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The de Young’s Latest Fashion Exhibition Turns Muslim Stereotypes Inside Out

The sartorial is political.


The Feminist head scarf by Nourka.

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A skirt and shirt by Greek designer Mary Katrantzou, part of her December 2017 collection and a featured look in Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the de Young Museum.

Photo: Courtesy of Mary Katrantzou

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A look from designer Windri Widiesta Dhari for NurZahra at Torino Fashion Week 2017.

Photo: Courtesy of NurZahra

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Clothing by Naima Muhammad for House of Coqueta.

Photo: Courtesy of House of Coqueta 

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Mizz Nina, Kuala Lumpur singer, songwriter, and fashion designer.

Photo: Langston Hues, Modest Street Fashion, Volume 1 (2014)

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A look from Itang Yunasz’s 2018 Tribalux collection.

Photo: Courtesy of Itang Yunasz

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"Modesty is not the goal. Liberation is the goal,” says Syrian American artist Mona Haydar of why she wears the hijab. “It’s liberation from the beauty-industrial complex, liberation from the male gaze, liberation from our egos.” Haydar is a Muslim rapper, poet, and activist whose music video “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” is part of Contemporary Muslim Fashions, an exhibition opening at the de Young Museum on September 22. The show follows on the very high heels of the museum’s blockbuster fashion exhibitions celebrating designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier. But it departs from those showcases by spotlighting traditions that don’t always adhere to Western standards of beauty and that come wrapped in cultural and religious complexities.

It is a distinctly political show, in other words, albeit one in which aesthetic issues take ­precedence—or at least provide some stunning cover for weightier conversations. “Fashion is a very soft way to make your political point,” says Jill D’Allessandro, the de Young’s curator of costume and textile arts, who developed the show with assistant curator Laura Camerlengo. “The idea of making something beautiful and accessible to all faiths, ages, creeds, and religions is really an important stance right now.”

It’s also a profitable stance. Practitioners of Islam make up 24 percent of the world’s population, and they spend $254 billion per year on clothing (a figure expected to rise to $373 billion by 2022). If you’ve never heard of the “Muslim modest” fashion market, maybe don’t mention that if you’re applying for a job at a global apparel brand. Over the past few years, American Eagle, Carolina Herrera, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, H&M, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, and Uniqlo all offered collections that observed modest Muslim dress codes. In its Fall/Winter 2018 presentations, Max Mara sent Somali American Muslim model Halima Aden down the runway in a hijab and a floor-skimming maxi skirt. And Nike released its Pro Hijab in December 2017, with a headline-grabbing campaign that featured Muslim athletes such as Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, and German boxer Zeina Nassar.

The de Young exhibition will showcase more than 100 contemporary looks from both big-name brands and upstart designers. Mannequins draped in the latest fashions will appear next to images from magazines, social media, and recent runway shows. And accompanying text will offer viewers a primer on the political, social, and economic ramifications of the fashion movement—in 2017, the New York Times’ chief fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, declared modest fashion the defining trend of the decade.

And then there are the hashtags: #hijabista, #hijabi, and #hijabfashion are affixed to tens of millions of Instagram posts showing high-style Muslim women mugging for the camera. “Social media has been really powerful. Muslim women are demanding respect and demanding visibility,” says Haydar, who has nearly 62,000 followers on Instagram. “If mass media is not going to represent Muslim women truthfully, then we will use social media and do it ourselves.” Haydar, who is 30, recalls being a teen and obsessing over fashion magazines, which captivated her even if they didn’t speak to her reality. “I remember the last page of Harper’s Bazaar telling us what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’—like, tube tops are out and spaghetti straps are in. What if I don’t want to wear either? Then who am I? Am I all the way out?”

For the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, seeing models walking the runway or gracing the pages of Vogue Arabia in long, flowing, full-coverage dresses and jackets, abayas, and head scarves is both refreshingly unexpected and reassuringly familiar. “Muslim women are realizing that they don’t have to get a nose job or dye their hair blond,” Haydar says. “They are realizing their own beauty.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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