Fashion has never been just about function. Through its evolution from strategically placed plants to the extremist avant-garde that shocks contemporary runways, fashion has always been about more than simple protection from the elements. It has always been about the individual and has influences from far beyond its time: from the beautiful Helen of Troy, to the magnificent Cleopatra and the ever fabulous Marie Antoinette; all of these women’s fashions have a place in the world today, whether it be on runways, red carpets or in Forever 21. In the end, women and fashion go together more than anything else does, so it is only natural for women to mold their traditional looks to what is modern, trendy or whatever their personal style may be.
Fashion has always been able to tell a story. Through a single article of clothing you can learn much about an individual without even having met them. Their clothes tell about their economic situation, their culture, their religion, their personal attitude and their occupation. The pieces of clothing stitch together the story of everyone from every culture and every time period.
The fashion and styles of singular cultures grew independently from one and other through the ages, and now, in the age of globalization, nearly every country in the world has blended their particular brand of fashion into what is now the globalized fashion world. For example, on the 2013 Fashion Week runways, audiences were treated to fashion inspired by non-western cultures. While nearly every culture was taken influence from, the undisputable star of this years worldwide runways was the heavily influence of the Islamic culture.
Runways featured the traditional heavy eyeliner, turbans, beaded headbands, floor length conservative gowns (a long awaited break from the trend of mini-everything) and in a twist of events, Islamic female designers presented their collections in New York, London, Paris and Milan, the fashion capitals of the world. This star position will surely further inspire future fashion trends towards the Islamic values that women are most respected when their body is a secret from the world. Secrecy, mysticism and romanticism are, after all, the roots of Islamic fashion.
However, it would seem that Islam and fashion are two things that would not go together. Yet, upon closer consideration we find that they do in fact envelop one and other. Islamic fashion and the rights of Islamic women go hand in hand. In periods of time when women had freedom in their fashion choices, they also had power.
Before the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad, the veil, the symbol of the Islamic woman, was used not as a religious symbol, but rather as a symbol of rank; the original women who wore the veils were the rich and powerful whose husbands wished them to be veiled when they went out of their homes to shield their immense beauty from other men who might desire them. Even then, however, women had the choice to cover themselves up or not. Aisha bint Talha, the niece of Muhammad’s wife, refused to wear a veil. She is attributed to having replied to her husband, upon his request for her to please veil herself by beautifully saying, “Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognized His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself” (Reese, Lyn. “Women in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives From the Past”). While it does appear in the Qur’an that women should cover themselves and lower their gaze, the extent as to what they should do so is widely debated.
Actually, it wasn’t for another 200 years after the Prophet had died that the veil was fiercely implemented in the lives of everyday women along with the black gowns that were designed to cover their entire body from head to toe when in public areas. Since then, the rights of women in Islamic countries have been greatly diminished despite the example that Muhammad led. Muhammad depended greatly on the advice of his wives and daughters and encouraged them to speak their minds. Because Aisha bint Talha was so intelligent and outspoken, the Prophet actually trained her to “question, discuss, argue and correct, to the extent that he recommended that the Muslims should learn from her knowledge and wisdom, especially in religious matters: take half of your religion from Aisha he said” (Jawad, H.A. “Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach”. Page 85). Since the days of women with immense power and position, the rights of Islamic women have taken a downward spiral: women could no longer attend school, speak of out turn, look men in the eyes and a great number of other rights were revoked. It is only recently that women in Islamic countries are taking a stand for their rights, fashion being one of them. Women’s rights and fashion grow side by side and are very much so intertwined in each other’s fates.
According to Annelies Moors, author of “Fashionable Muslims: Notions of Self, Religion and Society in San’a”, starting in the 1960s, modern Islamic women have been starting to be more creative in their fashion choices. In San’a, Yemen, for example, a traditionally strictly conservative city, women’s fashion has blossomed away from the black head to toe covered look, called a sitara, a long dress used to cover their indoor clothing. While the women of San’a still remain conservative and are covered up, they have been experimenting with their fashion, especially the young students and upper class women who, when travelling outside of the country, have taken inspiration.
Women went from the thick sitara’s to balto’s, which are a form of overcoat made out of a material that is not only thinner than that of the sitara, but also more breathable and moveable. This simple fashion adjustment fascinated the women and gave them a “more elegant, dress-like appearance”. Women also began to experiment with the length of clothes and what else to wear besides the sitara. Some young women wore a “shorter sharshaf [dress], worn either with modern stockings or with fashionable wide-legged trousers underneath, rather than with the traditional Yemeni pants, the sirtval, that fitted tightly around the ankles”.
Alongside the experimentation of shapes and silhouettes in Tehran, another traditionally conservative city, women have begun to play with colors. After the Islamic Revolution, black, dark brown and gray largely dominated the urban cities. Yet in recent times, traditional rural colors and patterns have made a strong come back.
The world of Islamic fashion is growing by leaps and bounds at an astonishing rate. Here in the United States, New York fashion week hosted female Islamic designer Nzinga Knight, who says that her designs cater to Islamic women in specific, but all women should at least consider her designs. She says that there’s “nothing sexier than a woman with secrets.”
Balasescu, Alexandru. “Haute Couture In Tehran: Two Faces Of An Emerging Fashion Scene.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 11.2/3 (2007): 299-317. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
Jawad, H. A. Rights Of Women In Islam: An Authentic Approach. n.p.: Macmillan Press, 1998. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
Lebling, Robert W. Legends Of The Fire Spirits : Jinn And Genies From Arabia To Zanzibar. n.p.: I.B. Tauris, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
Moors, Annelies. “Fashionable Muslims: Notions Of Self, Religion, And Society In San’a.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 11.2/3 (2007): 319-346. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
Reese, Lyn. Women in the Muslim World: Personalities and Perspectives from the past. Berkeley, CA: Women in World History Curriculum, 1998. Print.
“Islam and Sensuality: Muslim Fashion Designer Covers up.” The Los Angeles Fashion 14 Sept. 2012: n. pag. Online.