By ALLISON RAPP
“Fashion is an ambassador for world peace,” said Carmen Muhammed in a video viewed at a press preview Thursday at Contemporary Muslim Fashions, a new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, slated to open on Friday. Muhammed works with Al Nisa Designs, a company dedicated to producing elegant, classy clothing for Muslim women, but with ideals of modesty in mind.
Though it’s been happening for decades, discrimination against Muslims has taken a front seat in the news cycles of the last several years. Muslim women in particular have faced heavy discrimination based on their modest style of clothing.
For many Islamic women, dressing in accordance with their faith can present a variety of social implications. But the exhibit emphasizes that that decision to dress modestly is not just a religious but deeply personal. In recent years, dozens of Muslim artists, designers, and social media mavens have used different platforms to not only condemn the discrimination, but to remind the world that covering up does not equate to erasing identity. The exhibit would encourage visitors to ponder what dressing modestly looks like in modern society.
On view until August, the exhibit explores the ways that Muslim women express and define themselves through their clothing. It features dozens of photographs, videos, and styled mannequins, showcasing the breadth of contemporary modest design. Outfits ranging from casual, day-time attire, to elaborate, luxury gowns, highlight the versatility of the modern-day Muslim woman.
“The museum strove to create relationships within the Muslim communities, both abroad and locally, but first and foremost, it was the artists and designers who openly shared their work, their inspirations, and their visions with the curatorial staff,” said Jill D’Alessandro, curator in charge of costume and textile arts. “For many modern modest designers, the wardrobes they create not only reflect the religious beliefs and their cultures, but they also reflect their personal philosophies.”
“Dressing modestly doesn’t mean we’re meek or weak,” said Melanie Elturk in another of the exhibit’s videos. Elturk is CEO of Haute Hijab, a modest design company that specializes in creating hijabs for the modern, professional Muslim woman.
In addition to work clothes, the exhibit touches on the difficulty Muslim women often face when it comes to recreational dress. For female athletes of faith, access to modest sport clothing can be a significant challenge, and it can sometimes discourage many women from participating in activities like running or swimming. Modest designers took to the drawing board and came up with new ideas such as the “burkini”, which aligned with traditional religious beliefs, but was also fully practical for a day of swimming.
Prejudice against modest clothing is a universal issue. In 2016, officials in France faced major backlash after introducing “burkini bans”, prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the popular swim attire. The French government cited public concern from recent extremist terrorist attacks, though many women defied the ban.
Beyond the beach, strides have also been made in the high-end fashion industry. Most contemporary, luxury design includes tight or minimal fabric, leaving Muslim women out of the loop. But many modest designers are working to change that and create ensembles that fit with belief systems, but also dazzle crowds with intricate beading and eye-catching colors.
The conversation surrounding modest dress is a global one. Given that Islam is a multicultural faith, the exhibit notes the distinctions between different parts of the world, and their respective viewpoints on Muslim fashion, including the United States.
“Fashion can serve as a platform for self-expression and as a tool for positive social change,” said Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt. “Focusing on the work of young professional Muslim designers and artists, the exhibition celebrates the vibrant global community that has arisen around modest fashion and uses contemporary art, street photography, social media and music videos to bring diverse voices into the gallery.”
Photo by Allison Rapp