Islam is a global and highly decentralized religion with nearly 2 billion adherents. The main text of Islam, the Qur’an, offers little guidance about dress, establishing only that Muslim men and women should dress and behave modestly. This has allowed for a great deal of variation in what might be considered “Muslim dress.” As per anthropologist Joanne Eicher’s definition, dress is not limited to clothing; Muslims often wear jewelry and other accessories, groom their hair, use cosmetics, and scent their bodies and clothing with incense and perfume. They also wash before making ritual prayers (a process called wudu). However, most of the academic literature—and public debates about Muslims and Muslim dress—have focused on clothing. Since there is no single governing authority, “Muslim dress” consists of whatever Muslims choose to wear. While some styles of dress (mostly originating from the Middle East), such as the face-covering niqab or the Afghani burqa, have become strongly associated with Islam in the Western media, they should not be viewed as more authentic or appropriate than other styles of Muslim dress.
Having begun in what is now Saudi Arabia in the seventh century C.E., early styles of Muslim dress strongly reflected the climate and the local Arab culture. “The Coming of Islam and Its Influence on Dress” by textile scholar Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood offers a quick introduction to these ancient styles, which are still reflected in the clothing (ihram) worn by men making the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). (For more about the purpose and aesthetics of these garments, see Vogelsang-Eastwood‘s article on “Islamic Pilgrimage Dress.”) More detailed information can be found in Arab Dress: A Short History, by historian Yedida Kalfon Stillman. Given the difficulty of studying ancient dress in a culture that has largely discouraged depictions of the human form in paintings and sculptures, there has been little scholarship on this topic.
More is known about how Ottoman (Muslim) styles of dress influenced European dress, which can be studied through European texts, drawings, prints, and paintings. While some garments (such as trousers for men) were widely adopted by Europeans for practical reasons, others (such as tippet sleeves, turbans, and dressing gowns) appeared more briefly as exotic fashions. Amelia Bloomer—a nineteenth-century US feminist and political activist, who advocated for wearing pantaloons with a short skirt instead of long skirts and corsets—was also inspired by Ottoman dress. The “Bloomer costume” allowed ease of movement, but also symbolized the rights that Ottoman women enjoyed under Islamic law (such as owning and inheriting personal property), rights that were not yet available to women in Europe and North America. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West: A Visual History of Cultural Exchange, a forthcoming volume by textiles and clothing scholar Charlotte Jirousek, offers a thorough documentation of this history.
A somewhat larger body of literature delves into the scriptural and theoretical foundations of Muslim dress. An article on “Islam and Islamically Correct Dress (Hijab)” by anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi provides a concise introduction to verses in the Qur’an and hadiths (teachings of the prophet Mohammed) that pertain to dress. A much more detailed examination is available in her book Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, which focuses on how a new generation of Muslim feminists in Egypt—who have chosen to reject the Westernized styles of dress worn by their mothers and grandmothers and wear the hijab—have found support for their goals in the Qur’an and hadiths. Written by an Egyptian native speaker of Arabic, this book is the most comprehensive for understanding the linguistic and scriptural basis for Muslim dress. A more recent article by dress and fashion scholar Heather Akou, “Interpreting Islam Through the Internet: Making Sense of Hijab,” explores how Muslims in the twenty-first century are using online forums to study Islam, to debate ideas about dress, to share their varied experiences, and to buy products that support their decisions.
Two additional books are useful for understanding the diversity of “veiling” practices and how they compare to other (non-Muslim) faiths and cultures. Islam and the Veil: Theoretical and Regional Contexts explores a variety of theoretical concepts for understanding Muslim dress and the scholarship on Muslim dress, including purdah (seclusion), Orientalism, gender, and political activism. The Routledge International Handbook to Veils and Veiling has chapters from many prominent scholars, providing an overview of diverse veiling practices around the world (including by non-Muslims). It is important to understand, however, that not all Muslims “veil” or wear distinctive styles of dress that set them apart from non-Muslims. In her study of Muslims in the UK, anthropologist Emma Tarlo coined the term “visibly Muslim” to describe those who choose to embody their faith through their styles of dress.
Due to the cultural turmoil of European colonization and two world wars, in the early twentieth century several countries in the Middle East and North Africa experimented with banning Muslim dress and imposing Western dress. After the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922, the new president of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, was eager to “modernize” the country and make it more European. In addition to reforming the constitution and changing the language (requiring Turkish to be written in Latin script instead of Arabic script), he passed a series of dress reform laws—designed to force Turkish citizens to stop wearing fezzes, turbans, and other markers of religious identity and adopt Western-style suits, dresses, and hats. Several other countries with large Muslim populations, including Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and Afghanistan enacted similar laws. Two encyclopedia entries—“Dress Reforms of the Early Twentieth Century in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan” by Derek Bryce, a scholar of culture and business, and “Reza Shah’s Dress Reforms in Iran,” by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood—highlight some of the similarities and differences in these various cases. Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World: Gender, Modernism and the Politics of Dress, edited by historian Stephanie Cronin, covers these histories in even greater depth.
In the 1960s and 1970s—as European colonization began to end in Africa and the Middle East—many Muslims questioned the value of Westernization. Having been raised in Egypt before this backlash, religious studies scholar Leila Ahmed wrote A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America, which explores how many Muslims started rejecting Western fashion and wearing styles of dress more closely associated with Islam. An earlier book about the same time and place, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo, by Arlene MacLeod, a political scientist, focused on changes in women’s dress as signifiers of social class and economic change.
As the European Union was formed and expanded in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the question of whether Turkey was (or should be) part of Europe resurfaced. Although styles of Muslim dress—most visibly, beards for men and head coverings for women—had been slowly reappearing since the 1960s, in 1998 the government decided to reinforce a ban on religious dress—effectively stopping Muslims with visibly Islamic dress from attending universities and serving in government. Although the government wanted the EU to view Turkey as a secular and progressive country, Turkey’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful. When President Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2014 (the modern state’s first nonsecular president), he lifted the ban on religious dress. The complex politics of dress in Turkey are examined in depth in Faith and Fashion in Turkey: Consumption, Politics, and Islamic Identities by fashion scholar Nazli Alimen, highlighting the range of choices made by practicing Muslims (both men and women) and the burgeoning fashion industry that supports them.
The formation of the European Union—along with the increasing immigration of Muslims into Europe from Turkey, Pakistan, North Africa, and Somalia; the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States; and a series of devastating attacks in Spain (2004), the UK (2005), France (2015, 2016), and Belgium (2016) attributed to Muslim terrorists—also led many countries in Europe to have intense political debates over public security, laws, and national identity. As explored by John Bowen, an anthropologist, in Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, in 2004 the French national government passed a law restricting students from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. While the new law did not specifically target Muslims, they were the largest religious community impacted. A book by human rights scholar Dominic McGoldrick, Human Rights and Religion: The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe, frames this law with a comparison to similar legislation in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
In 2010, France passed a more controversial law by a vote of 335–1, sharply restricting the use of clothing that covers the face. Violators can be fined €150 and required to attend citizenship classes. Those who coerce others (that is to say a child or a spouse) into wearing a face covering can be fined up to €30,000 and given one year of jail time. While framed in the political sphere as an issue of public security and gender equality, in the media this law was widely referred to as the “burqa ban.” Following the French decision (later upheld by the European Court of Human Rights), similar laws were considered by Quebec and several other countries in Europe, with bans passing in Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and parts of Italy and Switzerland. Several books and articles have focused on these debates and legislation, including “Fashion and the Law: The Muslim Headscarf and the Modern Woman” by fashion scholar Barbara Vinken; The Experience of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law, edited by Eva Brems, a human rights scholar (which includes interviews with Muslims in Europe directly affected by the laws); Politics, Religion, and Gender: Framing and Regulating the Veil, edited by Sieglinde Rosenberger and Birgit Sauer, both political scientists, and Islamic Veiling in Legal Discourse by Anastasia Vakulenko, a professor of law, which compares Islamic law to European laws.
In 2016, more than thirty towns along the French Riviera attempted to ban the burquini—a full-body swimsuit worn mostly (but not exclusively) by Muslim women— from local beaches. Although no version of the burquini covers the face—and the swimsuit has not been embraced by very conservative Muslims, who view it as insufficiently modest—the linguistic similarity between “burqa” and “burquini” led to confusion and efforts to extend the “burqa ban” to the burquini. Some politicians have argued that the burquini is a symbol of Islamic extremism—a threat to security and French identity. Activists, on the other hand, have argued that the full-body swimsuit is liberating for Muslim women and should be considered a matter of personal choice—not a threat and not something the government should legislate against. Although the French high court ruled that these bans were unconstitutional, some municipalities have chosen to ignore the rulings. Two publications by Heather Akou, “A Brief History of the Burqini: Confessions and Controversies,” and an entry on the “Burqini” in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, examine the history, aesthetics, and politics of this garment.
As increasing numbers of Muslims have chosen to be “visibly Muslim” and wear distinctive styles of dress, a new fashion industry—parallel to, but separate from Western fashion—has grown to support these new consumers. As both a site of strong consumer demand and a longtime hub of textile and clothing production, Turkey has emerged as a leader in the global Islamic fashion industry. A new volume by anthropologist Magdalena Crăciun, Islamic Faith and Fashion: The Islamic Fashion Industry in Turkey, explores the history and dimensions of this industry, including interviews with Islamic fashion entrepreneurs and designers. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress by Elizabeth Bucar, a religious ethicist, compares contemporary Islamic fashion consumers in Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey.
As minorities in Europe and North America, Muslims have had to be creative about buying and assembling Islamic fashion outfits—buying from Web sites, adapting clothing sold in local retail stores (such as scarves and maxi dresses), and buying from a small (but growing) number of mainstream retailers with lines of clothing designed specifically for Muslims (notably Marks & Spencer in the UK and Macy’s in the US). “Building a New ‘World Fashion’: Islamic Dress in the Twenty-First Century,” by Heather Akou, examines the global reach and distribution of this new industry, particularly as it exists online. Modest Fashion: Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith, edited by Reina Lewis, a professor of cultural studies, explores how Islamic fashion intersects with similar desires for modest fashion among conservative Jews and Christians.
While not always explicit, immigration is a strong theme in the literature about Muslim dress in Europe and North America. “Fashion, Anti-Fashion, Non-Fashion and Symbolic Capital: The Uses of Dress among Muslim Minorities in Finland,” by Anna-Mari Almila, a scholar of cultural and historical studies, compares styles of dress (and the ideological positions behind them) worn by Somali immigrants in Finland with styles worn by native-born Finnish converts and their daughters. Similarly, an anthology edited by Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moors, Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America, explores the range of experiences and ideologies that have led Muslims in Europe and North America—both immigrants and converts—to engage in wearing Islamic fashion. Describing Islamic fashion somewhat differently as an expression of a global “youth subculture,” Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, by Reina Lewis, compares young Muslims in the UK to young Muslims in Turkey and North America.
Although styles of dress worn by Muslims in Europe and North America often look similar to clothing worn in the Middle East, they are motivated by very different circumstances. A book edited by Sajida Alvi (historian), Homa Hoodfar (anthropologist), and Sheila McDonough (professor of religious studies), The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, was one of the first to explore the experiences of Muslims in Canada and the United States. While research for the book started after the first Persian Gulf War (1990–1991), it ended before the events of September 11, 2001. The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States, edited by political scientists Bozena Welborne, Aubrey Westfall, Özge Çelik Russell, and anthropologist Sarah A. Tobin, published in 2018, continues in this vein. In comparison to Europe—where Muslims struggle for recognition and are often viewed simply as immigrants who are unwilling (perhaps unable) to assimilate—Muslims in the US have rights to religious freedom and religious dress that are guaranteed by the US Constitution. This has allowed both immigrants and native-born converts to be more active and integrated into society. An article by Heather Akou, “Becoming Visible: The Role of the Internet in Dress Choices among Native-Born Converts to Islam in North America,” focuses on the distinct needs and desires of converts as minorities within a minority.
Although Islam is not the only religion in the Middle East, it is certainly the most culturally and politically dominant. Even so, there is still considerable variation in dress. Read in tandem, two articles in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion—”Saudi Arabian Dress,” by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood and the “Dress of Shiites and Mystics” by Ashgar Seyed-Gohrab (a professor of Middle Eastern studies)—highlight some of the reasons for that variation, including regional cultures, climate differences, and ideological differences. Some of the most austere clothing—consisting mostly of black and white garments without ornamentation—is found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, based on a very conservative form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism. As the national ideology of Saudi Arabia, Muslim dress in required for both men and women in all public spaces. The most common style of dress for Saudi women is a lightweight cloak (abayeh or abaya) with a face-covering veil (niqab), usually all black or another muted color. Men commonly wear an ankle-length white tunic (thobe) with a white or red-and-white scarf (ghutrah) secured with a coil of black rope. Underneath these outer garments—and in private—a wide variety of other clothing is worn, including European couture and Western ready-to-wear fashions.
While the modern state of Iran (post-1979) also requires Muslim dress in public spaces for both men and women, it reflects the unique history, culture, and ideology of Shi’a Islam. For women, a common style of dress is the chador—a loose cloak held in place with one hand, which covers the entire body except for the face and feet (usually black, to symbolize sophistication along with Iran’s ethos of political activism and mourning). Men who are clerics and scholars typically wear a turban to signal their credentials. Middle Eastern studies scholar Faegheh Shirazi‘s book, The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, focuses on post-1979 Iran, but includes perspectives from Saudi Arabia and the US, examining changes in clothing and attitudes about Muslim dress through an array of media such as advertising, poetry, films, and posters. A more recent article by Alexandru Balasescu, an anthropologist, “Haute Couture in Iran: Two Faces of an Emerging Fashion Scene,” profiles two contemporary fashion designers in Iran, highlighting tensions over class and the acceptability of fashion.
Although the Islamic fashion industry in Turkey (tesettür) is associated by many people in that country with Islamism (an overtly political approach to Islam), Muslim dress is not required by law and varies tremendously. Several features—including a long history of textile and clothing production, capacity and skill for manufacturing (as a major supplier of ready-to-wear for the European market), and the creativity of Turkish fashion designers and consumers—have made Turkey an epicenter for the global Islamic fashion industry. In contrast to common styles of dress worn in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Islamic fashions in Turkey are colorful, fit more closely to the body, and change rapidly. Head coverings, for example, are available in a wide range of colors, patterns, and shapes, such as printed squares of silk and polyester designed to wrap tightly around the head and neck (à la Grace Kelly) and rectangular “pashmina” scarves that can be pinned and draped in various ways depending on the skill of the consumer. An article by geographers Banu Gökarıksel and Anna Secor, “Between Fashion and Tesettür: Marketing and Consuming Women’s Islamic Dress” examines the history and trajectory of this industry.
Although approximately half of all people who live in Africa are Muslims—ranging from nearly 100 percent in North Africa to small minorities in Central and South Africa—there has not much been research on Muslim dress in Africa, particularly south of the Sahara. Veiling in Africa, edited by anthropologist Elisha Renne, seeks to make this important history more visible. Two case studies on northwest Africa highlight the local histories and global networks that influence Muslim dress in Africa: an article by anthropologist Katherine Wiley, “Fashioning People, Crafting Networks,” on the history and current symbolism of veiling in Mauritania, along with Veils, Turbans, and Islamic Reform in Northern Nigeria, by Elisha Renne, which focuses on the changing politics, economics, and aesthetics of Muslim dress in northern Nigeria. Although not entirely focused on Muslim dress or fashion, Pastimes and Politics by Laura Fair, a historian, along with The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture by Heather Akou, describe the unique histories and politics of Muslim dress in East Africa.
Although Indonesia currently has the world’s largest population of Muslims (over 200 million people), the body of literature on Muslim dress in that country is surprisingly small. An encyclopedia entry by Edric Ong, an artist, on “The Fashion World in Southeast Asia” introduces this topic as an important component of the fashion industry in Southeast Asia. In addition to being part of the focus in Elizabeth Bucar‘s book, Pious Fashion, two articles on Muslim dress in Indonesia include “Fashion and Faith in Urban Indonesia” by Carla Jones, an anthropologist, and “Secular Fashion, Religious Dress, and Modest Ambiguity” by Elizabeth Bucar.
While there have been many images of Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Western media—particularly of Afghani women wearing a burqa or chaadaree, a pleated garment that covers the entire body—there is very little literature about dress in this region. In addition to chapters by Catherine Daly, a dress scholar, in Undressing Religion and Religion, Dress and the Body about Afghani dress in South Asia and the diaspora, “The Chadari/Burqa of Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood focuses on the history and politics of this widely recognized and controversial garment.
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Find in Library Tarlo Emma, and Annelies Moors, eds. Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/9781474235303/TARLO0002
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