My colleague Alexis passed on an interesting Moroccan-themed photoshoot that was published in French Elle in 1953, 3 years before Morocco received independence from the French colonial administration that was in place from 1912 to 1956. It featured “3 women and 60 dresses” in Morocco, the “Land of Wonders”. An interesting double-page spread titled “SOUKS” comprised of one large photograph of a model, Suzy, on the right, which took up two-thirds of the spread, and six smaller numbered snapshots of all three models, Suzy, Taina and Françoise, presented in a grid-like formation on the left, above a block of text that detailed their elegant French fashions (Balmain, Lanvin-Castillo, M. de Rauch, Jacques Fath and Dior) and activities in the souk.
Suzy, Taina and Françoise try on djellabahs (a short or longer-sleeved outer garment with a hood and slits at the bottom), barter with Arab merchants, pose by the drinking trough (where “beasts and people meet”), take morning walks, stop by each stall to admire luxurious fabrics, get pursued by small children, and finger freshly dyed wool piles, all the time holding on tightly to their designer handbags. They are dressed in streamlined lightweight French fashions which, the caption tells us, enable them to spend all day in the souks whilst maintaining the ideal body temperature: neither “too hot, nor too cold”. The models are clearly delineated from the local population by dress, pose and stature; they point their toes, flick out their skirts, and assume an air of confidence and composure by placing, for example, one hand on the hips, whilst the other clasps the lapel of a blue, beige and white striped percale jacket. The local population, dressed mostly in djellabahs, cherbil slippers and the litham (the piece of fine, translucent cloth that Moroccan women use to cover the bottom part of their faces), are used more as authenticating background props than to provide any detailed information about their changing modes of dress. There is no mention, for instance, that Arab women’s increased adoption of the djellabah during this period, usually worn with the hood draped over the head and accompanied with the veil, was a symbol of modernity that accompanied their increased public mobility. Instead, the article insinuates an underlying sense of danger within the souk, in which Morocco as an extension of France is placed as an inferior culture in need of French (fashion) guidance.
Published in April 1953, only 4 months before Mohammed V of Morocco was deposed and forced into exile by France for giving tacit support to Istiqial (the Moroccan independence party, founded in 1944), French Elle’s article ‘Maroc: Land of Wonders’, although masquerading as a cultural appreciation of the country, might also be read as an insidious attempt to reassert French authority.