas and customs. To start with, the advent of steamship travel enabled more people from the empire to travel to Europe and, at the same time, more Europeans to visit many parts of the empire at a much faster rate. The introduction of the sewing machine also speeded up and increased production, producing in turn a market for fashion consumption. (Baron) The sewing machine made it much easier and faster to change styles frequently. Prior to it, people would often wear hand downs from older family members, in which it was difficult to change from style to style every so often.

Manufactured goods from Europe, particularly textiles and related products, were imported into the empire in huge quantities throughout the 19th century. (Micklewright) There would have therefore been little difficulty in obtaining the necessary materials for the creation of European styled clothing in Istanbul and in other cities associated with Ottoman rule. Interestingly, however, Europeans continued to tailor their manufacturers to Ottoman tastes throughout the 19th century. As late as 1913, a Russian observer wrote,

“Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy… have built a whole set of factories and workshops, producing specially for export and perfectly copying and preparing articles that can readily sell in the Near Eastern markets, with their capricious tastes…” (quoted in Issawi)

This suggests that European manufacturers also accommodated to ottoman styles, implying that influence in terms of fashion was not just occurring in one direction.

Developments associated with the Industrial Revolution enabled foreign investment as well as control over various aspects of Ottoman economy including:  industry, coal mining, construction of railroads, administration of various industries and cotton production in Egypt. This meant that foreign managers, engineers and laborers were coming into the empire in large numbers. In the course of making Egypt an economic power, Muhammad Ali also brought the country, most notably Cairo, into sustained diplomatic and commercial contact with Western Europe. Despite his program to industrialize Egypt self-sufficiently, similar to other countries of the region, Egypt also ended up being an exporter of raw materials and an importer of European manufactured goods. Machinery and managers to administrate certain industries were often imported from Europe under Muhammad Ali.

  1. Education

The creation of an adequate educational system was a main priority of the Ottoman government throughout the 19th century. According to Micklewright, the new schools established in Istanbul and elsewhere, were perhaps the “single most effective force” in familiarizing Ottomans with European culture and lifestyle. During the second half of the 19th century, Muhammad Ali sought to modernize education in Egypt by replacing the kuttab (Islamic elementary schools) with educational institutions ranging from public schools, private Catholic schools and secular elite English schools. With the importation of a schooling system modeled along European lines, school uniforms based on European style became obligatory.


Typical kuttab school in Egypt, photo taken by Adelphoi Zangaki.

c10Modern school in Egypt with students in western uniforms, early 20th century.

In addition to specifically training combat officers, Muhammad Ali founded educational institutions intended to produce experts in the support services required by the military. Eventually, there influence went beyond their initial military intent. During a twenty-year period beginning from the early 1820s, schools of medicine, veterinary medicine, chemistry and engineering were established. Similar to the military excavations carried out under Muhammad Ali, their students were occasionally sent to Europe on educational missions. Such an intensive program of higher education was oriented towards a western subject matter. In 1835 Muhammad Ali established the School of Languages mainly for the purpose of training translators. This school exercised an important influence on the direction of Egypt’s cultural and educational life until its closure in the 1850s. (Cleveland)


The above relates changes in cultural heritage in the form of clothing with a certain political, economic and social situation occurring in Cairo between 1805 until 1952. The political context is examined in terms of military and diplomatic reforms, the economic in terms of Industrial Revolution developments, and the social in terms of educational modernization. It is demonstrated how, in the face of these political, economic and social changes occurring within this time period, upper class Caireans did not necessarily choose to continue transmitting the knowledge and practice of their traditional dress habits.

While changes in fashion took place by direct ‘top-down’ policies intended to change people’s dress code, they also occurred in a less direct and planned way as commercial, political and social contact enabled more Europeans into Cairo (and vice versa), exposing Caireans to new ideas and values. One, however, has to use the lens of fashion while bearing in mind how it is often difficult to tell whether changes in dress follow wider socio-economic and political changes, or whether they in fact occur with them simultaneously. This leads to question whether heritage becomes a product of such changes, or rather a means, amongst others, in achieving these changes.



Baron, Beth. “Unveiling in Early Twentieth Century Egypt: Practical and Symbolic Considerations” Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul 1989), pp. 370-386

Cleveland, William. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press (2004)

Cunnington, Willet. Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century. London: Faber and Faber (1959)

Hansen, Karen T. “Anthropology of Dress and Fashion” Berg Fashion Library <http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/page/Anthropology$0020of$0020Dress$0020and$0020Fashion/anthropology-of-dress-and-fashion>

Issawi, Charles. An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa. New York: Columbia University Press (1982)

Jirousek, Charlotte. “Islamic Clothing.” In Encyclopedia of Islam. New York: Macmillan Pub (2004) < http://char.txa.cornell.edu/islamicclothes.htm>

Leach, E. R. Political Systems of Highland Burman. London: The London School of Economics (1954)

Mead, Sydney M. Traditional Maori Clothing. Sydney: A.H. and  A.W Reed (1969)

Micklewright, Nancy. “Women’s Dress in Nineteenth-Century Istanbul: Mirror of a Changing Society (Ottoman Costume, Westernization, Turkey)” (January 1, 1986) Dissertations available from ProQuest. Paper AAI8614840.  <http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8614840>

Mortimer, Ian. “Whose History is This?” History Today Volume: 64 Issue: 6 (2014) <http://www.historytoday.com/ian-mortimer/whose-history>

Quentin, Bell. On Human Finery. London: Hogarth Press (1976)

Wenders, Wim, Yohji Yamamoto, and Ulrich Felsberg. Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Troy, MI: Anchor Bay Entertainment (2006)

“What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) <http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/01851-EN.pdf>


Lane, Edward W. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians: Written in Egypt During the Years 1833-1835. The Hague, London: East West Publications (1978)







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