Through the landscape of Muslim fashion, we see how religion, identity and culture shape what people wear and how they communicate within the world. Reina Lewis is focused on orientalism and Muslim fashion all her career. She is the consultant curator of a new project which will start a big conversation in the globe. The exhibition “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” is the first major museum exhibition in the United States and globally explores the complex and diversity of Muslim Fashions and current modest dress codes. Organised by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, this pioneering exhibition will examine how Muslim women have become arbiters of style within and beyond their communities and, in doing so, have drawn attention to the variations and nuances of their contemporary lives. Is it still an issue to talk about the words “fashion” and “muslim” in one sentence? We had the pleasure of talking to Reina Lewis about all the things that matters.
You specifically talk about Muslim fashion and orientalism. Why do you think it is important to open a conversation about these topics?
When my book “Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style of Cultures” came out in 2015, I thought that the slogan for that book could have been “Muslim fashion underrepresented in the style media and over represented in the news media” and that was because at that point, it still seemed extraordinary to talk about Muslims and fashion in the same sentence. And yet I could see on the streets of London as I’m sure you’ve seen elsewhere young Muslim women, especially those who were visible as Muslim because they were wearing a headscarf, were styling religion and fashion together. And they were using the garments and the textiles in the trends in the mainstream fashion to create modern ensembles that express their religious cultural ethnic and style identity.
How do you think Muslim fashion and modest dressing are seen in the media?
These subjects are entirely absent from the fashion media. And
it was unrecognized by brands and marketers. In fact, brands were evasive to be publicly associated with Muslims. And there was a general sense that religion and fashion didn’t mix but it
was particularly the case for Muslims. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in the U.S., a securitising concept of the world became prevalent with a civilizational discourse that positioned all Muslims as outsiders and oppositional to modernity and the West. Like perceiving modernity as if it was only a Western phenomenon for a start. And I knew from my previous research on orientalist that, in the Orientalist world, there were elements of genuine admiration for Eastern textiles, literature, philosophy, and art forms. There was a prevalent tendency to regard Eastern civilizations as inferior or as if they moved to greatness head past with the passing of civilization.
What do you think about the way women have been seen throughout the history of Muslim Culture?
I was very engaged with Edward Said’s work on orientalism and received a scholarship in response to that. And the women from the orient often were presented either sexualised or told what to wear in harem with harem interpreted not so much as a domestic space but something more like a brothel and or in need of Western men or sexually alluring and available which wasn’t right.
Do you think there is a misconception with Muslim Fashions?
I think yes, there are several misconceptions with people saying Muslims don’t do fashion. Women around the world dress fashionably and accommodating personal community conventions of modesty for whom that is an issue. Images of them in clothes that mark them as recognizable as Muslim everywhere in the media, very often as illustrations to stories which have nothing to do with them. So, in a panic about social cohesion with minority communities in the U.K., you might have a newspaper article about South Asian and Muslim teenage boys in Bradford playing truant from school. But it would be illustrated with a picture of a woman in a hijab standing at school gate. Contemporary Muslim women were being pictured and represented with images as such took me back to some of those 19th-century Orientalist images and stereotypes about the differences of separateness, the exoticism and also the pragmatism of Muslim women and behind their cultures.
Big change now is that the fashion industry has woken up to the value of the money Muslims spend. Now the fashion industry and the lifestyle industries more generally see them as an asset. ”
From a cultural point of view, how is the consumer affected by the problems about their culture in the fashion industry?
I think we’re seeing is a very significant cultural shift. And this can be good or bad for Muslim consumers. When you find elements of your Identity and your social world commodified by the market, it can increase your choices, but it can also produce different sorts of pressures in a number of ways. I don’t think being recognised as a consumer will bring world peace or will make you resolve problems, but I do think that not being recognized as a consumer and to be ignored by the market can also be very damaging, especially at a point when consumption and fashion is a predominant cultural form. So, to feel excluded by that can be very hard.
What do you think about the diversity within the Muslim Culture?
Many women who want to dress with an idea of modesty wouldn’t at all consider it necessary to cover their head. But yet their needs to the market are much harder to see. So, on one hand, you feel when you see women in headscarves in adverts or on catwalks, it sends a very big signal and a very important signal. But what I would hope as well is that we see more. Among other things I think it is interesting that you know we have models like Halima Aden on the catwalk and all over the news. Before that there were models who were Muslim but that wasn’t really part of their profile. You might think that somebody like Iman, but we also have fashion influences and models like Gigi and Bella Hadid, who are now out as Muslim and as mixed heritage and as migrants. So, all forms of social diversity are now being more signaled within the fashion industry. So, I think it’s really interesting that you have somebody like the Hadid sisters doing swimwear campaigns. They are not modest dressers who are also identified as Muslim and as migrant same as Halima. It’s not to say “Oh this one is a better Muslim than the other.” That is not the issue. It is to say that one size doesn’t fit all.
Britain is a multi-cultural country with variety of people. How do people there react to Muslim fashion? Do you think Western countries put a distance between them and Muslim fashion?
There’s a sort of tolerance for religious ethnic diversity. There are also constant limits to that tolerance in addition to prejudice and discrimination. I think a lot of people are accustomed to living with diversity. I often heard from the women I interviewed for my book that they were young fashionable women. But they also, particularly who wore a headscarf, used fashion as a form of visual communication. So that they wanted to dress in a way that was obviously fashionable in order to challenge the Orientalist stereotype. That Muslims are somehow not part of the modern world. So, I think young women were using fashion as a way to communicate.
You have a new project as a consultant curator and I think it takes courage to be part of this because of today’s world and how subjects like Muslim fashion can get criticized brutally. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco is set to showcase a large-scale exhibition on this topic. Can you tell us the importance of this exhibition?
What is really important with this exhibition is that we’ve called it “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” – plural. There is no such thing as “contemporary Muslim fashion” singular and it was very important in the way that we framed the exhibition to show so much of the variety. We always talk about religious cultures in the plural sense. I think that it does take real courage for the museum and the exhibitors to create a project on this subject. This is a museum with a very strong history of fashion exhibits in the fine arts style. These are often designer monograph studies of individual designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Oscar de la Renta. The exhibition “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” was a new departure and it is very important for the museum to position it as a fashion exhibition not as a social history story. But as part of the way that they do fashion which is to take action seriously as art and creativity and as visual culture. The exhibition wants to show non-Muslims that Muslims do fashion. This project is going to attract a lot of interest from Muslims in San Francisco and California in the U.S. and around the world. And one of the things that was very important for me was early on, the museum should involve members of the Muslim community. They did a really excellent outreach and brought together a community advisory group, an outreach group from local Muslims organizations and individuals with range of Muslim opinion in terms of religious observation, politics, cultures, and ethnicity.
It may not tell your particular story, but I hope this will be the first of several movements like this. This exhibition will spotlight and celebrate some wonderful creativity and also show the interaction between Muslim consumers and modest fashion consumers and mainstream consumers.
Contemporary Muslim Fashions” is the first exhibition of this scale. Do you believe that it will have a big reaction from the world?
There’s enormous expectations from within Muslim communities and outside. We’re going to cover everything. We had to be very clear that we couldn’t be encyclopedic and that we couldn’t cover every element of contemporary global Muslim fashion style. Myself, Jill D’Alessandro and Laura L. Camerlengo are all involved with the exhibition, and none of us is Muslim. They are experts of Muslim fashion and textiles curations and I am an expert in Muslim fashions. It was very impressive that people with different cultural backgrounds came together to help the museum with this project. People have very strong expectations and we have to be very careful to say this exhibition is about the whole set of very important and interesting things that we can see now with Muslim designers and bloggers and consumers. It may not tell your particular story, but I hope this will be the first of several movements like this. This exhibition will spotlight and celebrate some wonderful creativity and also show the interaction between Muslim consumers and modest fashion consumers and mainstream consumers. And there will be a big change in the world soon.