December 22, 2009 by admin
Fashion is a global language. But what would a veil say to us if it could speak?
The buzz words right now could be “respect with style”.
Internationally famous designers and the desire of Muslim women to be fashion-conscious yet maintain the dignity afforded by traditional dress are driving a fascinating and significant cultural transformation.
Islam has at times had a strained relationship with the world of fashion. The veil, often identified as a political statement, a mark of religion or a symbol of subservience has indeed been the subject of considerable public debate. Yet Eastern and Islamic clothing styles have been influential in the development of international fashion for many years. Today Islamic fashion has become recognised and admired and is in its own right a stand-alone market with a potential customer base of hundreds of millions across the globe.
The wardrobe of the 1970s Western woman was underpinned by Lycra and ornamented by the platform boot, hot pants and all things disco-chic. It was this fashionable ‘corruption’ that spurred Iran’s then Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to launch a corrective mission against the West.
“When veiling was imposed upon the women in my community there was great upset,” remembers Fereidoun Kolahi, 51, who spent the first 30 years of his life in Iran. “After the religious government came into power in the late 1970s no woman was allowed out without wearing the hijab and the abaya.”
In the broader sense the hijab is known as a head covering, but the term is also a reference to a modest way of dressing. The abaya is the long outer garment, usually black, which covers indoor clothing. The purpose is to conceal the female face and figure from men outside the family. Although for some women in secular states Islamic religious dress is a personal choice, worn to fulfill their duty as a Muslim.
Fereidoun, who is now a businessman in the UK, left Iran the year the religious government took over. His decision was based in part on the changes which took place in his country at that time. He recalls how ‘vigilante fashion police’ would patrol the cities of Iran in search of women who were uncovered.
It is perhaps this distinctive, uniform style of dress, so alien to Western notions of fashion and freedom, that outsiders recognise as characterising Muslim women.
Dress has the power to associate or disassociate its wearer with, amongst other things, a particular place or religion. But to define a set ‘Islamic style’ would be impossible. Diversity is clearly present when looking at Islam both locally and globally. In traveling to Pakistan and Dubai as a follower of Islam, Nadiya Khan, 24, has come to the belief that interpretations of modesty vary according to location and background. “In Pakistan I would never dress the way I do in England! I would be stared at and looked down upon,” she exclaims. “Islam requires that all men and women dress modestly when they go out – that means to an extent, all Muslims must be fully covered.”
Nadiya describes reports of the treatment of Muslim women in Afghanistan. “They risk torture by forming secret Book Clubs or attending underground beauty parlours. These are women forbidden from displaying any more than their eyes in public. They cannot use cosmetics, wear trousers or ride a bicycle.”
Indeed the Islamic concept of modesty does not seem to sit well with the diverse and fast-paced nature of the fashion industry. Certainly it is an industry which has been criticised for promoting materialism and over-sexualisation. Even for those who do not favour fashion, as an aspiration or valuable institution, evading it altogether proves to be difficult. “The clothing styles on the streets of Pakistan are far from consistent,” says Nadiya. “I am seeing much less of the traditional black abaya. You will find that clothing styles vary between generations, classes and occasions, as with all fashion.”
The austerity of the Islamic dress code may not seem to leave much scope for the development of new styles. But it is not unusual for Muslim women to actively participate in fashion. After all, being fashionable does necessarily equate to a compromise of sexual modesty. Experimentation with accessories, layering of hijab scarves and veils are common practice among many young Muslim women. “I will buy and alter items of fashionable clothing to ensure they adhere to my Islamic beliefs,” says Nadiya, who lists shopping and travelling as her favourite pastimes. “Most girls today want to look good and dress well, regardless of their faith.”
It appears that the internationalisation of the fashion industry has begun to blur the line of distinction between Eastern and Western clothing styles. In 2009, it was the harem trouser and the turban that featured on the runways of the fashion elite, from Ralph Lauren to Yves Saint Laurent. “Eastern designs are always replicated in Western fashions,” explains Bangladesh-born Shamiya Mohammed, 20, who studies law in the UK. “In shops like Monsoon you will find handbags and earrings with a strong Eastern influence.”
Today Islamic fashion has become an distinctive style in itself. “Modesty is the only stipulation for most Islamic fashion designers,” says Caroline Hume, 23, who worked as a fashion model in the UAE. “Popular labels such as Arabesque and Abaya Couture take their inspiration from intercontinental trends. Their creations are elegant and refined. They could be worn by any woman.”
Designers catering for the Islamic consumer culture have sprung from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds. In a recent interview with the Associated Press Dania Tarhini, who is the general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Saudi Arabia, spoke of her desire for her Muslim customers to feel good in their religious dress, “it is an obligation to wear the abaya there, but let them feel good about it.” By engaging a host of high-end designers such as John Galliano and Nina Ricci to rework the abaya she set out to create true style. The end result – contemporary and stylish garments, which adhere to Islamic stipulations.
“It may take some time for Islamic Fashion to make the transition between the luxury and the mainstream markets,” says Caroline Hume. “However designers are beginning to address the desire of Muslim women to be fashionable.”