Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore the rise of the modest fashion industry. Modest fashion refers to garments that are both highly fashionable and provide sufficient body cover to address cultural concerns for modesty. Many Muslim women and men dress modestly, in accordance with their faith, but individual and collective interpretations of modesty vary widely. In recent years, there has been increased awareness of Muslim consumers as an important segment of the global fashion industry, and increased visibility for designers and brands whose clothing responds to their needs. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, covering in the public sphere is regulated by law. Elsewhere it is a personal choice, informed by religious, cultural, and political concerns. Contemporary Muslim Fashions focuses on the intersection of regional dress styles, global fashion trends, and personal attitudes toward modesty. The exhibition does not aim to be a definitive survey but instead offers a current snapshot of Muslim women and fashion by spotlighting key themes and locations. Fashion can serve as a platform for self-expression and as a tool for positive social change. The exhibition examines how Muslim women—those who cover their heads and those who do not—have become arbiters of style within and beyond their communities. As designers and entrepreneurs, they have shown that clothing can be on-trend and still meet the needs of diverse wearers. As consumers, they have used their influence to shape global fashion markets. And as journalists, bloggers, and influencers, they have confronted a lack of representation in the mainstream fashion narrative and drawn international attention to the vitality of Muslim modest style. Contemporary Muslim Fashions is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Cooper Hewitt presentation of Contemporary Muslim Fashions is made possible by support from the August Heckscher Exhibition Fund. Additional support is provided by the Barbara and Morton Mandel Design Gallery Endowment Fund and Edward and Helen Hintz. Funding is also provided by the Cooper Hewitt Master's Program Fund.
In January 2017, the social advocacy group Amplifier commissioned street artist Shepard Fairey to design a series of posters—We the People—in protest of president-elect Donald Trump. In his characteristic style, Fairey combined the first words of the United States Constitution with portraits of Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, and Latinas. “We thought [they were the] groups that had been . . . criticized by Trump and maybe were going to be . . . feeling that their needs would be neglected in a Trump administration,” Fairey says.
Blancheur offers women’s ready-to-wear garments and collections of telekung—prayer garments worn by Southeast Asian Muslim women. As designer Datin Haslinda Abdul Rahim explains, “We strive to create praying attire that allows the wearers to look their best in prayers and at other occasions without compromising their comfort.”
Unlike traditional abayas, Faiza Bouguessa’s designs are distinguished by their crisp lines and forms, which reflect her training in England as a tailor and patternmaker. Bouguessa remarks, “Though I design abayas and modest clothing . . . my designs could be worn by any type of woman anywhere in the world.” A version of this dress (left open to the thigh) was worn by the American singer Beyoncé.
Wadha Al Hajri employs a team of skilled needle workers to create elaborate surface textures inspired by Islamic art and architecture. As she explains, “Art in particular is one of the strongest forms of cultural diplomacy.” In this abaya, embroidery and cut work mimic the intricate lattice screens known as a mashrabiya.
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Boushra Almutawakel created an ongoing series that explores the many faces and facets of covering and, by consequence, of Muslim women. As she explains, “Islam and Muslims had taken international center stage. I found that we, as Arabs and Muslims, were either demonized or romanticized.”
Several years ago, photographer Alessia Gammarota began to observe an increasing number of young Muslim women on the streets of London proudly wearing head coverings and modest attire. As she recalls, “I started questioning why my perception was different from the [mainstream] narrative of oppression associated with the Islamic veil.” Gammarota gradually developed the idea to “use stories about fashion to open up a dialogue amongst women” around issues of prejudice and discrimination.
Hengameh Golestan started photographing the day-to-day lives of women and children in her native Tehran as a teenager, but during the 1979 revolution she transitioned to documenting her country’s unrest. She captured these images “as documents of demonstrations of women against . . . the compulsory veiling of women . . . in all public spaces.” These protests continued for several days and attracted hundreds of thousands of women. The images have attracted renewed attention in the wake of current protests against the mandatory covering of women in Iran.
In Iran, women are required by law to dress modestly and in government-approved colors. Despite the threat of punishments by the Gashte Ershad (morality police), a thriving underground fashion scene has emerged, which was captured by Iranian American blogger and activist Hoda Katebi in her self-published book Tehran Streetstyle.
To commemorate the first Muslim Women’s Day, an online campaign launched by the website MuslimGirl to celebrate the achievements of Muslim women, Syrian American poet and rapper Mona Haydar shared her first music video, “Hijabi.” The song’s verses address many of the probing questions often posed to women who cover, contributing to an ongoing dialogue about Muslim women’s dress. By appearing in the video eight months pregnant, Haydar also challenged conventional notions of motherhood.
Rania Matar draws on her cross-cultural experiences as a Lebanese-born, United States–based photographer to explore issues of personal and collective identity. Matar explains, “My work . . . takes a contemporary look at women living in everyday circumstances and focuses on building visual, but also representational, associations between the portrayal of women in the United States and the Middle East, ultimately allowing women to identify with each other through common life experiences.”
New York-based designer Alaa Balkhy founded her collection, Fyunka, in response to her multinational lifestyle and her feeling of homesickness for her native Saudi Arabia when she was abroad. The illustrated characters on her designs are based on the ubiquitous gender identifiers found on the restroom doors throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2017, Brooklyn-based fashion label Slow Factory partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to create a collection of garments that responded to President Donald Trump's immigration ban on several Muslim-majority countries. Using open data and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images, Vernon created a scarf with the word “Banned” across the night sky over the Middle East, where many of the prohibited countries are located.
Fatma Al Remaihi is CEO of the Doha Film Institute in Qatar, an incubator for Middle Eastern filmmakers. She wore this lavishly embroidered abaya to the 2018 Academy Awards, bringing a strikingly different ideal of beauty to the red carpet.
In 2016, luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana offered its first line of modest fashion, reflecting a larger trend of Western designers responding to the demands of Muslim consumers. The collection exclusively featured abayas, including this one, worn by Saudi businesswoman and former Vogue Arabia editor Her Highness Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz.
After studying architecture and graphic design, Mariam Bin Mahfouz founded Haal, which focuses on abayas with clean lines and sculptural forms. She is inspired by legendary couturiers Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose volumes relied on clever construction, not ornamentation.
Mashael Al Rajhi’s cutting-edge deconstructed looks blend traditional and contemporary elements. She comments, “Right now, if we’re looking for a more globalized view on fashion, we have to have representation from all its hemispheres. This is how we move forward; design should not be confined or boxed into restrictive mindsets.”
When Modanisa, one of modest fashion’s largest online retailers, commissioned Raşit Bağzıbağlı to design a limited-edition capsule collection for Dubai’s first-ever Modest Fashion Week in 2017, he traded his typically skin-baring gowns for dresses with long sleeves and skirts. He maintained his signature glamour by including lush patterns, lace, embroidery, and sequins.
When Rabia Zargarpur started to cover in 2001, she experienced difficulty finding stylish modest garments. With her education and experience in fashion styling, she decided to create solutions, including the first jersey hijab. “I wanted to create something comfortable, breathable, and light—similar to the comfort of wearing a light T-shirt, but for the head.”
Barjis Chohan’s faith guides her ethical and sustainable business practice, which includes fair wages, equal opportunities, the use of eco-friendly materials, and a stance against the objectification of men and women and distorted ideas of beauty. Her hand-painted and hand-drawn prints are the focus of the brand.
Carmen Muhammad began designing and making her own clothes at the age of fifteen, when she converted to the Nation of Islam. After decades of working in business, she launched her fashion company in the mid-1980s. Her designs are modernized versions of the tailored ensembles traditionally worn by women of the Nation of Islam.
Dian Pelangi was one of six designers featured in the Indonesian Diversity show that was part of New York Fashion Week in 2017. Even while using traditional Indonesian textiles, her collection paid homage to the diversity and vibrant urban culture of New York City.
This video, originally set to the music of rapper Jay-Z, features stylish young Muslim women of diverse backgrounds reveling in an urban landscape on skateboards, in high heels, and in hijabs. The video sparked widespread discussion about what it meant to be an American Muslim woman. The term Mipsterz was coined by Rattani in 2012 and refers to young Muslims around the world who have evolving views on the intersections between religion, community, politics, culture, and Muslim identities.
For Muslim women in Turkey, the adoption of the trench coat as an element of modest fashion dates to the 1970s when the garment became a marker of the wearer’s modernity and urbanity. Here, Kuaybe Gider has reinterpreted the style by fashioning it from a soft, fluid fabric that gives a relaxed silhouette.
In 2013, American photographer and musician Langston Hues began photographing modest fashion enthusiasts in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. As his project to capture “the ever-growing, erupting culture of modest street style” gained followers, it grew organically, and people around the world began requesting that Hues visit their city to photograph them. Hues explains, “The genre of Muslim fashion has opened the door to ending stereotypes about Muslims . . . It’s humanizing and shows the diversity of their style. Modest style is a self-expression and comes in many colors and can be defined in many ways.”
Naima Muhammad first started using African wax-print fabrics after a trip to Ghana in 2013, when she received a piece of “Angelina,” a classic Vlisco print, print from her mother-in-law. In consideration of modesty, she combines the vivid patterns with high collars, long skirts, and wide-leg and parachute-style pants.
In 2014, native New Yorker Nzinga Knight became the first hijabi contestant on the popular reality television show Project Runway. Knight created her own line of elegant and easy-to-wear modest clothing. Her Twareg dress “features hijab as an integral element of the garment as opposed to it being an afterthought or an accessory.”
San Franciscan modest stylist Saba Ali traveled to Pakistan to have her wedding ensemble made. She reveals, “My parents hail from India and Pakistan, lands of dazzling textiles and handwork. I was born [in the United States], but the dress of these countries is a big part of my connection to my background.”
At Tokyo Fashion Week in 2014, Windri Widiesta Dhari became one of the first designers to put models in hijabs on an international fashion runway. Her collection featured a dazzling array of batik fabrics, all designed by her and printed using organic dyes.
British-Japanese blogger and designer Hana Tajima’s designs for affordable fashion retailer Uniqlo reference dress styles from around the globe. Tajima says, “I like this idea that someone from a completely different background . . . could see a piece in the collection and think, I could really work that into what I want to wear.”
In 2018, Macy’s introduced its first modest clothing line in collaboration with Verona Collection created by fashion photographer Lisa Vogl. Although the moderately priced maxi dresses, long tops, cardigans, and pants were made to accommodate Muslim concerns for modesty, they offered versatile and comfortable clothes for all women.
Aheda Zanetti was early to the market for full-coverage swimwear, launching in 2004. She coined the term “burkini”—a combination of burqa and bikini—which quickly garnered the world’s positive and negative attention. When asked to respond to the 2016 efforts to ban the burkini in parts of France, Zanetti expressed shock that something that encourages sport and health is so controversial. She questioned, “This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away?”
Rani Hatta has carved out a unique place for herself by showing men and women on her runway in similar styles. While gender-neutral clothing has not typically been associated with modest dress, Hatta believes that the oversize fit of her designs can serve the needs of those who dress modestly and also erase gender stereotypes.
Sarah Elenany was one of the earliest purveyors of modest streetwear for Muslim youth, creating long-sleeved hoodies printed with graffiti-style graphics. Her “Throw Yo’ Hands” pattern is formed by the shahada gesture—with one finger pointed upward to testify to the oneness of God—with raised fists and V signs, common symbols of unity, strength, and peace.
In the early 2000s, several Muslim designers observed a lack of functional full-coverage swimwear on the market. In order to meet Muslim women’s standards of modesty, the swimwear needed to cover the head, legs, and arms, and not be form-fitting or clingy when wet—criteria that eliminated most commonly used swimwear fabrics. Research in materials, fit, and fabrication is making it possible for more women and girls to participate in water activities. In developing her full-coverage swimwear, Californian and long-time diver Shereen Sabet was inspired by surfer culture and her own dry suit. Her mix-and-match pieces are made from the same water-repellent fabric used in men’s board shorts, which does not cling when wet, allowing “Muslim women to comfortably and fully participate in water recreation with the rest of the crowd.”
In 2012, Sarah Elenany collaborated with the Scout Association to create a modest uniform for their 2,000 Muslim Scouts. With input from current members, Elenany designed long tops to wear over jeans or leggings, ensuring modesty during physical activities like rappelling and climbing. The resulting garments were popular with girls of all faiths.
Bernard Chandran, who is of Chinese and Indian heritage, draws upon Malaysia’s different cultures, fusing traditional and modern design influences. Chandran shows his collections in Paris, and also welcomes private clients to his showroom and works with them to choose fabrics and styles in order to create one-of-a-kind looks—a common practice in Malaysia.
Dian Pelangi incorporates the textile traditions of both her paternal and maternal lineages into her designs. She was raised in her father's hometown of Pekalongan, Java, a center for batik (wax-resist dyeing). Her mother hails from Pelambang, Sumatra, the premier producer of exquisite gold-thread songket textiles. Pelangi uses machine-made rather than handmade songket in her designs. As she explains, “All [of] the emotions and feelings of the weavers [are] embodied . . . in every piece of songket . . . If someone wants to use the songket cloth as a shirt or dress, it means the cloth must be cut into pieces. This will change the story behind it and . . . disrespect the weaver.”
In the early 2000s, almost twenty years after launching his fashion line, Itang Yunasz shifted his work to modest wear. He was inspired by his wife’s decision to cover at a time when there were very few options for fashionable modest dress. Yunasz has a deep knowledge and appreciation of his country’s rich textile heritage, which he both references and incorporates in his designs.
Born in Iraq, photographer Wesaam Al-Badry and his family fled their home country for a Saudi Arabian refugee camp at the beginning of the Gulf War before relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1994. His work is often inspired by the disconnect he felt between his experiences in the Middle East and Middle America. In the series Al-Kouture, he refashions silk scarves by prominent European brands into niqabs. As he explains, “Al-Kouture . . . reveals the tension between . . . Western consumerism and its influence on the traditional Muslim culture. [It] plays with symbolism and the impact of globalization and explores the possibilities of assimilation in a vast polarized world.”
In her work, Lalla Essaydi, who grew up in Morocco and Saudi Arabia and has lived in France and the United States, confronts traditional representations of Arab and Muslim women in the Western art canon. By showing actively engaged women, she decolonizes the artistic genre that casts them as passive objects of the male gaze.
Shadi Ghadirian’s Like EveryDay series was made in response to her then-impending marriage and explored her concerns about married life and the repetitive daily tasks she feared would come to define her identity. In each photograph, a female figure is draped in a colorful patterned chador of the type typically worn at home, and further obscured by objects that typify domestic duties.
Hassan Hajjaj grew up in Morocco and moved to London when he was twelve. His Kesh Angels series, begun in 1998, “celebrates the colors and womanhood of Morocco . . . It turns around the stereotype that people may have of women in Muslim countries.” Their eclectically patterned outfits are of the artist’s creation, but the motorbikes are not. Hajjaj explains, “There’s not much public transport, and the streets are so narrow that it is, along with bicycles, the most convenient mode of transport [for] most Marrakeshi men and women.”
For Rebecca Alathoor, pushing the boundaries of fashion design means using new technologies and unconventional materials, but also confronting social issues. As Alathoor expressed, “I thought it was significant to show that . . . a modest style of dress can still be fashion forward, conceptual, futuristic, but appropriate for all cultures to wear.”
The caftan is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. For centuries, it has been worn by the political and cultural elite, ranging from Ottoman sultans to former editor of Vogue Diana Vreeland in the 1960s. This caftan from Oscar de la Renta’s Ramadan Collection was worn by Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa to an American embassy event in Qatar.
This caftan from Marchesa’s Resort Collection was featured in a Qatar Special Edition of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia in 2012, modeled by entrepreneur and global style-setter Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa. Dividing her time between Doha, Qatar, and Palm Beach, Florida, she says: “I’m always a fan of fashion doing cross-cultural relations.”
British fashion designer Mary Katrantzou first showcased modest fashions in Qatar in 2011 and now creates capsule collections for luxury e-retailer The Modist. The designers represented on The Modist are chosen without consideration of their religion or cultural heritage, but the modest market has proved attractive to Muslim and non-Muslim designers alike.
In the Najd and Riyadh regions of Saudi Arabia, weddings are multi-day events during which the bride wears several different outfits. This gown and the one next to it were custom made for special clients to celebrate tihwal, an event hosted by the groom’s family that commemorates the bride’s move to her husband’s home. Each gown is slim fitting with a flared hem, a signature silhouette for tihwal and one that is also popular for contemporary brides around the world.
This pants ensemble differs from the version shown on the runway only in the addition of the three-quarter length sleeve. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned wore it to the Development Through Education Initiative at the New York Public Library, New York, in April 2018.
To create this elegant gown, the beaded top of one ensemble from Christian Dior’s Spring 2020 runway show was paired with the full pleated skirt of another. With sleeves added, it was worn by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned to an Italian state-visit banquet in Rome in 2012.
This brilliantly colored ensemble was worn by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned to the opening ceremony of the 22nd Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in 2016. On the runway, the chartreuse robe was worn under a form-hugging, zip-front halter dress, here modified to a wide obi-style sash.
This dress was completely sheer when it appeared on the runway in Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2011 show. After having both pieces fully lined, Her Highness wore it to a gala dinner honoring the Emir of Qatar by the Spanish Royal Family at the Royal Palace in Madrid in 2011.
In 2017, Nike became the first global sports brand to enter the modest sportswear market with the release of its Pro Hijab. Designed in collaboration with Muslim athletes from the Middle East, the pull-on covering is made from a breathable lightweight polyester-blend fabric with an elongated back to prevent it from coming untucked during exercise.
Launching in May 2020, Haute Hijab’s athletic collection will offer athletes multiple headcovering options, including the Ninja style with a closefitting neck, and the Two in One, a one-piece pull-on hijab with a drawstring at the nape to control its form and fit. All are made in a sustainably produced, naturally cooling fabric made from coffee grounds.
Gill-inspired flaps covering open mesh areas in Nike’s Victory Swim allow the suit to shed water quickly. The design also features integrated hair management, a built-in sports bra, and close-fitting cuffs at the wrist and ankle to prevent sleeves and pant legs from riding up. The fabric provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of 40.