Interview Reina Lewis: “Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Culture”, 2015


unnamed-10“I, as an academic researcher, am not interesting in saying “this is the right or the wrong way”. Regarding my job, I don’t think it is relevant and I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way.”

Reina Lewis est Professor of Cultural Studies au London College of Fashion. D’une part, elle s’intéresse au rôle du vêtement dans la construction des identités sexuelles et de genre. D’autre part, se positionant dans la catégorie des études féministes postcoloniales, elle étudie les changement d’attitudes en relation avec l’Islam, en Occident et au Moyen-Orient. Elle s’intéressa aux femmes artistes au 19e siècle avec Gendering Orientalism, publié en 1996. Puis en 2004, elle montra avec Rethinking Orientalism comment certaines femmes au début du vingtième siècle, qualifiées “d’orientales”, se jouaient des codes culturelles et défiaient les suppositions occidentales sur le Moyen-Orient. Elle mis à jour ces deux exemples historiques en examinant la commercialisation des féminités musulmanes dans son dernier ouvrage, Muslim Fashion, publié en fin d’année dernière chez Duke University Press.

Hi Reina ! You have published a new book : Muslim Fashion. What is the subject? What is “Muslim fashion”?

It is called “Muslim Fashion: Contemporay Style Culture” and in a way, it does what it says on the tin. It is about Muslim fashion and it is about contemporay style culture. I have used the phrase “Muslim fashion” to refert to a particular cohort of young women, broadly under thirty (or under forty now because I have worked on this book for ten years, so if they were from 18 to 28, they are now from 28 to 38 and there is another group of youngsters). I called it Muslim fashion because what I saw was that there were a lot more women in Britain, and in France, and in the West, in Muslim minority countries who were covering their heads, often with a headscarf, a hijab, and they were doing this very clearly to me through participation in mainstream fashion cultures. A number of these young women still wear so called ethnic clothing, the clothing conventional to their communities, which might be in this country south-asian clothing and in France would be more north-african clothing for example, and they might still wear a mar scarf for family events or at home, but mostly, what they are doing is dressing from the highstreet. This, to me, seems to be a very clearly discernable new style culture on the streets of britain and elsewhere. But does Britain sells these things called “British street style” as one of the characteristics of British fashion, and fashion inspiration? Muslim fashion was nowhere included in celebrations of British street style but yet on the streets there they are. And that is why I wanted to look at this.

After 9/11 in 2001 and then in Britain the London bombs on the 7th July in 2005, what we saw was a securitising discourse about Muslims – which of course after the events in Paris has been reactivated again – in which all Muslims was being regarded at somehow potentially connected to terrorism carried on the name of Islam. Of course a vast majority of muslims has nothing to do with that and don’t think that the criminals of terrorism have themselves anything to do with Islam: they might claim it but that doesn’t mean anothers accept it, of course they don’t. What I saw was that Muslims were increasigly being asked to declared themselves as good, ‘moderate’, Muslims, versus bad, ‘extremist’, Muslims.

I, a long time ago, had started to do a theme of what we used to called ‘women and race’ which then became ‘gender and postcolionalism’. That was about the ways in which our gendered identities, our sense of ourselves as man or woman or trans or whatever, are also racialized or ethnicized. Our ethnic and racial identities are gendered and then they are also class-specific and so on. My first book, Gendering Orientalism, looked at, in our history and litterature, how women contributed to western imperial cultures. At that point in the mid’1980s, early 1990s, nobody was really talking about images made by women – after Edward Saïd’s foundational book, Orientalism, there was a lot of work about images of oriental women (the misterious odalisc for example), but not that much about images made by women. I looked at how oriental women, in this case Ottoman women, were themselves intervening in western cultural codes. Then after 9/11, what I saw was, that in many ways, a lot of the classic orientalist images, the mystery behind the veil, were all over the newspapers. There were pictures of veiled women, of one sort of another, all over the press, often illustrating stories that were not even about women but were about this presumed distance between modernity understood as western and middle-east understood as non-modern – the all class of civilazation thesis. At the same time, pointing out the window here on Oxford Street1, there are all these cool young fashionable hijabs. So really the strapline for the book was Muslim Fashion, underrepresented in the star media, over represented in the news media.

You are talking about Orientalism and you have done a lot of research on Orientalism. Do you think this integration of Muslims within fashion could be seen as the new orientalism?

No. I think fashion has its Orientalist moments, from Poiret onwards – if you think back to the eighteenth century and cross-cultural dressing, travellers to Constantinople and so on. Fashion also plunders cultures, from what we might still call the orient, all the time, often with no relationship to the people those civilisations had originated them. Wether it’s so called tribal fashion plundering native american culture or ‘boho-chic’ going a bit south-asian, those have been instancies of orientalism in a way. I don’t think the same thing is happening with Muslim fashion. I think that the fashion industry has disregared Muslim women as fashion consumers for a long time and it is just now beginning to wake up to that. It is worth also pointing out that the fashion industry, certainly the womenswear, disregards large sections of the population all the time anyway: if you’re fat you can’t buy clothes, if you’re older you can’t buy clothes. It is not just Muslims who are disadvantaged buy the fashion manufacturing design.

There is a paradox between faith and fashion. Fashion is consumerist. Faith is – in the simplest way – against consumerism. How Muslim women deal with this issue?

There is potentially a paradoxe there but it is also worth pointing out that a lot of people with faith don’t see any conflict at all. It is not homogenous. I think that there are more young women who are wearing hijab. Some of them do it for religious reasons. Some of them do it because wearing hijabs means it is easier up to their familly and their community: if they are going out to work or to college, wearing hijab can be seen to guarantee their behavior and in some way, respectability. Others wear it precisely to destigmatise what has become stigmatised at anti-Muslim prejudice that’s around. Anothers wear it for religious reasons.

For those who wear it for reasons of sort of personnal spiritual development or religious conviction,  in the 1850s and 1860s indeed, after the beginning of what we called the globalislamic revival, the earlier generation of women in the païty movement, as it sometimes called, often saw modest dressing as a repost, an antidote, to capitalism and Western consumerism. Things would be quite plane coloured, simple. They would been sawn at home. It would also be a way of minimizing class-inequality: simple unexpensive clothing. What is different with this generation is that it has been growing up with global consumer culture. In Britain, many of them are second, third or fourth generation (initially migrant familly). They have also grown up with British fashion culture. They are using consumer culture and global fashion to craft an expression of religious identity. They are always going to be a strance of anti-fashion people, who say both: “You shouldn’t spend money on it” and “If you are dressing modestly, it should be about no drawing attention to yourself, so you shouldn’t be wearing brigth colours, you shouldn’t be wearing make up, you shouln’t be wearing jewellery”. Women have to do with these criticism a lot and some women would say to me: “I understand the ground mean, that I would be dresing and covered in certain ways so I am doing that, Allah created the beauty, Allah loves beauty, there is nothing that says I shouldn’t be beautiful.” But also others would say: “it is an issue and over consumption is an issue”.  And others would say: “Well, if you have given to charity, because many feel it is required, how you spend the rest of your money is up to you”.

A lot of people are concerned about sustainability and ethical fashion. When I talked to the designers and creative entrepeneurs, a lot of them are very concerned about where the textiles come from, what the production conditions are, what the employment conditions are. In that they are tipical of many young people in the fashion industry of their generation who are very concerned with issues about sustainability, in a way that maybe designers who started fourty years ago were not, it was not the same type of issue. But that was also before we have had globalized production in the same ways as we do now.

 What do you think this subject brings to the fashion studies?

I don’t come from fashion studies but my word has always been interdisciplinary. The choice of such a subject can be suprising but I understand it as being about dress, body and material culture. I am interested in the ways in which how we dress and present ourselves both communicate certain things about us – sometimes what we want, sometimes what we don’t want – but also it is informative about our identities and how we use that as part of how we articulate and express our identities. I also have an interest in subcultures. A lot of my previous work was about lesbian, gay, queer subcultures and visual arts and fashion and litterature. Now what I find is that there is a Muslim subculture. What is interesting is, as with a lot of interesting works on subcultures, that the classical model would be: you were a rocker, a punk, you do that as a young person, and then you grow up. Well, clearly, Muslims might participate in a subcultural formation for a long time. It is not just a youth subculture. What is interesting with it is that, clearly, it is a pear to pear transmission, and internet has been essential there (blogs and online stores). It crosses the national boundaries. And it also crosses generational boundaries. A number of young women will come from families where their mothers don’t cover their heads or cover their heads differently, perhaps more casually. They would say: “Oh my mun has started to cover quite properly now”. So it transmits up well.

Do you think your work can be called a history of contemporary fashion?

Well I had to call it a history of the present. Because of course it has already changed. When you writte about fashion, it changes so fast. Everybody that I spoke to spoke to me in their present, at the time. But in fact there was a period of years that it took me when I was doing this research: there is a sequence of presents. When I am talking to muslim lifestyle magazines in print, in 2006-07, the editors and the journalists did not know the magazines was going to cease publication in a year’s time. The same with designers, or bloggers. Fashion has changed, style has changed and the macro-political changes too. Things has changed in Turkey. Different attacks happen. The terrible attacks in Paris don’t figure on the timeline of the book. They could have. In that way I think it is a history of the present.

I do cultural studies and I suppose to some extent, if I am in anything, I am a cultural historian. In terms of my methods, I usually write about dead people in their paintings or dead people in their writtings and here I am, interviewing lived human being subjects, and not just about paintings or writings – I have done that as well – but about their commercial activities and their fashion mediation and journalism activities and what they wear. I have done ethnographics and instructed interviews with people. But I have also looked at a lot of primary sources, whether it’s a blog post, or a social media, or a commercial website, or a print magazine. And in terms of methodology, I analyzed the images and the texts but I am also interested in the ways how these things came into being.

Visual analysis and contextual analysis of what created the image?

Yes, and interviewing and do some work with the people who made it. For example, a lot of designers of muslim fashion, creative entrepreners, as in cross-faith modest fashion, don’t have a training in art designal fashion. Often people from within religious communities or/and migrant communities, haven’t gone to art school, haven’t gone to fashion school. So how do they get into the business? And what challenges do they account? When I am looking at the fashion spread in muslim lifestyle magazines, one thing I want to know from the stylist or the photographers or the fashion director is: how do they get the product with the shoot? One thing we have discovered is that a lot of them have problems calling it product, for editorial. Partly that is because they are small magazines, small circulations. For the big global brands, luxury brands, they are beneath their minimum number. But also, some of them have a reversive response: they don’t want to be associated with Muslims. And then by the end, I am able to talk to people who are setting up Muslim or Islamic branding services at major communnication companies. Now some people are going after Muslim consumers. The history of the present tracks that shift in commercial and professional marketing practice.

That is very intereresting. In France, I am not sure we are thinking about integrating  religion into fashion marketing. But catholic culture is embodied in french fashion. 

Yes, you are absolutely right and I think one thing I write about in the book is to discuss different types of secularity. In France, you have a secular state which is essentialy a catholic secularity. In Britain, we are not a secular state, we have an established church but it is a protestant background. And then of course I can talk about Turkey which is a semi-islamic secular state; and obviously they are drawn on to Hallasad’s work and other underways which the secular state bares the characteristics of the religious culture from which it has emerged. British people go to France on holidays and are astonished when all the shops are sharped because it is a saint’s day which they have never heard of, etc. The same with Turkish students here on Christmas day. Also, the nature of the relationship of secularity(ies) to religion varies. In France, there is a much more wildspread antipathy to the idea of including religion in public life. There is partly of course a denial of the fact that catholicism is embedded in the structure of public life. In Britain, that has shifted: when the first French fuller cases were coming up because over the headscarf in the late eighties, popular culture, even on the right, was: “It is ridiculous, who says school girls can’t wear headscarves, what difference does it make, the French are just being hystorical”, now there is more panics in Britain about: should student be allowed to wear headscarf at school? Even within sort of the British mutlicultural tradition. It is very important to point to those distinctions. I suppose that is also partly what I wanted the book to do. I partly want to de-exceptionalize young Muslims because I think Muslims are often seen within this securitizing frame. The increase in religious interest among young muslims and in religiousity is also seen across other faith. They are more Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain or in north-America. They are more young women who are covering their heads after they get married whose mothers don’t. Think about young Christian eventalicals and christian rock music: that is a very well developed form of religiousity related consumer culture.

You have actually studied Jewish and Catholic fashion with your Modest Dress Project. Why have you chosen to focus on Muslim fashion for this book? 

Well, in theory, the Muslim fashion book would have come first and then the project of other religions would have come afterwards. I knew that it was happening amongs other religious communities but in Britain, it was Muslisms that were sort of leading the way in terms of commercial fashion development and style innovation. And then a funding opportunity came up from the Funding Council so I did the cross faith study which I could do because I had already covered a lot of the ground. Then we did the Modest Fashion Project. Then I said: “why don’t I do a book”. That took time out. One of the reasons the Muslim book took longer is because they took time out to do that. And they all help you think, they are all tied up. I have future projects on faith fashion that I want to look at. On of the things that I have discovered is that lot of the people involved in Muslim modest fashion have a lot of links to people in other faith groups and many people find that comforting. It is support from people who are dressing modestly for religious or religial cultural reasons.

In your opinion, what is the future of Muslim fashion?

I think we are now in a moment where a number of fashion brands have started to pay attention to Muslims as a consumer segment. Last year we saw DKNY marketed a Ramadan collection in the golf. This years in North America and Britain, Zara and Mango had collections for Ramadan and Net à Porter curated some pages for Ramadan. Mostly these are existing items within their frame which they badge together for Ramadan. I think the next thing will be whether, in terms of the design, we see Muslims or modest dresses from other faith groups taken into account. On one hand Muslims are very pleased to be marketed to, on the other hand I think we are going to see more critical responses to that as well, going back to your question of consumerism. I do not think that shopping will bring about world peace but I do think that people who come from a majority culture often find it hard to imagine how painfull it could be when you are ignored by the prevalent consumer culture. So it is a double edge sword. I also think that the field of Islamic branding/Muslim marketing, as an area of professional marketing, is growing. It previously focused on food and finance: sort of halal certification on food or sharia compliant finance. You can’t really have a halal certification for fashion. There are many different interpretations.

But you’ve got clothees marked as being Muslims.

Well you can’t but there is all different sorts of interpretation. I think we might find someone saying: “Yes, I set up the defining things”. We may find that there are more opportunities for Muslims or other people of faith within the fashion industry, within advertising, branding, marketing as well as design or retail. It may be that this time goes on with its possible type of varieties because one of the things that is very difficult is that there is a number of different interpretations and the reason why I called my book ‘Muslim fashion’ and not ‘Islamic fashion’ is because I don’t prefer the term ‘Islamic fashion’ that implies ‘this is islamic’, religiously decreed or acceptable. Whereas ‘Muslims fashion’ is about fashion that Muslims wear. My line is that there are mutliple interpretations that are equally legitimate. It is not my job to arbitrate.

Does everything become blurred?

It is not that it becomes more blurred. I think most people have fair and clear ideas about what they think is appropriate. Many women try very hard to maintain a respect for choice: hidjab should be freely chosen. It might be a religious obligation but it is not authentic if you don’t choose to do it. If it is imposed on you by your father that makes it less authentic because you’re not choosing it yourself. Similarly, if the states tells you you can’t cover, that is not allowing you to authenticlly express your religious or cultural understanding. I think most women would say: “This is what I think is appropriate, I respect if some think it is right to dress in a different way but I wouldn’t do that, so I don’t think it is necessary to cover my face, to wear a niqab”, or “I wouldn’t wear skinny jeans with my hijab with a tunnic top that came just below my hips, I would want to wear something that came closer to my knee.” I, as a non-muslim and an academic researcher, am not interesting in saying “this is the right or the wrong way”. Regarding my job, I don’t think it is relevant and I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way.

What is next for you?

Well, I am doing a follow up project which I am just starting. I want to spend the next two years looking at this cohort of this particular cultural moment: how modest dressing moves with them through their lives? Let’s say they were 18 or 22 and now they are 32, they are not student anymore, maybe they have got job, maybe they have got married, maybe they have got children, maybe they have got divorced. Modest dressing is not static. How it moves with them through their lives as they go through the normal live faces? And for women who have been involved in modest fashion as mediators, or as designers or entrepeneurs: does the knowledge that they have built up in modest fashion become sort of cultural capital and indeed a social capital that is going to help them within the employment market? Does it is going to help them be recognized as influencers and representatives and leaders within their community and externaly? I think bloggers are engaged in things of religious interpretations and knowledge creation. Most of the people involved deny categorically that they are making religious knowledge or authority. When you look at it in aggregate, what we see here is sets of practices and discussions about the relationship of dress, body, culture, religion. That is creating forms of knowledge and practice. It is being transmitted pear to pear, especially by the internet, and offline events. And these women are not setting themselves as himams, of course, but I think they are accruing forms of experience. You know many of them would talk about it. Bloggers for example would say: “I do feel a responsibility as a role model” and often help out bloggers that are just starting. That role model experience is not going to be something that is going to be recognized as a value added, within the community of they go through their lives.

Thank you Reina !

by @Maxime Laprade

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