16 November 2017




High fashion has increasingly been finding its way into cultural institutions – like the ROM’s new exhibition exploring Dior in the 20th century, MoMA’s current exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?, and a yet-to-be-announced exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum showcasing a designer’s collection of footwear, set to open in 2018. The strong political voice museums hold has great power to legitimize art and cultural activities, and their corresponding objects. This voice has recently spoken up in the fashion and political debates surrounding Muslim women’s fashion, more specifically hijabs.

High Fashion Hijab Queen. Source

Hijabs have been thrown under both critical and supportive media spotlights in the context of recent political turmoil in North America and abroad. Ibtihaj Muhammad competed in the 2016 summer Olympics in her hijab, Dolce and Gabbana and launched high fashion hijabs, and Halima Aden, a Somali-American, competed in Miss Minnesota USA wearing a hijab and burkini. Considering the recent backlash from American museums in the face of an Islamophobic Twitter-troll, the time is ripe to host exhibitions exploring Islamic fashion and the politics contained within it. San Francisco's de Young Museum will be hosting The Fashion of Islam, opening fall 2018, to demonstrate the complexity and variety of Islamic fashions from around the world. To quote the director, Max Hollein, 

Dolce & Gabanna, 2016. Source

"There are probably people who don't even think there is fashion in Islam. But if you look at Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Beirut, the fashion is really vibrant, and it can speak to larger political and social developments, cultural understanding, and misunderstandings."
Hollein is hot on the heels of Australia’s Museum of Applied Arts & Science’s exhibition Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia, currently on display at the Islamic Art Museum of Malaysia, showing the diversity in Australian Islamic fashion through photographs, garments, and interviews.
Uniqlo + Hana Tajima, 2017. Source
The presentation of these exhibitions is in direct opposition to arguments made by French women's rights and families minister Laurence Rossignol, and Yves Saint Laurent's co-founder Pierre Bergé, who both view the hijab as a form of "slavery". Berge's attitude is in reflection of a new trend in fashion for 'modest wear', clothing lines designed for Islamic women who wish to dress conservatively, and fashionably. This attitude for exclusion from an international fashion company seems short-sighted considered the massive buying power the Islamic world holds, with spending projections for the fashion industry in the Arab world expecting to reach $484 billion by 2019. Ignoring that kind of potential for growth sends a strong message of how unimportant Euro-American fashion industries view the Islamic world as a viable market.

The fashion-political opinions against Western fashion industries catering to the social needs of Muslim women is grounded in a “colonial feminist” attitude that we need to teach others how to live. This attitude, “reduce[‘s] the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing,” without considering the opportunity for self-expression possible within the hijab itself. To no surprise, the debate over the hijab is really another debate over women’s bodies, and their agency over it. Using fashion as a tool to exercise that control, Dolce and Gabanna, Uniqlo, and Nike have launched products and clothing lines that not only give Muslim women the ability to exercise that agency over their own body, but to engage in all activities as other women do.

However, this shift in the western fashion markets catering to fashion desires of Muslim women fans the flames of a fundamental paradigm struggle currently happening in the Muslim countries all around the world. Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love In A Headscarf, describes this tension:

“Today's fashion industry is about consumerism and objectification - buy, buy, buy and be judged by what you wear. Muslim fashion is teetering between asserting a Muslim woman's right to be beautiful and well-turned out, and buying more stuff than you need, and being judged by your clothes - both of which are the opposite of Islamic values. Modesty isn't just how you look, it's what you purchase and what you waste....it might be liberating for the Muslim women purchasing these fashions on the high street, but how liberating is it for the Muslim women who made them in the sweatshops in Bangladesh and elsewhere?"
Nike Muslim women's sportswear, 2018. Source
Turning to third-year Social Anthropology student at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) Sabah Haneen Choudhry, she asks,
“Why is the hijab ‘acceptable’ only when it's appropriated and managed by major [Western] corporations? ... Why can't Muslim women decide the parameters of their Islamic identity and sexual morality, without facing harsh scrutiny from within and outside the 'imagined' Muslim community?"
"Legitimizing" hijabs in the Western world by western high fashion companies not only looks badly on the companies who expand their markets with the intention of monetary gain, but it also reflects badly on western museums who only now are exploring Muslim fashion. It should not have taken a high fashion Italian clothing designer and several other internationally known clothing companies to motivate western museums into exploring fashion from the Islamic world. It begs the question: what other contemporary cultures are being under-represented in museums globally, and what can be done to present these cultures without exorcising them? As gatekeepers, caregivers, and presenters of arts and culture, museums have a responsibility to provide equal opportunity to represent all angles of cultural identity. 

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