Muslim Fashions: A Review of Fashion Theory Special Issue

Mukulika Banerjee, Reader in Anthropology, University College London

This issue of the always lush and exciting journal Fashion Theory is specially welcome. At a time when there is an unprecedented interest in Islam and Muslims this volume provides a comprehensive and scholarly investigation of the most ubiquitous evidence of Islam: Muslim dress. Taking on board the common stereotypes of Islam the editors Moors and Tarlo have put together contributions which explore Muslim women’s dress in diverse settings across the Muslim world, from Mali to Indonesia and Turkey to San’a. Each essay is thought provoking and full of surprises. The choice of women’s dress as a topic is entirely apposite. Clothing matters. And it matters to and for women in richer ways, both personally and sociologically, than it does for men.
The editors point out at the outset that contrary to popular (non-Islamic) perceptions, ‘Islamic fashion’ among women is far from homogenous and the relationship between religion and clothing is variously contested across different societies. The sheer range of vocabulary to describe the veil, the mind boggling complexity of different styles of veiling (most readers won’t notice the differences in the excellent visuals without the help of the text), the completely different ways in which women who choose to veil are treated in different countries, how the same garment is viewed in totally opposed ways in different contexts, are some of the indications of this diversity. The struggles between the homogenising tendencies of governments, clerics and the influence of global fashion trends on the one hand and the diversifying tendencies among the wearers themselves is a common theme across the volume. The variations across settings are as much to do with the nature of the political regimes, the presence of Muslims as dominant majorities or significant minorities within nations as with economic forces of marketing, advertising, and the cost of materials. Through sartorial biographies of women in London, marketing strategies of designers in Iran, the influence of Arab styles and materials in south India and a host of such rich case studies, the range of tastes, markers of distinction, ideas of modernity in today’s Islamic world are all brought to life. As several contributors point out, fashion in women’s clothing can be both expressive and emancipatory and exploring the variations, syncreticism and mutability of styles across different societies and Islams, makes this point convincingly. The norm to which Islamic women aspire can be as intensely personal and created to suit their own ideas of modesty, piety and aesthetics as set by those who aim to control women’s dress.
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These fine-grained studies also reveal the unexpected, phenomenological aspects of fashion with great sensitivity. Thus we learn that the choice of one type of garment over another is determined as much by trends and budget as it is by the physical quality of the cloth itself. Thus, stretchy woollen face coverings are favoured over more fixed ones for women who need to change their appearance quickly for different audiences, shinier but cheaper fabrics are favoured over more expensive but subtle ones to make an impact, judgements are made about layering depending on the sheerness of the fabric and so on. Finally, the hybrid tailored-draped nature of many of the Islamic garments adopted by women shows how far from being in any sense fixed, clothing which covers, is alive, constantly shifting, slipping, being restored and wrapped to convey various messages. This is an excellent volume that does much to further the writing on Islam and fashion in general and will quickly establish itself a staple for reading lists across disciplines.
Special Double Issue of Fashion Theory: the Journal of Dress, Body & Culture Berg Publishers Volume 11 Issue 2/3 June/September 2007 Edited by Annelies Moors and Emma Tarlo