In the Driver’s Seat: Contemporary Muslim Fashion @ de Young Museum, San Francisco
If you equate fashion with frivolity, please read on. Ponder whether pious dressing represents spending power, oppression or empowerment? The topic of hijab, with its charged interpretations among easterners and westerners, flows on fashion blogs and news feeds. Whether rooted in praise for Allah or political subjugation, the rise of modest dressing in all its variety is now a woman’s choice, whether for function, comfort, whimsy or indulgence. Jill d’Alessandro and Laura Camerlengo spoke with me about Contemporary Muslim Fashions, on view through January 6, 2019.
Gwynned Vitello: I can hardly wrap my head around the subject of this fashion exhibit. I’m used to the focus of a retrospective from a particular designer, but this goes way beyond a personal vision. Not only does it span ancient cultures and current mash-ups, it’s fueled by the heat of religion and politics.
Jill and Laura: It came out of a meeting while we were working on the Summer of Love show and talking about how we wanted to do more things that were topical. We have a long history of showing fashion exhibitions, and in recent years have been looking at the artistry of the individual designer. In our conversations about the role of fashion, we consider the traditional methods of researching costumes as we scrutinize religion, signifiers, and cultural affiliation. There is a richness in that contemplation, so we wondered, “What can we do that reflects that deeper kind of study?” As we continued the discussion, we considered how we’re sitting on over 13,000 pieces that traverse the globe.
That’s how many pieces are in your collection?
Yes, we do have deep historical roots in or permanent collection, and interestingly, many of the pieces are from Indonesia, Central Asia, and Africa. The Caroline and H. McCoy Department of Textile Art has one of the best Anatolian Kilim collections in the world! So, naturally, you want to showcase your historical collections and bring them up to contemporary times. We did choose, at the end, to rely on a community support group to advise us in order to present a balance.
You put this together quickly, so who did you reach out to?
It was quick, as in two years! The first thing we did was bring in Rayna Lewis, an art historian with a background in sociology and women’s studies. She has been studying this era for twenty years and really encouraged global snapshots.
Call it modest or pious fashion, but it does seem more than coincidental that we are seeing longer hems and sleeves (goodbye, bandage dress!) Could it partly be attributed to women feeling more in control?
There are so many different factors… and we don’t know if it’s like a pendulum swinging. It seems, however, to be affecting women of all races and creeds, though there are reasons specific to the Muslim dresser. For example, Ghizlan Guenex, founder of The Modist, launched her line for her own individual fashion needs, basically saying, “I’m having a hard time finding a modest dress.” From this personal perspective as a Muslim professional, she finds that her client base is totally universal. The United States is either the second or third largest market, and only 10% of it is Muslim.
I have to be honest, when researching the subject, I wasn’t sure what to look up first, Muslim or Islamic fashion.
We spent a lot to of time talking to our community outreach group, people from all over the Bay Area, including local mosques, colleges and community centers. One of the things we first discussed was terminology, as we had to educate ourselves too. Islam is the religion, but there are many Muslims. We try to emphasize that there are many communities impacted by all different types of cultural backgrounds. Using Islam would suggest that we’re talking about religious clothing when, in fact, we are calling this a snapshot. It allows us to do a global survey and includes a lot of regions and locales.
Clearly, women are embracing their Muslim fashion, propagating rather than discarding it.
Yes, what’s really interesting is that we have 44 designers in the exhibition, and 22 are women in their mid-twenties and mid-thirties. They and their customers tend to be socially conscious, more religious and highly educated. In creating a positive platform for themselves, they are using dress as positive statement about themselves and their identity. Instead of turning away from their cultural or religious heritage, they’ve decided to become positive role models within and outside their own communities.
I previously thought that being covered up was like being suppressed, but as I read more about it, I realized how comfortable the clothing would be, how it could accommodate pregnancy or bloating, for example. Then I do an about-face when thinking about a movement like My Stealthy Freedom, where women post photos of themselves not wearing hijab.
There is an important distinction that in the United States and Europe, or even Indonesia or Malaysia, women are free to make such choices, as opposed to other cultures where there are sumptuary laws imposed on them, and they have a very different relationship with it. When you see protests in Iran and they’re holding signs, “No mandatory hijab,” they’re saying that there is no freedom to choose.
And, historically, at the time the prophet wrote the Quran, it was during a period when respectable women were covered, as was the veiled Virgin Mary. Part of telling them to cover was so they would have been identified a person of upper class, who needed safety and protection.
It’s also practical, a safeguard against the elements, as well.
Thinking about the sun, wind and sand reminds me of a woman in Indonesia who declared, “If it wasn’t for the hijab, then I would have to think of something else to cover my face from the sun.”
Let’s get to the show. How is it presented?
In the first gallery there are some really high-fashion looks to situate the viewer to the subject matter, and then go somewhat regional, though also a little by garment type. From a section on the Middle East, we work our way to Indonesia and Malaysia and look at streetwear and sportswear; then to a section we’re calling “Diaspora” for cultural and religious stylings in the United States and Europe made for Muslim women. The show concludes with a grand finale of clothing by western designers. Photography is used in interstitial spaces as artistic responses that tie into the larger themes.
Is the photography in the show new?
It is, for the most part. While we look at different forms of covering, we didn’t want this to be too anthropological, but wanted to show how different women around the world cover. We do have some Iranian protest photos to show that this is not always by choice.
We do have photos sprinkled throughout by Langston Hughes, who’s got a great story. He’s originally from Detroit and, as a musician and photographer, was part of the hip hop scene. He got a large enough following that different influencers from around the world started inviting him to their countries. He was in his twenties, getting sent plane tickets, and would ask for the longest layover so he could post, “I’ll be in town if you want your photo taken for this project.” Now based in Jakarta, he’s working on his second book, Modest Street Fashion, and many of his shots are in the show.
What is the story behind designers like Oscar de la Renta and even Nike marketing this clothing?
I think we are seeing more mainstream designers in the last three years, and yes, more money is being spent on modest dressing. But Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and might be the second largest by 2050, so it’s a recognition of the population.
But, say we call it sumptuous fashion, or even just consumerism, doesn’t that run counter to tenets of the religion?
It’s really up to individual interpretation. Some people might think that it is counter and others might think it adheres to the belief system. If you look through our permanent collection, we have Uzbek and Russian chadors that are out of gorgeous ikat fabrics, and Ottoman women’s coats that are beautifully embroidered, so this isn’t a twenty-first century phenomenon.
I love the colors and multicultural diversity of the Indonesian approach to modest dressing, and especially the batik.
The designer Dian Pelangi’s parents, for example, both started out as textile producers, her father out of boutique culture and her mother a weaver, she’s well studied in textile histories. In fact, the government really embraces the designers as one of the growth sectors of their economy and encourages them to work with traditional artisans.
Much of this is captured in the photographs in the show.
Yes, we wanted to recognize the challenges of the topic, but do it within the context of an art museum. An artist can be the best at addressing formidable topics in a thought-provoking way without being reactionary, so we felt that instead of us lecturing, the topics could better be addressed through the photographers’ lens than ours.
This is an effective and important way for fashion to be a bridge.
It’s important for us not place our western perspective on a different culture and, yes, we hope that’s what people take away after they’ve seen the show.
Contemporary Muslim Fashionsis on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum September 22—January 6, 2019.
This article was previously featured in the Fall 2018 print edition Juxtapoz Magazine. Get a copy here now.