By Adam Taylor

The Washington Post

At a recent fashion showcase in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, there were no models to show off the designs. Instead the dresses flew through midair, suspended from unmanned drones as they fluttered and swirled around the room.

The presentation was intended as a gimmick and designed to make the show stand out to buyers in the fashionable coastal city. However, in a country where women are still bound by conservative ideas about modesty, the replacement of actual women with flying robots prompted widespread mockery — and in some cases, outrage.

On social media, some posters compared video from the show unfavorably to a horror film, with users suggesting that the floating dresses looked like they were being worn by ghosts.

Some suggested that the use of drones appeared to speak poorly for views of women in Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom having recently made a number of reforms aimed at gender-related issues.

The reaction to the show is likely not what the organizers intended.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Ali Nabil Akbar, one of the organizers of the Fashion House event, said proudly that the show was the first of its kind in a Persian Gulf nation and that preparations had taken two weeks. Akbar said that the decision to show off the goods using drones “is suitable for the month of Ramadan” and that the organizers had spent a long time thinking about how to decorate the entire event accordingly.

“Everything involved innovation,” he said.

Drones do not appear to have been used to show dresses at a major fashion show before this, although Italian fashion designers Dolce & Gabbanna recently used them to show handbags at a runway show in Milan.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has set restrictions on the types of clothes women can wear. The country legally requires women to cover themselves while in public by wearing an abaya, a loosefitting cloak. These expectations are more relaxed in Jiddah, a relatively liberal city.

However, under the auspices of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is in a period of major reform.

In promotional videos for a planned $500 billion city called “Neom” women were shown wearing sports bras and other athletic clothing. Saudi Arabia held its first fashion week in April. The event, called Arab Fashion Week Riyadh, took place in the capital, Riyadh.

That event, held in the more conservative city, had been marred by organizational issues and low ticket sales. The catwalk shows took place in front of an all-female audience, and even then there were strict rules about what could be shown — no cleavage, nothing above the knee and nothing too transparent, according to one NPR report.

Saudi authorities have also been clamping down on activists recently, including those who have called for loosening the restrictions on women in the kingdom.

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