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Modesty requirements

by Sura Wood

The "Red Rose" gown by Mohd Hafizi Radzi Woo is featured in the "Contemporary Muslim Fashions" exhibit now at the de Young Museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The "Red Rose" gown by Mohd Hafizi Radzi Woo is featured in the "Contemporary Muslim Fashions" exhibit now at the de Young Museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Did you know that, since the 1950s, affluent Muslim women have patronized Parisian couturiers who've modified their designs to accommodate upscale clients' regional and religious sensitivities by raising necklines and lowering hems, adding long sleeves to cover the arms, closing daring slits on skirts, and substituting opaque fabrics for sheer ones? Or that American and European fashion designers have similarly catered to the modesty requirements of young Muslim female professionals who've become a burgeoning market for the estimated $44 billion-a-year modest fashion industry? Or that bad boy French designer Jean Paul Gaultier eliminated the plunging neckline of his mustard yellow chiffon gown, embellished with jewels and an obi of tiny indigo beads, to satisfy an elite Muslim customer? These are just a few of the illuminating facts revealed in "Contemporary Muslim Fashions," a new original show at the de Young Museum that's certain to challenge preconceptions and provoke discussion. Showcasing the work of over 80 mostly Muslim, emerging and veteran designers, a number of whom have trained in the West, the beautifully installed exhibition traverses the world, from the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. and England, in its exploration of designers' varied interpretations of "modest fashion." It includes photographs and videos commenting on perceptions of Muslim women and their dress; a selection of high-end custom couture from the Algerian-born Yves Saint-Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Dior and other Western collections inspired by the aesthetics of Muslim cultures; ultra-chic streetwear like a classy, off-white trenchcoat by Turkish designer Kuaybe Gider; Saudi Arabian designer Mashael Alrajhi's cool, slouchy take on the tuxedo jacket influenced by Japanese deconstructed styles; and a sophisticated, long white flared coat trimmed in black that's Mariam Bin Mahfouz's update of the abaya, a traditional robe-like garment.


A gown by Melinda Looi is featured in the  

One section features sportswear with hoodies, swingy jackets, baseball caps and examples of the "burkini," or full-coverage swimsuit. A periwinkle blue swim outfit on view, comprised of a hood, skirted pants with racing stripes, and matching top, was developed by Egyptian-American Splashgear founder Shereen Sabet, a scuba diver and scientist based in L.A. Although many Muslims consider maintaining one's health a religious obligation, engaging in physical exercise and competing in sports in public can be problematical for women living in cultures and communities where the female body is regarded as transgressive. Recently, however, innovators like Sabet and major retailers have been targeting a new consumer base: female Muslim athletes who wish to pursue an active life in the open — swimming, surfing, running — while adhering to codes of modesty. Last year, Nike, in collaboration with clothing designers such as Alrajhi, became the first global sports brand to tap this market when it introduced its Pro Hijab, a stretchy, lightweight polyester head covering.

Westerners who associate Muslim dress solely with burkas and headscarves will be surprised at the inventive ways Muslim women — and the legion of creative talent that serves them — express themselves through fashion. But those expressions must necessarily co-exist with, conform to, or surmount restrictive parameters, a subtext not directly addressed here. As a Western woman visiting this exhibition, it's impossible not to question the underlying reason for modesty in Muslim dress, and to suspect it's a manifestation of male oppression and dominance, rooted in religious and social custom, that requires women to cover their bodies in public, thereby relieving men of culpability for feelings and desires they project onto women. The issue is the elephant in the room, one the exhibition discreetly sidesteps.

Most but not all of the clothing on display almost entirely covers the body and is, as one would expect, deliberately loose, even on the matronly side, as opposed to body-conscious and form-fitting. To a Western mindset, the concept of modesty, which is about concealment or degrees thereof, and high fashion, whose raison d'etre is turning heads and calling attention to the wearer, seem at odds. But the exhibition demonstrates that modesty considerations don't preclude glamour, precision couture cuts and constructions, or tantalizing fabrics with metallic treatments, rich textures, beading, etc. The young upstart fashion label FIZIWOO is behind the artisanal, floor-length, blood-red ruffle dress decorated with gold star paillettes, suitable for a grand entrance by Scarlett O'Hara, while the lines of Dian Pelangi's gleaming embroidered silk organza jacket, belted over a long full skirt, are pure elegance. One detects in Pelangi, a daringly modern, 27-year-old Indonesian designer, a barely contained inclination for wildness. Melinda Looi, the Alexander McQueen of Malaysia, really rocks. A secular country, Malaysia's Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu cultures provide a diverse array of sources for the spectacular, scene-stealing creations of Looi, who traffics in the wow factor and designs with the empowerment of women in mind. She's represented by two dramatic ensembles that are the antithesis of subdued: a flowing, silk-batik kaftan in desert tones, topped off by a tawny, sky-high, whipped chiffon turban; and a voluminous, V-shaped red costume fit for an African queen. Wide at the top, tapered just below the hip, and accented by strings of chunky turquoise, it's made of embroidered textiles, patterned brocades woven with metallic threads and satin, and a pair of animal horns protruding from the shoulders that no girl should be without.

Through Jan 6; https://deyoung.famsf.org/


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