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Discovering the Beauty and Modesty of Muslim Fashion

A recent exhibit in San Francisco has been well received. So why are Christians who want to cover up not afforded the same deference?
Muslim fashion

San Francisco’s two major art museums are having a bit of a Muslim moment. At the Legion of Honor, there is an exhibition entitled Islam and the Classical Heritage, a display of 14th- to 19th-century Arabic manuscripts on loan from the National Library of Israel. The subject matter of this small collection mostly consists of the illustrated folk tales of Iskandar (the Arabic name for Alexander the Great) plus a little astrology and a very little science, making it rather less than what one might have expected, given the ambitious title. The Arabic calligraphy, however, is spectacular, while the illustrations retain their sharp brilliance in spite of their age and the marginal patterns. And the decorations are everything that one could hope for from Muslim artisans who for so long have excelled in those creative endeavors.

Meanwhile, just to the south at the de Young, the main event is drawing justifiably enthusiastic crowds. Contemporary Muslim Fashion claims to be the first major museum exhibition devoted to the clothing of the modern Muslim world, and it is indeed impressive.

As the French expert in medieval Islamic, Christian, and Jewish philosophy Remi Brague has pointed out, Islam must be understood as a civilization, not simply as a religion. It’s the tripartite nature of Islam—religious, political, and cultural–without artificial divisions between the three, that has for so long fascinated Westerners. And the more that religion is sharply walled off from culture and politics in the formerly Christian West, the more intriguing Islam seems to us.

As is obvious to anyone who has had some exposure to the diversity of Muslim life, there is no such monolithic thing as “Muslim fashion.” Muslim-majority nations range from the shores of West Africa to the islands of Indonesia, from Bosnia on the European continent to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Modes of dress vary by country, by sect, by age and generation, by political and religious climates, and by ethnic background.

There are commonalities, of course. Muslim dress for women (and this exhibition is exclusively about female fashion) emphasizes covering most skin, and even the shape of the female figure is concealed by flowing swaths of fabric. At the very least, the enticing bits are only minimally accentuated. Covering the hair with a hijab is common, while covering the face partially with a veil (niqab) is found in certain cultures. And then there is the full body covering of a burka, with only a slit for the eyes.

The de Young exhibition concentrates, as fashion exhibitions at art museums do, on high fashion and top designers. While the exhibition features the works of contemporary designers—both Muslim designers and non-Muslim ones who cater to the Muslim market—the excellent catalog takes a deep dive into the complex and often hidden history of Muslim fashion. We learn that the haute couture houses of Europe have, for more than a century, quietly developed lucrative relationships with wealthy women in Islamic countries who want high fashion but have particular needs of modest public dress that the Western fashions of the day don’t answer.

The extent of business done, first with cotton-rich Egypt early in the 20th century and later with oil-rich Gulf states, was such that at key junctures, such as right after World War II and during the 1970s, it kept Parisian couture houses afloat. More recently though, dependence on the Middle East has had dire consequences. According to one essay in the catalog, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing first Gulf War “was the largest catastrophe to hit the haute couture industry since the 1929 Depression.” The head of Paris’s top embroidery house said in an interview that at that time, his business came close to shutting its doors.

It isn’t just the extent of the wealth in oil-rich Arabic countries that drives the business; it is also the nature of social life. According to one designer interviewed for the catalog, women with higher levels of wealth and status typically have a social calendar of 20 to 30 weddings and private parties a year for which they will want unique fashion creations. (Similarly situated women in the West might order gowns for only one or two such events.)

Even at a non-elite level, the fact that there are two billion Muslims worldwide, half of whom are women, means that the economic bounty to be reaped by tapping into that market is huge. Perhaps appropriately enough for a silicon-boom city in which obsession with wealth exceeds even preoccupations with left-wing political causes, the exhibition and the catalog repeatedly return to the sheer amount of lucre at stake with Muslim clothing, especially as the trend expands beyond its original target audience to non-Muslim women.

Apparently, even non-Muslim women enjoy a respite from skin-baring hyper-sexualized clothing, discovering as they do that the human body changes as the years pass. Women might even prefer such fashion to clothes that only look good on twiggy supermodels (and sometimes not even on them). Who knew?

The San Francisco exhibition has a sequence that is well thought out, starting with the clean lines and muted earth tones of Middle Eastern fashions (even the more avant-garde examples somehow seem a tad severe). Then they turn a corner to the irrepressible explosion of color and pattern and the exuberant celebration of female beauty from Asian Muslim designers. We learn that Indonesia, the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation, hopes to become the center of the Muslim fashion universe, and if what is here on display is representative, one can well see that happening. The next room has works by Western designers for the Muslim market. The final exhibit is a quartet of stunning ensembles on loan from Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar, paired with a video presentation that shows her wearing those same pieces at various official functions. It’s all meant to remind the viewer that modesty and a sense of style are found as much in the “how” as in the “what.”

One’s taste in clothing is influenced by one’s background and environment, but certain impressions linger. Some of the pieces look like nothing so much as fashionable Western clothing, to which long sleeves, high neck lines, and a hijab are awkwardly attached. Such clothing has all the allure of a cheap lean-to tacked to the side of a well-designed house. With other ensembles, by contrast, the hijab or niqab rises so organically from the flow of the garment’s lines that the dress would seem incomplete without it.

Throughout the exhibition, the word “modest” appears repeatedly in the notes, approvingly and without irony. And as is intended, by the end, even the most skeptical have to admit that words like “stylish,” “beautiful,” and “striking” can belong in the same sentence as “modest.” The familiar repeatedly intrudes—here, one sees things that wouldn’t have looked out of place in medieval Europe, while there, one is reminded of photos of smart American dinner parties from the 1950s. One sees visual echoes of regal 18th-century gowns and 19th-century Victorian stylings. Today’s “Muslim fashion” sometimes looks an awful lot like yesterday’s “normal adult clothing,” the primary shortcoming of which seems to have been the absence of multicultural spice.

After a lifetime of watching Christian modesty in clothing be mocked in America, and after seeing female relatives and friends sometimes have to go to great lengths to find clothing that is both modest and attractive, one is tempted towards cynicism at the current tiptoed deference to Islamic strictures. Any old-fashioned conservative will applaud the good manners and respect shown by this exhibition. But it is still hard to forget that basic manners have all too often been neglected when it comes to traditional and modest impulses within America’s own historically prevalent religion.

Will the vision shown in this particular exhibition be the wave of the West’s future? Curator Reina Lewis, in her essay on the modern history of Muslim fashion for women, sounds a cautious note: “Modest fashion,” she writes, “is à la mode—for now.” Quite apart from the fact that bringing beauty into the world is something always to be welcomed, the embrace of modest fashion trends may point to an optimistic future of beautiful alternatives for those women who want them, regardless of their religion.

Contemporary Muslim Fashion runs at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through January 6, 2019. It then travels to the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany.

Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.