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Islam, Europe and the magic of fashion

Updated September 29, 2018

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A file photo of a model wearing a hijab.
A file photo of a model wearing a hijab.

It's a truth universally acknowledged: Europe has a difficult relationship with Islam, immigration and refugees. Populists, nationalists, racists dominate the political landscape, toppling traditional political parties from their pedestals, striking fear into the hearts of liberal and progressives.

It’s all downhill. The far right is setting the agenda. Islamophobia is on the rise. It’s back to the dark 1930s. Right?

Wrong. The media headlines may focus on the grim, corrosive narrative of US President Donald Trump and his many European admirers but the reality of Europe’s interaction with Islam is — and has always been — more complex than the simple, single, one-dimensional story favoured by extremists.

True, the so-called “migration crisis” remains top of the EU agenda, refugee boats are being banned from entering European ports and two EU states, Poland and Hungary, face EU legal action for rule of law violations.

But there is also a big pushback. In Vienna this week, hundreds of international, European, national and civil society organisations met under the aegis of the Fundamental Rights Agency to pledge even stronger action to protect and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Integration and inclusion topped the agenda, with activists, policymakers, psychiatrists, mayors and artists mingling with refugees to define new strategies for building a more welcoming and inclusive Europe. With or without the help of their governments.

The interaction in Vienna was heartening. But in fact Muslim influences are impacting on European food, drink and music.

And fashion. While governments and media headlines obsess about headscarves, burqas and niqabs, there is a silent and largely unnoticed fashion revolution under way in Europe’s top couture houses and in the high streets of major European cities.

Fashion is becoming more universally wearable, by young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim, men and women.

European fashion used to be all about sexy, skimpy, clothes. Less was more. But the tide is changing. And now, according to the headline in The Guardian, it is: “The end of cleavage.” Sexy clothes have lost their allure.

The shift from seduction to modesty was apparently most glaringly obvious at Milan Fashion Week, with top fashion designers “dialling down” the sex and glamour in favour of more covered up models.

The change, according to The Guardian, was triggered partly by the #MeToo movement under which women the world over — but especially in the West — have named and shamed numerous men for sexual harassment and predatory conduct.

It was also due to the influence of Middle Eastern customers which were “pushing sexy dresses on to the wrong side of history”, according to the article.

Fashion’s move towards looser, longer, more covered clothes cannot be denied. In fact, it’s been discernible for some time. Long jackets, flowered, loose dresses, long sleeves, flowing trousers, elegant tunics, amazing scarves. Not a single tight-fitting, cleavage-showing, short dress has been in sight for months.

And the change is being driven in many subtle ways by young European Muslim women who want to look smart, fashionable, trendy — and modest.

Almost all of the top fashion houses and high street brands are catering for the “Muslim pound, or Muslim euro”, determined to catch the eye and grab the wallets of teenage Muslim girls and working Muslim women.

Models with headscarves are now almost the norm in most fashion shows. As The Guardian notes, Halima Aden, who in 2017 became the first model to wear a headscarf in a mainstream catwalk show, hardly raised an eyebrow this season.

Modest fashion is the name of the game. It suits older women, younger ones and as middle age creeps up, the temptation of loose clothes over tight becomes become difficult to resist.

It’s not just women’s fashion that is changing. The stubbly hipster beard, now the new normal for men under 45, has long been favoured by trendy young Arabs.

So that’s Europe in 2018. Massive political posturing and venting about Muslims in the headlines, slow but steady integration and inclusion in real life. And business, as always following the money — and the talent.

Trends change fast. Next summer, it may be back to sexy. But as we head for the season of feasting, to everyone’s relief, loose and flowing clothes are likely to trump tight and restricting for at least another few months.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2018