Three things we can learn from contemporary Muslim women’s fashion

Major art museums have realized there is much to learn from clothing that is both religiously coded and fashion forward.

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a fashion exhibition inspired by the Catholic faith titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination.” With more than 1.6 million visitors, it was the most popular exhibit in the Met’s history.

And now the de Young Museum of San Francisco has the first major exhibit devoted to the Islamic fashion scene. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” displays 80 swoon-worthy ensembles – glamorous gowns, edgy streetwear, conceptual couture – loosely organized by region and emphasizing distinct textile traditions. This exhibit is a bold statement of cultural appreciation during a time of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In studying how Muslim women dress for over a decade, I realized a deeper understanding of Muslim women’s clothing can challenge popular stereotypes about Islam. Here are three takeaways.

1. Modesty is not one thing

While there are scattered references to modest dress in the sacred written sources of Islam, these religious texts do not spend a lot of time discussing the ethics of Muslim attire. And once I started to pay attention to how Muslims dress, I quickly realized that modesty does not look the same everywhere.

Streetstyle in Iran. Contemporary Muslim Fashions 22 September 2018 – 6 January 2019 de Young Museum
I traveled to Iran, Indonesia and Turkey for my research on Muslim women’s clothing. The Iranian penal code requires women to wear proper Islamic clothing in public, although what that entails is never defined. The morality police harass and arrest women who they think expose too much hair or skin. Yet even under these conditions of intense regulation and scrutiny, women wear a remarkable range of styles – from edgy ripped jeans and graphic tees to bohemian loose flowy separates.

Local textiles in Indonesian fashion. Contemporary Muslim Fashions 22 September 2018 – 6 January 2019 de Young Museum
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, but Indonesian women did not wear head coverings or modest clothing until about 30 years ago. Today local styles integrate crystal and sequin embellishments. Popular fabric choices include everything from pastel chiffon to bright batik, which is promoted as the national textile.

When it comes to Turkey, for much of the last century authorities discouraged Muslim women from wearing pious fashion, claiming these styles were “unmodern” because they were not secular. That changed with the rise of the Islamic middle class, when Muslim women began to demand an education, to work outside the home and to wear modest clothing and a headscarf as they did so. Today local styles tend to be tailored closely to the body, with high necklines and low hemlines and complete coverage of the hair.

Tailored trench from Turkey. <image id=
A stunning range of Muslim fashions are found here in the United States as well, reflecting the diversity of its approximately 3.45 million Muslims. Fifty-eight percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. are immigrants, coming from some 75 countries. And U.S.-born Muslims are diverse as well. For instance, more than half of Muslims whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations are black.

This diversity provides the opportunity for hybrid identities, which are displayed through clothing styles.