It’s More Than a Dress: Three Refugee Women Speak on their Identity Through Fashion
When thinking of Parisian fashion you typically imagine Haute Couture, Fashion Week and, of course, the effortlessly chic Parisian women; but, what about the refugee women that settle there? According to the UNHCR, France is one of the largest asylum host countries in Europe, becoming home to roughly 407,000 refugees since 2019. But still, even with such a large population, refugee experiences within fashion are often not considered, facilitating the exclusion from the Western fashion narrative altogether.
Fleeing one’s home country to build a new life is a tumultuous experience that many will never experience nor understand. What clothes would you choose to bring? How will the weather of your new country and city change your style or comfort? Do you want to blend in with locals or keep your traditional fashion? Our clothes and fashion choices make up our identity, and especially, show others who we are. But, there’s so many fashion choices and experiences that go into settling somewhere far from home -- and even more so when entering a part of the world with completely different cultural norms.
I was able to sit down with three refugee women from Iran, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who have actively been working in fashion since settling in Paris. I was eager to understand their perspectives on fashion as professionals and how it may have changed based on their arrival to Paris. We began introducing ourselves but quickly realized that the language barrier was going to be tricky. Expressing your feelings in a foreign language does not feel the most natural, but nevertheless we began communicating in a mix of French, English and a lot of theatrical hand gestures.
How would you describe your style?
Woman, 35: My style depends on the situation. I like all different kinds but I can’t think of just one. My taste is not limited on one or two, it's diverse. I feel like It’s hard to answer this question because it really it depends on the situation and my mood -- but, nearly all the time I avoid very flashy things.
Woman, 31: It's difficult to define, I like all sorts... but above all I always wear a lot of black. Dark shades and comfortable materials are always my favorites.
Woman, 28: I dress very casual. I like simpler things and more neutral colors. I shop from stores like H&M or Primark every now and then.
Photo by Olivia Garcia, 2021
Alt Text: Beige long sleeve dress on mannequin in clothing store
Do you have a favorite designer or magazine?
Woman, 35: To be honest, I don't really pay attention to them [designers and magazines] because I think it puts my mind into their "special" frame. For me, it's limiting to what I want to be.
Woman, 31: I’m not so interested in other designers but more I focus on myself as creator. I like to create for myself, sell and work for others also.
Woman, 28: I like to sift through Vogue for images and inspiration but I don't spend so much time doing research.
I then tried to think of the last time I remembered seeing a refugee represented in Vogue or Elle. I couldn't. It's difficult to shift from the Western context of fashion designers and media and realize how little they truly cater to the actual global sphere. Cultural diversity in fashion media is not just important for visibility, but it helps to educate against stereotypes and misinformation. It's clear that refugees don't “look” a certain way, but by elevating refugee stories, designers and models, the industry can feel more relatable to more people. But, there has been noteworthy progress. Between refugee designers and programs getting more media attention, and Gen-Z models like Halima Aden and Eman Deng walking runways for brands like Max Mara and Thom Browne, the industry is becoming more active in facilitating a change.
US-Somalia model Halima Aden walking for Max Mara during the Women's Fall/Winter 2017/2018 fashion week in Milan, on February 23, 2017. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images. Alt Text: Models on Runway
How have you felt your style and taste has evolved throughout your life?
Woman, 35: I have always remembered clothes and fashion being a big part of my life. I definitely wore different and creative clothes as a child -- even as young as four or five years old. So, I have been expressing myself always. My style has evolved, of course, as I've grown older but I think I have always had a sense of creativity.
Woman, 31: I’ve been interested in fashion ever since I was a little girl. In fact, my family told me that I needed to follow this career ever since I was a young because of that, and thankfully it has continued till now.
Woman, 28: Definitely, I don't think that anyone could keep the same style throughout their whole life! In my teenage years I definitely started to find that fashion made me happy and I began building from there.
Since coming to Paris, do you feel the need to dress a certain way?
Woman, 35: Never. I have always had my own style.
Woman, 31: Of course. I believe that every second we are changing and developing a new life. Since being in Paris for the last four years my style has shifted a lot, but it's a human experience. I think it would happen anywhere in the world.
Woman, 28: Of course, it's a different city, you see less traditional clothing.
What does fashion mean to you?
Woman, 35: Fashion means that you live in your own way. It’s obviously especially about appearance also. But, fashion to me means that I follow my tastes and desires in choosing clothes and colors.
“Fashion is a matter of living your true life”
Woman, 31: It depends on my personality all the time. But, for me, fashion is a matter of living your true life.
Woman, 28: It's really such a big question, but to think of it plainly, fashion is something beautiful. You can dress how you want -- with any fabrics or colors or designs. It takes a lot of imagination and creativity.
As a woman, do you find fashion empowering or something that is connected to femininity?
Woman, 35: I think people -- meaning everyone, not just women, express themselves by their clothes. We choose our clothes not just to cover our bodies; but, we choose and wear different clothes to express our mood, personality and power.
Woman, 31: Now that I’m working on an upcycling project, for me as a woman, more than ever I feel the responsibility that comes with working with clothes. It feels powerful to be doing this, to be able to create in a way that is smart and good for the environment.
“We choose our clothes not just to cover our bodies...we choose and wear different clothes to express our mood, personality and power.”
Woman, 28: It is definitely connected to my personality, so it empowers every part of me. You can feel more like a woman by wearing different things, like a skirt or dress, for example. Some people don't pay so much attention to it, but for me my fashion and my style is who I am.
Have you considered that fashion could be just as important a part of your life as it is to a refugee woman? I realized throughout speaking with them we shared the experience of having fashion be a creative and fun part of our childhoods, ultimately leading us to where we are today. Despite a language barrier and clear cultural differences, the idea that fashion can be a means of normality and expression was also ever-present throughout my conversations. It can truly be the one thing that brings stability to a life of unpredictability and insecurity.
Photo by Olivia Garcia, images sourced from Vogue Paris October 2020 Issue
Alt Text: Collage of dresses from magazine
It's clear that Paris is a Western fashion powerhouse.Many are exposed to the fantasy and luxury of the city whether it be by seeing Paris Fashion Week, Galeries Lafayette, or walking down Avenue Montaigne. But, there are plenty of refugee women in fashion who bring their own unique histories to the city and by sharing this, they can be added to the idea of "who" is a part of fashion in Paris.
It is not often that you get exposed to the tastes and desires of refugee women in fashion, and in 2021there shouldn't be a reason why it feels so undisclosed. One could think that fashion for a refugee is not as important as more pressing life decisions, but it's more than a dress -- it's the ability to choose what to wear, how to wear it and the power it can provide. It’s what keeps you feeling like “you”. It is an outlet for desire and taste, for exploring oneself and thinking about where you are in the world. It’s identity, representation and the power of expression.
Learning and taking time to listen to refugee voices about fashion brings a whole new, unique perspective to what fashion is able to bring about. No matter where you are in the world, and what situation you live under, fashion is always a big part of the human identity and can be what relates us to each other.