The complex Middle Eastern politics behind Gal Gadot's red carpet gown

Gal Gadot on the red carpet in Elie Saab. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gal Gadot on the red carpet in Elie Saab. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sartorial diplomacy isn’t reserved for politicians, it seems.

Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who played Wonder Woman in Patty Jenkins’s 2017 film by the same name, is a bona fide Hollywood fixture after her most recent film’s enormous success. Certainly, Gadot’s got to dress the part on the red carpet, and she wore Tom Ford to this year’s Golden Globes and Prada to the Critics’ Choice awards. Then, for the Jan. 9 National Board of Review gala, the actress opted for a dress by Elie Saab, another red carpet designer mainstay.

Gadot’s choice to wear the Saab gown would have been unremarkable, especially considering the kind of opulent embroidery common for a Saab garment. Yet, the azure-colored, one-shoulder dress with a side cutout sparked ire for one reason: Saab is Lebanese.

The ongoing Israeli-Lebanese conflict, though dormant, means that some Arabs found fault in Saab for dressing the actress. (What, are you saying that the answer to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict wasn’t putting an Israeli woman in a Lebanese designer’s dress?)

Neither Gadot’s nor Saab’s team responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment, but Saab’s social media team removed their post featuring Gadot once it started to elicit negative responses from users.

While it’s evermore common to see heads of state engaged in a bit of fashion diplomacy (“sock diplomacy” for one Canadian prime minister), cultural figures also wear figurative olive branches. Indian actress Kareena Kapoor Khan, for example, frequently wears designs by Pakistani designers Faraz Manan and Tena Durrani, despite frigid diplomatic relations between the nations.

It’s likely that Gadot heard about the Lebanese government’s Wonder Woman ban, in which case her choice would be a signal of good faith, says Madison Jones, a graduate fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy who also works at the State Department’s U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

“Despite the fact that Gadot served for two years in the Israeli army [as do all citizens of the nation], her choice to feature a Lebanese designer may signal a desire for greater dialogue about the conflict. This fashion choice could be a chance to engage with moderates who hope for peace and understanding in the region,” Jones tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an email. “Her choice to wear Saab’s design was no accident.”

Although the last major conflict between Lebanon and Israel occurred in 2006, tension between the two countries continues (indeed, airstrikes and military operations are conducted periodically). In Lebanon, as well as across most of the Middle East, consumers are legally obligated (though enforcement is inconsistent) to boycott Israeli products, which includes tangential, cultural outputs like movies.

Most recently in the cultural sphere, some Lebanese citizens expressed outrage over Dior advertisements that featured Israeli-born Natalie Portman. Leaders of the campaign to boycott Israeli products, such as Samah Idriss, regularly condemn Lebanese artists such as author Amin Maalouf simply for participating in Israeli media interviews.

It’s unclear whether Saab’s operations run out of Paris or Beirut (he told Suzy Menkes of British Vogue in 2016 that the Saab headquarters was in Lebanon), a distinction that could matter if the Lebanese government sought to take punitive action against Saab’s company. There’s no precedent for that in fashion, though.

“Today, cultures are blending together — there are no more borders,” Saab’s son Elie Jr., who works in the family business, said during that British Vogue interview. “That is what the world is going to be like — and that is what we want to express: the two worlds colliding.”

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