Innovation is Common Thread in Muslim Fashion Exhibition

By Sura Wood

De Young exhibit explores the diversity and creativity of clothing designed for Muslim women.

Westerners whose view of Muslim dress is limited to the burka and headscarves will find these stereotypes challenged by a new exhibition opening at the de Young Museum this month. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” showcases the work of over 80 mostly Muslim emerging and veteran designers, along with high-end custom couture from Yves Saint-Laurent, Dior and other Westerners inspired by the aesthetics of Muslim cultures. The exhibition features fashions ranging from ultra-chic, luxury streetwear, like Turkish designer Kuaybe Gider’s head-turning white trench coat and matching ankle-length pants, to sportswear, including the “burkini,” a full-coverage swimsuit developed by Egyptian/American designer Shereen Sabet, who’s a scuba diver.

Since the 1950s, affluent Muslim women have patronized Parisian couturiers who have modified their designs to accommodate their clients’ regional and religious sensitivities, altering necklines and hems, closing slits on skirts and swapping sheer fabrics for opaque. Top-tier American and European fashion designers have similarly catered to the needs and modesty requirements of young Muslim professionals; Oscar de la Renta even created special collections for the Muslim high holidays Ramadan and Eid. And last year Nike became the first global sports brand to design for female Muslim athletes with its Pro Hijab made of lightweight polyester; it was developed with input from Middle Eastern Muslim athletes.

“We have this perception in the U.S. that Muslim fashion is monochromatic or just one
type of thing but, in fact, it’s hugely diverse,” notes exhibition co-curator Laura L. Camerlengo. “Islam is a multi-ethnic religion shaped by Muslims’ diverse regional, national and local cultures, and styles of dress are distinguished by enormous variety and creativity.” With nearly a billion Muslim women worldwide, she adds, there’s a thriving market and “cultural distinctions, generational differences and trends that correspond to those in mainstream fashion.”

The show covers the world in its exploration of Muslim dress, from the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia to the U.S. and England, concentrating on designers’ varied interpretations of “modesty.” “The parameters of modesty…. are defined by the individual, who can choose what to conceal or reveal,” explains Camerlengo.

The bulk of the exhibition is divided among regions where designers are producing cutting-edge, yet modest, garments. In the Middle East, where women wear many different forms of head and body coverings, the most common is the robe-like abaya. Informed by their transcontinental lifestyles and training in the West, many young designers, like the French-born, Dubai-based Faiza Bouguessa, have borrowed regional textiles as well as materials and techniques of French couture and folk costume motifs for new interpretations of these loose-fitting pieces. Bouguessa, who apprenticed in tailor shops in England, refashioned the flowing garment; her streamlining of its shape and silhouette is reflected in a classic, floor-length geometric dress in black and white, belted at the waist. (This crepe dress was famously worn by Beyoncé, who added a thigh-high slit up the front.)

Malaysia’s religious and cultural diversity and Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu traditions provide a rich source of inspiration for the scene-stealing creations of Melinda Looi. Two dramatic ensembles from her 2012 “Sunset in Africa” collection represent the Malaysian designer, who says she strives to empower the women who wear her clothes. One is a silk-batik kaftan in desert tones, topped off by a voluptuous turban, while the other, a voluminous, regal outfit in multiple shades of red, is made of embroidered textiles, patterned brocades woven with metallic threads, satin and animal horns that protrude from the shoulders.

Interspersed throughout the galleries are supplementary materials, including social media content, films and photographs such as Hassan Hajjaj’s series “Kesh Angels,” which the artist, known as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakesh,” began shooting in Morocco in 1998. Attempting to dispel myths surrounding Muslim women, he dressed models in fabrics he acquired on his trips to New York, London and Casablanca and photographed them on the motorbikes they use to navigate the narrow streets of Marrakesh. San Francisco artist Wesaam Al-Badry, who was born in Iraq, spent time in a Saudi refugee camp after the outbreak of the Gulf War before moving to Nebraska. Observing the disconnect between the Middle East and Middle America, he transformed silk scarves by prominent Western designers such as Gucci, Chanel and Valentino into niqabs, or face veils, and documented the results. Shadi Ghadirian’s work, characterized by humor and insight, is inextricably connected to her identity as a Muslim woman in Iran, and the tensions between tradition and modernity in her country. “This conflict between old and new is how the younger generation is currently living in Iran,” she says in a catalog biography. “We may embrace modernity, but we’re still in love with our traditions.” Ghadirian created her photography project, “Like Everyday” (2000-2001), in response to her impending marriage and concerns that married life and the daily domestic tasks it entailed would come to define her. In each image, a strategically placed household object—a coffee pot, a teacup, an iron or a cereal bowl—obscures the face of a woman draped in a colorfully patterned Iranian chador. Through her pictures, Ghadirian appears to rebel not only against gender roles in Iran but the societal constructs that confine many women around the world.

The final section of the show, devoted to Western designers, features a sweeping, deep purple YSL dress with a hood resembling a covering called the shayla that loosely wraps around the head, and an Oscar de la Renta brilliant pink evening dress embroidered with white flowers. Adventurous British designer Barjis Chohan represents a younger cadre. Raised in South London, her Pakistani and Rajasthani heritage informs design aesthetics that combine rigorous Western tailoring and vividly colored, hand-painted fabrics like those used for a fuchsia and electric blue pantsuit on display here. But the real show-stopper is Georgina Chapman’s layered turquoise chiffon ensemble with jeweled appliqué on the shoulders and neckline.

The Fine Arts Museums has a long history of mounting couture shows; in this particular exhibition, audiences will gain a greater appreciation not only for the artistry and inventiveness of designers of Muslim fashion, but also for the diversity of
Muslim cultures.

Sept. 22, 2018 → Jan. 6, 2019

de Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.