Mary, Where Have You Gone? The De Young Museum Misses the Mark On Muslim Fashion.
I had seen her before. The model with bare shoulders and chest presented forward, heavily bronzed and made-up, her lips parted just slightly. As an American, it was intimately and painfully familiar: the woman of color commodified, fetishized, and marketed. As a Muslim, this magazine cover, complete with flowery silk scarves clearly meant to recall the Muslim practice of hijab, made my heart sink. In an exhibit on contemporary Muslim fashion, the first exhibit of its kind the world over, I had hoped to see more of the women I recognized. I had hoped to see more of what makes Muslim fashion Muslim.
The De Young exhibit on contemporary Muslim fashion simply reflected the warped version of Muslim women seen through the lens of fast fashion, internet fame, and the male gaze. The practice of hijab is not so much being celebrated or accepted for what it is, but is instead being transformed into what the fashion industry needs it to be in order to tap into the 1.8 billion Muslim market: a statement not of faith, but of physicism.
The practice of hijab is different for each woman who chooses it. There are women who wear hijab wrapped loosely around their heads, exposing a good deal of hair. There are women who wear their hijab tied up in a turban, exposing their neck. There are women who wear short or three-quarter sleeves or tight leggings under loose tunics. There are “half-jabis” or sometimes hijabis who wear hijab in the loosest sense, or only to prayer. Some wear makeup, some do not. All of these women have at least one thing in common: they have adopted the hijab for the purpose of committing to seek spiritual humility through physical modesty.
The De Young Exhibit on Contemporary Muslim Fashions has shown that fashion is still so at odds with the attitude of hijab that it cannot reconcile itself as an industry built on spectacle, sex, and celebrity with the idea of modesty as a practice of faith.
As I walked through the exhibit, I could almost hear the threads of this practice straining to hold together as it is pulled between two worlds. Not East and West, but humble and braggadocious. Self-possessed, and objectified. Humanized, and sexualized.
At the entrance to the exhibit, just past the covers of Bazaar and Vogue, a mashrabiya stood behind four abaya gowns. One of these gowns, designed by Wadha Al-Hajri of Qatar, mimicked the design of the mashrabiya, with sections of opaque white fabric layered and embroidered into sheer organza. Though it may not have been the designer’s intention to do so in creating an abaya inspired by the mashrabiya, a screen cut with geometric designs, the docent’s characterization of the abaya as “giving the illusion of being revealing” was chilling. Never would I have thought that an abaya could be sexualized and made to cater to the silent leer of the outsider. The pull of a world that demands women prove they are liberated by performing an overt feminine sexuality was only too evident.
Immediately after introducing this dress, the docent called our attention back to the mashrabiya behind the gowns. Behind it, a woman’s eyes gazed out. Not one person in our group of maybe twenty people had seen her, though we had been staring in her direction for several minutes. A Muslim woman in hijab, gazing out from behind a white screen, boxed-in, defined by the white framework laid over her, erasing her face and her identity. The exhibit inadvertently and ironically created the perfect visual metaphor for what it represents.
Many of the gowns, abayas, streetwear, and sportswear did indeed have the unassuming and gentle self-expression that I have come to know in hijab-wearing women of all kinds. In a world that pulls the hijab apart, not for the comfort or supposed liberation of the hijab-wearing woman but for its own gratification, the sight of mannequins covered fully to the wrists and ankles was welcome. Many of the pieces were designed by and for Muslim women, and while the exhibit’s omission of pieces from Africa was a terrible oversight, Black designers were not entirely absent from the presentation. Nzingha Knight’s “Twareg dress” was among my absolute favorites and offered further proof that Muslim fashion needs not conform to the outlandish and ostentatious standards of “Western” fashion in order to be fashionable or allow the wearer to use clothing as a form of self-expression. Contrary to popular “Western” ideas, modesty does not necessitate complete self-abnegation: hijab does not require one to be drab, matronly, or lacking in style. Conversely, displaying style or expressing oneself through clothing does not require extravagance of dress or expense. It has never been the practice of hijab that has limited Muslim women, but only the lens through which hijab-wearing women are viewed as self-effacing and oppressed to the extreme, and Muslim fashion is seen as dull, rigid, and monastic.
Too many of those gowns which did not allude to the hidden sexual desirability of the woman beneath the abaya were instead woefully extravagant and antithetical to the modest attitude all practices of hijab are supposed to encompass. Dripping in Swarovski crystals, produced by major brands like Nike and Dolce and Gabbana — corporations that employ Muslim women in sweatshop conditions to manufacture their goods — these gowns and athletic wear pieces reeked of capitalist exploitation and excess.
The exhibit pointed to young designers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, shaping the face of Muslim fashion in the 21st century. Four-foot tall projection screens scrolled through the Instagram feeds of hijabi “influencers.” Women who were bare-faced, covered to the wrists and ankles, showing no hair, wearing flowing garments rather than fitted clothing were scarce. This is not an accident. There are Muslim women who cover their hair entirely, who do not wear makeup, who wear clothing other than the abaya, and exist on instagram. The reason only these “hijabista” women were featured in this exhibit is because this was Muslim women, curated. This was Muslim women displayed. This assimilated version of a woman in hijab — the non-threatening fashion-conscious girl who participates in the consumerist lifestyle necessitated by fast-fashion and the beauty industry — is the only version of hijab and hijab-wearing women that America is willing to accept.
To be sure, Muslim women who wear makeup or practice hijab loosely (or not at all) are still Muslim. Their practices, identities, and contributions are valid. However, when non-Muslims exclude women who practice a more modest version of hijab, a message is sent, not only to Muslim women, but to the rest of the non-Muslim world: Muslim women must assume the fourth shift, the busy-work of performing femininity or be relegated to live behind a screen of ignorance.
If the De Young exhibit on contemporary Muslim fashion is supposed to mark a milestone of acceptance of a religion that has existed on American shores for over four hundred years, it fell tragically short. We have not been accepted, we have been appropriated. We have been commodified. We are being looked at, but remain woefully unseen.
This exhibit was the West’s conversation with itself on the subject of Muslim dress. It was self- congratulatory in the way white-feminism always is. It unnecessarily brought forward juxtapositions of women in hijab and women nearly in the nude, once again dredging up the false parallel that women in hijab are sexually oppressed and unable to express ourselves: that we live in diametric opposition to the sexually liberated non-Muslim American woman and do not share her many freedoms.
The lack of Muslim involvement in the curation of the exhibit was apparent, for the exhibit was absent much of the conversation Muslim women have amongst themselves on topics of fashion, modesty, artistry, and the political and religious implications behind different forms of Muslim dress. Also inexcusably invisible were Muslim men, and male modest dress, which reinforced the idea that hijab and modesty are practices limited to only Muslim women, and not also prescribed to the other half of the human race.
So many of the gowns exhibited were beautiful and memorable, and several of the designers should be commended on creating pieces that embrace hijab as a spiritual practice and a form of artistic self-expression. Overall, however, the exhibit was a peek through the gaze of white male-centered capitalism. We have been boiled down, reduced to glittering dolls hinting at a restrained sexuality that yearns to break free.
The woman behind the mashrabiya is always present in my mind’s eye. Amidst towering photos of Halima Aden, music videos of Instagram-famous hijabis, and gowns dripping in crystals, I saw myself in her the most. I found myself thinking of her, and of the other Muslim women America will continue to gawk at, but not understand. I thought of Mary, the mother of Jesus, known almost universally for her modesty and strength. Staring up into the empty faces of the mannequins beneath their gaudy ensembles, I wondered, where has Mary gone? Like so many Muslim women, the spirit of Mary does not fit into America’s narrative. Her chastity and grace are now traits undesirable. The women who aspire to Mary’s humility do not fit into America’s narrative of Muslim women, and so Mary joins us as we are relegated, silenced, behind the mashrabiya.