Cultural studies November 22, 2017
Fashion show by Tekbir Giyim, Istanbul, 2008
© Yoray Liberman/Getty Images

Second skin


René Magritte’s famous painting of a pair of lace-up boots which end in human toes (“Le Modèle Rouge”, 1935) explores the relationship between the body and clothing – often referred to as our second skin. It is a useful image for considering the experience of Muslim women who wear clothing identified as Islamic, so often viewed by others as if their head and body coverings are a permanent feature of their identities, inscribed tattoo-like on their bodies, one “skin” dissolved into the other. The idea that Islamic dress is subject to wide variations in fashion and style, that headscarves and various other forms of covering go in and out of fashion, and that their style, colour and meaning are shaped by local, national, political, moral and aesthetic concerns, as well as by global politics and fashion trends, might seem surprising to many. Far more surprising is that this should seem unusual given the cultural diversity of the 1.6 billion-strong Muslim population scattered around the world.

If Islamic dress is often perceived as being incompatible with “Western” fashion, this is thanks, in part, to a long legacy of orientalist and colonialist thought in which Muslim women are perceived to be in need of rescue from the clutches of oppressive patriarchal traditions. Far from diminishing over time, this imperative to rescue has found new force in recent initiatives in Europe and elsewhere to ban or restrict the wearing of headscarves and face veils, which are perceived as backward and primitive on the one hand, and as a threat to integration and a sign of the global creep of Islam on the other. The mission to rescue Muslim women becomes attached to the mission to save secularism from Islam. In both cases, Muslim women’s clothing acts as some sort of register of success or failure. There is a curious tautology to this reasoning. In the name of freeing women from the imposition of sartorial regulation, new regulations are imposed. The striking and widely published image of French armed police forcing a young woman to remove her long-sleeved top on a beach in Nice last year captures the contra­dictions embedded in such emancipatory initiatives. It also serves to remind us that religion is only one of the many factors at play in the regulation of women’s bodies.

In Pious Fashion Elizabeth Bucar adds her voice to a growing body of literature that seeks to move beyond simplistic and polemical arguments for or against “the veil” towards an exploration of the complex and thriving world of Islamic fashion. Anthropologists and other social scientists have in recent years drawn attention to the cosmopolitan and eclectic nature of Muslim fashions, which often combine concerns of modesty and piety with those of style and identity. They have traced how such fashions emerge as individual and collective creative responses to historical and political circumstances, as well as local and global religious movements and fashion trends. Bucar’s focus is on how this dynamic plays out in three Muslim-majority countries with very different histories: Iran, Indonesia and Turkey. Her aim is not to deny that Muslim women’s bodies are subject to various forms of regulation, but rather to show how, like all women, Muslim women negotiate multiple pressures regarding their appearances.

Pious Fashion is written in a lively and confessional style. On her journey through fashion in Tehran, Jakarta and Istanbul, Bucar presents herself as a naive observer, though she is in fact a well-informed scholar – a disjunction that sometimes feels a little forced. Her book nonetheless manages to be informative, ethnographically rich and highly readable, and to those unfamiliar with the topic, it provides an engaging introduction.

Bucar rightly points out that understanding fashion in different cultural contexts requires cultural literacy, and this is something that has to be learned. She does much of her own learning in the streets and restaurants of the cities she visits, where she observes and converses with young Muslim students, fashion bloggers, photographers, designers and shopkeepers. She finds out what is cool (fit-and-flare coats, leggings, embroidered trimmings, billowing chadors with a bohemian vibe) and what is unacceptable (being too covered or not covered enough) in Tehran; how to wrap scarves in flattering styles adapted to suit your face shape in Jakarta; and how to combine fabrics to create attractive elongated silhouettes in Istanbul. All of this requires considerable attention to detail which she shares with readers by offering “style snapshots” of what is in season at a particular time in each location. We get a sense of the diversity of individual and cultural preferences as we move from descriptions of neatly wrapped shiny headscarves “in bubblegum pink, shocking fuchsia, blood red, electric purple, deep green and cool turquoise” in Uskudar in Istanbul, to the light subtle chiffons, pastel shades and batik ensembles popular in Jakarta and the more edgy street styles visible in Tehran.

A small but well-chosen selection of colour photographs taken by local collaborators illustrates these fashion preferences. Donya Joshani, one of the Iranian photographers, explains that her images are intended “to show that we don’t live in an abandoned desert and we don’t ride camels to work”. Joshani captures women in slashed jeans, Dr Martens boots, skull-print fabrics, rolled-up trousers, military jackets and black nail polish, and reveals how headscarf wearing in this context is often about allowing as much hair as possible to escape the constraints of the cloth. The photographs have featured in the fashion blog Tehran Times, which is self-consciously aligned with global fashion media and trends. By contrast, current Indonesian fashions look modest, conservative and conventionally feminine, favouring soft, loose fabrics and suggesting a closer affiliation with Eastern fashion trends. The images of Turkish Islamic fashion (known as Tesettür) reveal a strong preference for tailored outfits which conceal the flesh and elongate the body and allow for the conspicuous display of prestigious fashion labels.

Some readers, unaccustomed to paying so much attention to fabrics, textures, buttons, hem-lines, labels and scarf-tying techniques, might get impatient with the deluge of detail, but Bucar does a good job of showing why it matters. She brings out both the sensuality and pleasure of sartorial experimentation and also its politics. She shows how pious fashions are neither bound by tradition nor rooted in the assumed Islamic heartland of the Middle East; they are produced through historical processes and have played an important role in contesting, reinforcing and critiquing state regimes. In all three of the countries she discusses, various forms of Islamic covering have at some point been officially banned; contemporary clothing choices need to be understood in relation to unfolding political processes.

In Iran, women’s dress has long been caught up in political struggles over modern­ization, secularization, Westernization and Islamization. It is still subject to an Islamic dress code introduced shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and enforceable by law, which echoed yet reversed earlier attempts by Reza Shah Pahlavi and his descendants to ban the wearing of the chador (veil) and to impose European clothing norms on Iranian women. Women’s responses – both to the banning of the chador and to current regulations – has been to find inventive ways of creating outfits that combine elements of conformity with acts of sartorial defiance. It is in the country where women’s dress is most strictly regulated that we find the most subversive forms of covered fashion.

In Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, wearing head-scarves is a relatively new practice. Pious fashion here is neither about a return to tradition nor an escape from it, but is closely linked to cosmopolitan modernist agendas and to concerns about beauty, morality and womanhood. General Suharto, far from promoting Islamic dress, banned the wearing of headscarves in government offices and schools between 1982 and 1991, and was keen to keep Islam out of politics. He encouraged women to wear traditional Indonesian forms of dress, such as the wrap. Many women turned to head coverings and other forms of pious dress, however, as a means of expressing criticism of the state. More recently, the Indonesian government’s concerns about pornography and sex trafficking have encouraged the spread of Islamic dress and values even if these agendas are generally expressed in moral rather than religious terms. “The irony”, Bucar suggests, “is that in Indonesia, Islamic gender norms have been successfully mobilized most often by secular politicians, not Islamic revivalists.” In the past two decades, there has been a shift from simple forms of Islamic dress to increasingly fashionable forms that emphasize beauty and stylishness. Pious fashions in this context are, we are told, associated with modernity and cosmopolitanism in contrast to the more traditional image of womanhood promoted by the state.

Turkey presents yet another dynamic. Here headscarves have long been entangled in political debates and struggles over what it means to be Turkish, Muslim and democratic. Attempts were made to prevent women from wearing veils in the early 1900s; these were later reinforced by Atatürk in the 1920s and became institutionalized under General Kenan Evren in the 80s. He introduced an official ban on the wearing of headscarves at university, sparking vocal protests. Among those who felt the need to pursue higher education abroad as a consequence were the daughters of Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The university ban was lifted in 2010, and plans are currently under way for similarly lifting it in the armed forces. Secularist arguments that religion should be confined to the private sphere and that the headscarf is incompatible with modern dem­ocratic principles have for several decades been contested by a growing body of middle-class Turkish citizens keen to express their enthusiasm for Islam through consumerism and lifestyle choices. Today, Turkey is home to a thriving and well-established Islamic fashion industry. Those who wear stricter, less fashionable forms of Islamic covering, such as the all-enveloping çarşaf, have become the new scapegoats. Interestingly, some of their fiercest critics are the women who wear more fashionable forms of pious dress.

In each of the countries she discusses, Bucar highlights the range of authorities who part­i­cipate in trying to define what constitutes appropriate dress, whether on moral, religious, political, aesthetic, or legal grounds. The voices of political leaders and clerics compete with those of fashion designers and bloggers, all of whom offer expert opinion and con­tribute to the context in which individual clothing choices are made. One issue that remains somewhat underexplored in the book, however, is the conceptualizing of piety and whether the phrase “pious fashion” is adequate for capturing the elastic and elusive phenomenon it seeks to describe. When Iranian women, for example, assemble edgy outfits which seem designed to circumvent the demands of sharia law while conforming just enough to avoid attracting censorship from the morality police, the term “pious” doesn’t convey the subtlety of their sartorial strategies. Another area that remains largely neglected is how fashion designs and ideas circulate beyond national boundaries, and the powerful role played by social media and internet commerce in this. Whatever we call it, pious fashion has gone global, even if it has varied local inflections.

At London Fashion Week in September, the Canadian designer Edeline Lee showcased models wearing hijabs. Comments of approval and support in the Evening Standard came from the Somali-American model Halima Aden, who made headlines in the United States in 2016 for winning the Miss Minnesota Beauty Pageant in which she wore a burqini and hijab. She has since been using her fame to promote diversity in the fashion industry. “To be able to walk into the mall and even see the word hijab, that’s huge . . . . It shows that we’re finally being accepted as consumers.” While the status of the Muslim consumer is presented by Aden as something to strive for in the US, it is well developed in Tehran, Jakarta and Istanbul, and indeed in many other parts of the world, including London.