Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures

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By: Reina Lewis

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. 400p. $99.95 ISBN: 978-0822359142. 386 pp. Pbk: $28.95 ISBN: 978-0822359340.

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Chiara Sebastiani, PhD

University of Bologna

Bologna, Italy

Little did Roland Barthes think, when writing in the Sixties about the semantics of fashion, that the topic would expand from cultural studies to politics and religion. Little did Samuel Huntington imagine, when writing in the Nineties on the clash of civilizations that his often misquoted work would be passionately referred to in disputes on female array. And little do the countless voices representing the Muslim veil as a symbol of female oppression imagine the extension of industrial, commercial, marketing, media, design and lifestyle products and activities which have developed around the hijab and which Reina Lewis explores and discusses with academic proficiency coupled with the enthusiasm of a fashion expert.

Lewis’ aim is to argue and provide evidence of: first, the existence, nowadays, of a Muslim fashion that belongs in its own right to the semantic area of fashion and not (only) to that of ethnical folklore or religious morals; second, the extent to which Muslim fashion is an expression of agency, rather than submission, of young Muslim women and of their engagement in shaping modern Muslim identities; third, the characterization of Muslim taste and fashion communities as a form of youth subculture. Far from claiming a neutral stance, she moves from a critical outlook on much of the non-Muslim-world’s discourse on Muslim women’s dress, be it framed as traditional Orientalism or linked to current securitizing contents, intending to “challenge attitudes that read Muslim dress as signs of collective ahistorical community identities” and to bring a contribution to “the political project of deexceptionalizing Muslim youth”. The outcome of this project is a far-reaching research about fashion as culture, young female Muslims as subculture, and multi-faith as the new face of multi-culture. Of the highly political implications of her subject Lewis is fully aware: they are the focus of both the introduction and the conclusion of the book. Yet the bulk of this dense work is neither about ideology nor politics: it is about the industry of Muslim “modest” fashion both as business and work opportunity for women in Turkey; about branding Muslim piety–compliant clothes and managing shari’ah–compliant young hijabi workers in British high street retail shops; about framing fashion as a contribution to piety and drawing on piety for fashion taste–making in American Muslim lifestyle magazines; about the professional ethics young Muslim bloggers and the moral challenges of new fashion expert “dejabis” dismissing the hijab within a frame of alternative religiousness rather than one of Western-inspired modernity.

Lewis manages to blend a masterful use of different conceptual frameworks — from Middle East studies to fashion marketing, from the economy of textile industry to visual and communication sociology, from theories of taste and distinction to the theory of new media, from gender to youth subculture — with an amazing quantity of data and extensive qualitative research based on observation, interviews, focus groups, content analysis, case-studies, storytelling and a fascinating photo gallery. Each of the seven dense chapters of this book clusters around some significant concepts which make sense of a rich display of empirical data — statistics and statements, individual life-histories and corporate narratives, photos and screenshots. Thus the first chapter highlights the contribution of Muslim consumer culture to the de-ethnicization of Islam in Muslim-minority contexts ; the second portrays the relationship linking the “pious” industry (significantly “Tekbir” is the name of one firm) to the rise of a new Turkish bourgeoisie and of AKP Islamic party; the third is a piece of social history analyzing the imbrication of fashion qua material culture and Islam qua spiritual root of everyday practices in Muslim life-style magazines; the fourth uses Bourdieu’s notions of taste and distinction to portray the contribution of style competence to subcultural capital; the fifth is about complex gendered identity construction through shopping and working in retail fashion shops in the British high street; the sixth depicts the new public sphere of online modesty where fashion bloggers discuss mundane fashion topics in the light of spiritual dilemmas. As for the seventh chapter, it brings us to the point we have been waiting all along with increasing curiosity, stimulated as we are by the kaleidoscopic presentation of those many facets of the seemingly marginal topic of Muslim fashion, namely: what turn does the tension, whose origins may be traced in European Middle Ages, between inner-worldly engagement and other-worldly concerns take in a global neoliberal context in which post-materialistic West faces religious revivalist East? Is the market appropriating faith or is faith curbing the market?

Lewis embraces neither the apocalyptic post-Marxist view of an all triumphant market gradually penetrating and colonizing the religious realm nor the radical secularist view of hijab fashion as evidence for the return of medieval obscurantism. Her position is one of empathy with her subjects – the young, creative, Muslim fashion workers and taste-makers — whose multiple understandings of religion and fashion suggest that while scholars are debating on the “revision of Islam” some of this is happening bottom-up by way of fashion and its interpretation in the public sphere. This may mean in the long run commodification of faith and the substitution of all reference to spiritual contents with pure market values, which may be hailed by neoliberal secularists as yet another confirmation of the superiority of the capitalist system. Or it may mean a steadfast penetration of faith and religion as current references in all sectors of social life: a trend in contrast with the Western notion of keeping apart the sacred and the profane but much in line with the teaching of Islam. Though speculation on this goes beyond the scope of Lewis’ research yet that it may lead to such questions is precisely the merit of this groundbreaking work.

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