On Instagram, a one-of-a-kind archive of Lebanon’s rich fashion history

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From professional fashion photography to family snaps, the “Lebanese Fashion History” Instagram account documents Lebanese life through images of turn-of-the-20th-century fashion and social upheaval. Its creator, an Australian fashion designer with Lebanese roots, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team what inspired him to create the first Lebanese fashion history archive.

Australian fashion designer Joe Challita launched the “Lebanese Fashion Story” Instagram account in March 2021, amassing 22,000 followers to date. Challita lives in the United Arab Emirates but his family is originally from Lebanon. The designer dedicates his spare time to this online public archive of Lebanese fashion history.

Challita lived in Beirut from 2011 to 2020 after leaving Sydney to discover more of her home country. She moved to Abu Dhabi after the Beirut port explosion in August 2020.

‘The explosion also triggered this nostalgia’

When I left Lebanon after the explosion and moved to Abu Dhabi, I was seeing Lebanon from the point of view or eyes of an outsider. And I think the explosion also triggered this nostalgia. This feeling that we should fight for our country, we should do something for our country. And I thought what can I do? You know, I thought the only way I can fight for my country is through my knowledge, my education, and as a designer, I can fight through fashion.

I noticed that there are no books on Lebanese designers. You can’t go to a library in Beirut and learn about this, look up designers from the 50s or 60s or 70s. There was absolutely nothing, just maybe a few articles written here and there in the newspapers. This is how I began to get my information, through actual investigations and interviews due to the lack of documentation of recorded stories.

For example, we had a designer in the 70s, he was very avant-garde. His name was Jacques Cassia, he was a designer in the 1960s and early 1970s. He moved to Monte Carlo due to the civil war, unfortunately, as did many designers at the time. We also have cousin couturière Raife Salha, known in Paris as the “Christian Dior of the Orient” and who dressed many foreign celebrities. So Lebanon was well known and some of the designers were known in Europe.

‘Fashion is really in the Lebanese DNA’

Challita says she inherited her passion from her mother, an artist, but also from her time in Lebanese society, which was still recovering from the wounds of the civil war.

I lived in Byblos for about 10 years when I was a child. [during the civil war] and that was the part where fashion influenced me a lot […] In our society there… all women were interested in fashion.

All the talk was about fashion. Women were always looking at fashion magazines and there were many weddings. It was almost a competition over who would wear the best dress and everyone went to fabric stores, tailors and designers. All the talk around me during that period was about fashion. It was obsessive. My biggest inspiration was during that brief period when I lived in Lebanon and had my artistic mother and this artistic chaos around me.

A photo submitted by a follower showing his mother participating in a fashion show in Beirut in 1987. © History of Lebanese fashion

I think this fashion is really in the Lebanese DNA. It dates back to the Phoenicians who played an important role in the trade in textiles and dyes.

I believe Beirut was the first capital of fashion and a source of luxury supplies since ancient times, supplying the continents with purple dye from Tire or the cedar wood used for perfumes in ancient Egypt.

But Lebanon became westernized very soon and unfortunately we stopped wearing our traditional clothes. Since the French mandate [Editor’s note: between 1923 and 1943]we have assumed the French style and the European style.

A subscriber's contribution to the page showing an early 20th century Lebanese family wearing European dresses and shirts but retaining the traditional sherwal pants.
A subscriber’s contribution to the page showing an early 20th century Lebanese family wearing European dresses and shirts but retaining the traditional sherwal pants. © History of Lebanese fashion

In the 1960s and 1970s, a kind of idea arose to return to traditional elements with embroidery and conical headdresses such as the Tantour or the Lebbedeh.

At the end of the civil war, in 1990 in Beirut, there was this new generation, such as Elie Saab or Robert Abi Nader. There was almost a new fashion revival or fashion revolution in Beirut.

And because of the explosion and everything that happened, the new generation is starting to dig into their stories and heritage and wearing things like embroidery and abayas. [long dresses worn over clothes] and the sherwal in unique new styles.

‘Looking back at our past, it’s not just for nostalgic reasons’

In an Instagram story in September 2021, Joe Challita asked his audience to share family photos from the pre-civil war era with him.  He shared a photo of his own grandmother in Lebanon in the early 1960s.
In an Instagram story in September 2021, Joe Challita asked his audience to share family photos from the pre-civil war era with him. He shared a photo of his own grandmother in Lebanon in the early 1960s. © History of Lebanese fashion

Challita focused on Lebanese icons of the 20th century, such as divas Sabah and Samira Toufic or models Mona Ross and Andree Acouri. But she also documents the daily life of the Lebanese. Her audience, mostly from the diaspora, sends her family photos and short captions.

Photo sent by a subscriber to Joe Challita, showing the user's mother on the beach in Beirut in the 1950s.
Photo sent by a subscriber to Joe Challita, showing the user’s mother on the beach in Beirut in the 1950s. © History of Lebanese fashion

Fashion is not only dictated by fashion designers. Ordinary people, the way they dress, tell us who and what we are through their fashion. Designers are inspired by ordinary people. It is really important to not only look at what celebrities wear, but also what ordinary people wear. This will tell us about our history.

With the financial crisis and the explosion, there is this disconcerting feeling of “Who are we? What is our identity? So looking back at our past, it’s not just for nostalgic reasons. Actually, it is to instill in us and know that this is who we are and what we are. And this is the proof.

Family Christmas photo of Joe Challita, taken in Australia in 1979, when the designer was still a newborn.

After the explosion, I’ve been to Lebanon three times and it’s unbelievable, the people there, nothing can bring them down. And if they can’t afford to buy the designer dress, they go to great lengths to go to a tailor and make something so spectacular.

Subscriber-sent photo taken in the early 1960s in Dimane, northern Lebanon.
Subscriber-sent photo taken in the early 1960s in Dimane, northern Lebanon. © History of Lebanese fashion

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