Fashion & Beauty

What is Fashion’s Role in Cultural Diplomacy?

What is fashion’s role in cultural diplomacy?

In 2014, France’s ban on the burqa and niqab — versions of the veil worn by many Muslim women to cover their heads and their bodies —  ignited a firestorm of criticism of how lawmakers continue to censor women’s bodies and how that very censorship simultaneously reflects and fuels increased fear in Europe.

Since France’s precedent, many European countries have followed suit and banned the wearing of the burqa, niqab, and hijab in public places. In stark contrast, the fashion industry has moved towards countering this very censorship by embracing the “modest” aesthetics of Muslim women.

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In the same year that France introduced its ban, American designer Donna Karan unveiled a Ramadan (the holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar) Summer 2014 collection, which was styled by Yada Golsharifi, fashion editor of Styles Magazine and Tamara Al Gabbani, a fashion designer in Dubai — both Muslim women from the Middle East. The underlying aesthetic, according to the designers, of the collection was “modesty.” Binah Shah reviewed the collection in 2014 for The Independent, writing:

Arms and legs are covered, necklines refrain from plunging to JLo levels, silhouettes are draped with slips so limbs don’t show in the light. The fabrics drape around the body, encasing the curves that nature gave Middle Eastern women without making them obvious, or attempting to disguise them in bag-like abayas. They walk the fine line between cosmopolitan and conservative, luxurious and ostentatious.

DolceGabbanaAbaya-01-620x856-690x400-2Dolce & Gabanna, Abaya Collection, 2016

Continuing the trend, in January this year, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabanna launched its abaya and hijab collection aimed at Muslim women living in the Middle East and in several European cities.

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This week, in an article titled “What Freedom Looks Like” in The New York Times, Vanessa Friedman continued unpacking the role of fashion to mitigate (or in some cases exacerbate) cultural divides via this increasing trend of major global fashion houses, like DKNY and Dolce & Gabanna, who are designing “modest” and “demure” collections for Muslim women clientele. Friedman asked:

Is it fashion’s responsibility to ease acceptance of different identities; to foster tolerance and understanding — or to promote a specific aesthetic expression of liberty?

 She later added:

The history of fashion is, in many ways, about facilitating acceptance; creating a bridge between the unfamiliar or the challenging, be it religious or sexual or gendered or transgressive, and the everyday.

We’re clearly seeing the powerful ability that fashion has to be transformative of society’s accepted gender norms particularly in the increasing gender-neutral lines — collections featuring skirts for men, for example. Similarly, what the designers who are creating clothing for Muslim women might be doing with their “modest” collections is perhaps what fashion does best — embracing that which a culture finds strange or alien.

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  • pat kinney April 15, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    Several comments:

    1. My son lives in Jersey City, NJ. Driving to join him and family on Halloween, I – thought – I saw two kids in costume – as I got closer I realized it was two adult ladies walking to a supermarket.

    2. Since then I have seen some of the most beautiful attire……different kinds………some Indian and Pakistani women who don’t cover their faces…… woman in all black with gold, gold, gold embroidery. I felt embarassed to be staring at her – and told her “You are beautiful.”

    3. There is an annual event in Bergen County, NJ….the Interfaith Brotherhood/Sisterhood Breakfast. Included in the roster of speakers for the past 30 years are Sikh, Jain, Hindu,Moslem, Catholic, Protestant, Baha’i. While many attendees just wear their “Sunday best” – the ethnic clothing is bewilderingly beautiful.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. April 15, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    This is a fascinating Fashion Friday post. I appreciate the thought that went into the choice of topic.