Bedouin couture

Observations on fashion

You've just attended Glastonbury in the worst June since records began and could have done with your grandmother's shawl. A pashmina might have helped - but you're not Kate Middleton or Sienna Miller. Besides, you've got some rubber wristbands left over from last year and know that we live in political times. You opt for the shemagh.

The shemagh is the headcloth worn by Arab peasants for centuries, which now features in the autumn collection of the haute couture fashion house Balenciaga. That really is rags to riches. Something Yasser Arafat spent an hour intricately folding around his head each morning so that its tail formed the shape of Palestine, has spent most of 2007 as a fashion accessory.

Readers of Grazia magazine will have seen David Beckham in, variously, an orange and a green shemagh. Sienna and Kate were there at its beginning; one has even been seen round the neck of Jade Goody.

The main purveyor of the reinvented shemagh is the high-street chain Urban Outfitters. Black-and-white in Palestine as a symbol of nationalism, plain white in the Gulf, red and white in the Jordanian army. At Urban Outfitters, you can buy your shemagh in any colour as long as it's nu-rave fluorescent. In pink and purple, with added hearts against the classic checks, it has become the £18 Heart Woven Desert Scarf. "It won't provide you with much camouflage in the desert," says the catalogue, "but it sure is pretty."

Pretty? The Jewish and Palestinian lobbies united in fighting what they saw as trivialisation and the product was pulled from American shelves in January due to what the company acknowledged was its "sensitive nature". An inkling of this may have been why the store chose to name its scarves by the obscure name of the shemagh - something British soldiers called them when posted in North Africa during the Second World War - rather than what Arabs call them, keffiyehs.

In London's Urban Outfitters, the shemagh remains a bestseller. At the Covent Garden branch, a place so glibly political the male mannequin in the forecourt wears a T-shirt slogan, "Drop Acid Not Bombs", I ask one assistant why they're still selling shemaghs. "What, because of the whole Afghan thing?" she asks, making rabbit ear shapes with her fingers. Another assistant wore her shemagh on holiday to America. "Like Iranians, or whatever, would come up to me and say, 'I'm really proud of you for supporting us.'" Close, but not quite.

Centuries ago, shemaghs were a means for Arabs to protect themselves from the wind, sun and storms of the Middle East. Only latterly have they morphed into symbols of Arab nationalism. If the weather continues like this, the bedouin look could spread still further and return to its practical use in northern Europe.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet