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Modesty and fashion

July 26, 2017

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LIKE many things, I saw it first on Facebook: a denim headscarf or hijab being sold by the popular American Eagle brand. The friend who posted it actually wears the hijab, and her accompanying post was disapproving. What were the designers thinking; what Muslim woman would want to don a thick denim hijab in the middle of summer? What hijab-wearing Muslim woman would want to wear a denim hijab at all?

She was wrong; there are apparently lots of such women. The denim hijab, which was only available for online purchase, sold out within hours of being offered. Reasonably priced and likely a surprise for most Muslim consumers who would not want to sport skimpy tank tops or shorts which are the usual offerings of the company, the denim hijab was gobbled up. The demand was there, the purchasers were there — desperate to buy a hijab that would likely feel much like a blanket in the searing summer heat.

American Eagle was not, of course, the first corporate clothing retailer to offer a mass-market designer hijab. Nike did it first with much fanfare (and boasting a high-tech breathable fabric perhaps more suitable than denim) but there was a similar to-do and media frenzy around the item.

And while American Eagle only offered a hijab, other clothing retailers such as the hip Japanese brand Uniqlo plan to offer even more. Uniqlo’s ‘modest’ fashion line features svelte tunics, high-waisted flared pants and belted coats in pretty colours. The idea behind the line, developed by Japanese-British designer Hana Tajima, is that the coverage offered will appeal to Muslim women who are looking for that in the clothes they purchase.

Whether or not one thinks ‘modest fashion’ is an oxymoron, the phenomenon is here to stay.

It is quite possible that designers are also hoping that the ‘show less’ idea may evolve into a trend that will manage to attract even non-Muslim customers. In any case, it will be on the racks of Uniqlo stores soon, with some items such as hijabs costing between five and 10 dollars.

Retail brands like American Eagle and Uniqlo are only taking their cue from high fashion. Early this July, a ‘modest fashion week’ was held in the Italian city of Turin. While it was no Milan, the event was partially sponsored by a UAE-based group that seeks to elevate the profile of designers focusing on Muslim women’s wear.

Like Istanbul’s fashion week, the event featured pretty hued fabrics, monochrome pantsuits, capes and other similar outfits. What happened in Turin was repeated in Toronto, a city whose large Muslim population is a good market for the revamped and glamorised hijabs and older styles. The offerings at the Toronto event included trendy jackets with logos and cute cartoon figures.

All these events signify the fact that whether or not one thinks ‘modest fashion’ is an oxymoron — one word of the term cancelling out the other — the phenomenon is here to stay. Even more interestingly, the idea of ‘modest fashion’, and the curious wedding of consumerism and fidelity to faith that it represents, is being ratified not by religious scholars or some clerical establishment but by the consumer choices of women who are not really interested in having men (clerics or otherwise) dictate what they wear.

That position is, of course, rather different from those taken in countries like Saudi Arabia, where only last week, a woman wearing a miniskirt at an archaeological site provoked an international uproar and local censure. That strain of thought — adamantly insistent as it is on men commanding what women wear, say or do — has little interest in consumer marketing, or even in how to capitalise on new markets. And it is least interested in catering to women as independent consumers.

From a philosophical point of view, fashion represents a special alchemy where elements from the past meet visions of the future. This can be seen in the latest textile print or revamped kurta or shalwar — a particular representation of the present combined with styles or motifs from the past.

At this moment, however, fashion also has to do with foreign policy. With a world increasingly realigning along religious lines, all visible bits of Muslim identity — from hijabs to long dresses — have become emblems of so much more than just that. Once reserved for Western societies where Muslims are in a minority, the politics of professing a visible identity — or the idea of being ‘Muslim first’ — is common today even in Muslim-majority societies.

It is no surprise, then, that this emergence of identity politics in the realm of the fashion world is spurring a consumer market. In the quest for a space between what is permissible and what is not, what visibly signifies Islam and what could be mistaken for something else, Muslim women are looking for options. The original idea of modesty as an adjective that exists in opposition to ‘flashy’ is no more.

To make Islam visible, Muslim women have decided to be visible. And to be visible as Muslim women, as inhabitants of a particular identity, certain kinds of clothes — cool, chic and widely available — are required. The fact that not every outfit comes with a matching headscarf, that some of the tunics hug the figure quite snugly, that some of the colours are too eye-catching, are details that are being slowly and carefully subverted so that they no longer belong in the realm of the cleric but rather that of the fashion designer. In a society where ideas are undergoing a transformation, fashion trends that define its adherents are also being transformed. If attaching modesty to fashion makes fashion permissible and admissible and also noticeable, then so be it.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2017