Muslim Women’s Fashion.
FEW sartorial choices are scrutinised as closely as those of Muslim women. Their clothing is regulated both in countries where Islam is a minority religion, and in those where it is professed by the majority. France bans face coverings, thus outlawing theniqab, which leaves just a slit for the eyes. In Iran, a theocracy, and Saudi Arabia, a monarchy reliant on clerical support, women must wear a hijab (head covering) andabaya (long cloak) respectively. Only last year did Turkey partially ease a ban, dating from Ataturk’s founding of the modern secular state, on female civil servants wearing headscarves.
Most Muslim women want to dress modestly in public, as Islam prescribes. But increasing numbers want to be fashionable, too. That is partly because of the relative youth and rising prosperity of the Islamic world. A growing sense of religious identity also boosts Islamic style. The Islamic revival of the 1970s, and then a shared sense of persecution in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, led many Muslim women to wear their hearts on their sleeves, says Reina Lewis, an academic at the London College of Fashion and editor of “Modest Fashion: Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith”. Many say that Islamic dress is better suited than their country’s traditional garb to modern life. “The hijab helps women be treated for their minds, not their looks,” says Aziza Al-Yousef, a Saudi professor.
The result is a specialised and fast-growing offshoot of the fashion industry. New designs of burkinis—head-to-foot swimsuits—and modest wedding dresses come out each season. Videos on YouTube demonstrate how to create a “beehive” hijab, a headscarf given extra height by the addition of anything from a carton to a hairpiece. Magazines such as Egypt’s Hijab Fashion feature luxuryabayas. Iran is full of local brands from female designers.
The internet and the idea of a Muslim umma, or global community, help to create styles that know no borders. But some trends do not travel. A Turkish craze for long denim coats has largely passed neighbouring Syria by. The shopping malls of conservative Riyadh overflow with different shapes of abaya customised with coloured trim. In more cosmopolitan Jeddah black abayas jostle with green and navy ones, often jazzed up with leopard-print trim or zip-fronts inspired by sportswear.
Dubai, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur all host Islamic-fashion shows. Interest is spreading beyond the Islamic world, too. London and Paris recently started their own events, and this year saw America’s first Islamic Fashion Week. Mainstream styles are being influenced, too. John Galliano’s couture collections and H&M, a high-street giant, have featured turbans and Middle East-inspired designs.
Luxury designers have been quick to profit. Waad Ali, a Qatari designer, says she noticed a boom in high-end fashion designers from the Gulf when she graduated from Doha University in 2010. She joined their ranks and today her clothes and abayassport $550 price tags. Gulf women who cannot afford such prices can at least wear what they want under their abayas, from skinny jeans to slinky tops; and Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey all have fashionable chains selling mass-market clothing tailored to local Muslim tastes. But elsewhere high-street fashion for Muslims generally means the more modest lines in non-specialist shops. Mainstream retailers are missing a trick, says Ms Lewis, by overlooking an increasingly attractive market.
Fashion is intertwined with the debate about what Islam prescribes for women’s clothing. Most Muslims read the Koran as describing the Prophet Muhammad’s wives as covering their hair; only some interpret this as a command to all women. For the most conservative, the very concept of Islamic fashion is anathema. Some imams post criticisms in online forums of women who wear skinny jeans or lots of make-up, even together with a hijab, since they attract attention. Others retort that Allah created beauty and that pretty clothes help dispel the misconception that all Muslim women are oppressed.
Originally Published in the Economist magazine on April 26th, 2014