Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress

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By: Elizabeth Bucar

Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press. 248pp. $29.95, ISBN: 9780674976160

Volume: 5 Issue: 11

November 2017

Review by:

Steven C. Dinero, Ph.D.

Jefferson University

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The subjects of veiling, hijab and modesty dress have all become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Given the rise in Muslim orthodoxy across the world, it is no wonder that women are donning burka and hijab like never before. Social media only further reflects this trend; “hijabbers” now communicate across the digital spectrum and #hijabfashion is a major trending topic of shared discussion.

How timely then that Elizabeth Bucar has written this engaging, beautifully researched and illustrated monograph concerning pious fashion. From the outset, she explains that the subject at hand is not merely about modesty; pious dress, she contends, is an inclusive category which comprises an entire montage of styles, colors, accessories and habits. When combined, these all allow the wearer to express values true to their Muslim ideals.

But further, as she repeats throughout the text, pious dress should not be viewed as a “problem.” Rather, if there is any problem here, it is in women having to make too many choices each day concerning what to wear, how to wear it, when to wear it, where to wear it, and so on. Pious dress provides a panoply of daily choices. As Bucar explains, the occasional faux pas is inevitable, resulting in, for example, “bad hijab,” (50) a term she teases out at length but which means, at its most basic level, failing to dress “correctly” for a given time, place or circumstance.

Indeed, the text is written in an accessible style which easily draws the reader in, imagining the challenges and embarrassments which the author’s young interlocutors must experience each day. As a man with a college-aged daughter, I could only guess at how much more vexing, (albeit fulfilling), it is for the women Bucar encounters to present themselves in highly pious, yet highly fashionable, garb as they interact with one another and the communities around them.

Most of the volume is based upon a decade of participant-observation and focus group analysis at three sites: Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey. Notably, none is an Arab-majority country but all three are, of course, Muslim-majority. In each, Bucar is able to compare and contrast not only “pious fashion across cultures” (171), but further, how history, political systems, local context, national identity, and personal preferences each are negotiated, formed, and performed through one’s clothing choices and styles. Her own personal experiences at each site only further enrich what is already an engrossing, first-person narrative.

Like any text emphasizing the world of women’s fashion, the cases here do tend to be somewhat skewed. The women under discussion are, for the most part, both urban and, more to the point, urbane. There is little mention, in other words, of how women of the village, for example, or of the lower classes – who also seek to dress piously – will or can make choices comparable to those made by the women encountered in these pages. As but one example, Bucar describes the aesthetic of one of designers she encounters as a combination of “layering, pockets, straps, seams, and buckles” which accompany “bonnets topped with twisted fabrics, embroidery, broché, lace, and crystals…spotlighted [with] airy whites and creams, some pastels, and multiple layers of gauzy fabrics” (113). One cannot help but wonder how anyone but a woman of means could afford such materials.

That what one wears is a distinct marker of social class is a consistent thread which runs throughout this study. As for economic class, this issue is understated. Bucar suggests here that “fashion itself is the maker of and the means to piety” (91). While this brilliantly researched and written examination of women’s fashion well addresses this contention, I am left hopeful that while it may be one means, consuming one’s way to piety – as Bucar herself rightly points out by way of conclusion (182-83) – is surely not the only way for pious women of all classes and socioeconomic levels to express honor and modesty in the 21st century context.

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