William Temple Scholar Yasmin Khatun Dewan researches the British Muslim post-9/11 experience. Here, she reflects on the changing place of the headscarf in contemporary Turkish society.
I am currently in Istanbul. The Muslim call to prayer regularly echoes between the domed mosques. In this historic city, Islam is far from new. Yet, on the streets, in the shops, and amongst the locals, Islam seems to have a new visible presence. The city is experiencing a revival of visible Islam like few others.
It is the revival of the headscarf that is particularly striking. Walking around both the old and new quarters of the city the hijab is visible in abundance. Young, modern, educated, and working Turkish women wear their headscarves with confidence and an air of accomplishment.
Until very recently, this sort of overt religiosity was not for public spaces. Religion was restricted to the home and the mosque, with various bans in place concerning religious garments such as the hijab and any such public displays of religion. There are women I know who delayed their further education because they could not wear their headscarves on university campuses. Some of these women would write, protest, petition, and form private study spaces because of such bans.
As the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has a complex religious history. Fervent secularists were the forefathers of the modern-day Turkish state, but religious revivals of recent years have begun to complexify the place of religion in the public sphere. And this revival has been taken on wholeheartedly by the youth of this nation.
There is not necessarily a culture for wearing the headscarf; rather, it is part and parcel of this revival of religiosity and Islamic history that is currently taking place in Turkey. Most Turkish women interpret the headscarf in a similar way to young women anywhere else in the world: as a garment that is to be worn according to certain national norms but is nonetheless understood in a clearly and determinedly non-Arab way. Here, for example, you will find women wearing buttoned up coat-style abayas in tougher fabrics with cleaner lines—as opposed to the deep black and flowing Arab-style over-garments. And, more often than not, the streets of Istanbul are teeming with perfectly pointed square headscarves—but rarely in black. Unlike in the UK, the interpretation of hijab seems to hold a greater sense of modesty too. It is highly unlikely to see a young Turkish woman wearing a headscarf with leggings and a t-shirt, but this is where culture around shame and modesty may come into play.
The Turkish revival, has undeniably played a central role in the global rise of modest fashion as a phenomenon. Nowhere is this shift in the way young women dress more evident than in Turkey. In the UK, this modest fashion movement is localised to a minority religious group (albeit a large and visible one). But here in Turkey, modest fashion is not restricted to one part of society, but is a movement impacting the whole.
Turkey is at the forefront of modest fashion. It is a large, predominantly Muslim country that sits on the edge of Europe, with a growing economy and rapid development. Furthermore, there are large numbers of young, modern, Muslim women who previously had restrictions placed on their visible religious identity and are now free to dress as they please—free to wear their headscarves to university or work. This revival has created a new space for industry and prompted a new variety of ways to dress modestly: a plethora of fresh colours, shapes and styles. As a result, Turkey has become a home to modest fashion, exporting products all over the world. There are also numerous events to showcase modest fashion, promoting and continuing debate on the topic.
Generations of Turks attend the Friday sermon together; it is a place not just for those who are regulars but also those who are new to practising their faith. There is a feeling of acceptance and a willingness to learn. The sermons provide basic lessons for a community that is still quite new to its religion. While I observe the social phenomenon taking place here I wonder what the post-revival period will look like in Turkey in a decade’s time. Given the nation’s history I imagine it will look quite different to the UK.
William Temple Scholar Yasmin Khatun Dewan considers another side to the question of modest fashion.
Fashion is anything but modest. It is elaborate, extreme, and refined in its detail. Artistic and creative, it is an industry ridden with excess. Shops are built to encourage us to keep on shopping, with businesses finding new and innovative ways to entice us. When we hear the words ‘modest fashion’ we tend to assume modesty in appearance: an outfit that is conservative in its sex appeal or the phenomenon that has seen young, headscarf-wearing, Muslim women finding themselves on runways, advertisements, and the front covers of fashion magazines. ‘Modest fashion’ reflects the creation of a new industry by a generation of women looking to integrate religious tradition and fashion conscience to varying degrees. This growing industry is worth billions, and has successfully commercialised an explicitly religious, often visibly Muslim, appearance.
But what about modesty in our patterns of consumption? The importance of an ethical mindset when it comes to our consumption is not one to be sidelined. Given that ‘modest fashion’ as it is usually understood involves commercialising religious practices and symbols, perhaps the ethical question is even more crucial in this instance?
We now consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. That is 400% more than just two decades ago. In order to maintain our own images we are discarding our clothes at shocking rates. 300,000 tonnes of clothing were discarded by British households in 2016 and the figures are continuing to rise. Ethics in fashion is a universal problem, and one calling for greater transparency and resolve. It is also a multi-faceted issue, with various competing interests at stake. But being conscious of how much you are consuming is something we should all be mindful of, whatever type of fashion grouping you operate in. At a time when you can purchase a T-shirt that costs the same as a sandwich, or a headscarf the price of a juice, we need to be mindful of the footprint our purchases are leaving behind.
On top of this, major companies also burn stockpiles of their clothing to protect their brand—a huge, additional wastage that is not included in the statistics just quoted. It was revealed in July this year that upmarket British brand Burberry destroyed goods to the value of £90 million over the last five years—and over £28 million worth of goods in the last year—in order to protect their brand. Burberry did this to stop their products from being sold too cheaply, and they are only one of many brands to do the same thing. Following the revelation, however, Burberry has now announced it will no longer dispose of its garments in such a way.
And neither should we. In order to keep our image where we want it, we as consumers are regularly doing the same thing, albeit on a far smaller scale. We often buy headscarves and dresses with the intention of only ever wearing them once before disposing of them or placing them in charity bags. The surplus in garment creation is as bad as the surplus in our own wardrobes. To break this cycle of consumption, we need to act ourselves, and look at the way we shop. It was therefore heartening to read last week in the Guardian’s weekly style column that its fashion editor will no longer showcase new items every week, but go through items she already has, re-creating and re-inventing. The importance of modesty in consumption has also been noted by ‘modest fashion’ blogger Dina Torkia—an interesting, but welcome, move given the position of such bloggers as influencers in the fashion industry.
The beauty of fashion can be awfully deceptive, but when you buy something buy it because you love it and want to keep it until it falls to pieces—better yet, until you can repair it and keep it going. The era of fast fashion should have long been over, yet companies continue to launch into new markets and find new ways to entice. Problems need to be tackled right from the top, and ethics in fashion is no small feat. But being a conscious shopper and dresser allows us to contribute too. To be engaged with our purchases and conscious of their production is a question of modesty. By dressing modestly, we can all play our part.
As we reach the end of Fashion Month, William Temple Scholar Yasmin Khatun Dewan considers religious observance and the phenomenon of ‘modest fashion.’
We’ve just reached the end of Fashion Month, the time of the year when the world’s biggest designers showcase their collections in the four major fashion capitals – setting trends for the seasons to come. Varying trends are introduced each season but the phenomenon of ‘modest fashion’ has withstood changing seasons over the past decade and created a flurry in fashion, politics, religion and society. Longer hemlines, sleeves and less cleavage have been seen industry-wide. This can be attributed to economic factors (the saying goes that downturns always add inches), but it’s also been driven in large part by the enthusiasm among young Muslim women for the ‘modest fashion’ movement, which we see more and more frequently on our screens, in campaigns and global streets. It’s a trend that has exploded into a major global spectacle.
Some attribute the success of modest fashion commercially to the rise in global Muslim spending power (more than £200 billion spent on clothes annually); the other major factor is most certainly the internet. A platform that has allowed trends to travel across land and sea and introduced democratised commentary to a scale unseen previously. Social media vlogs and images have increased the visibility of the trend and catapulted it to new heights. Those utilising these platforms have become influencers in their own right, significant players in the worlds of fashion and beauty and heightening the global impact of the trend.
In London, alongside British designers Burberry and Erdem, for the second year in a row an event titled London Modest Fashion Week also took place. Showcasing mainly Muslim designers from 20 countries including Australia and Singapore it’s held over two days and hosts up to 700 guests per show. At these shows social media influencers are escorted to front row seats and dressed by different brands emulating mainstream fashion shows.
The event draws crowds of young women – mostly if not all Muslim, queuing to make their way in. Hashtags and quotes about modesty are spread across the venue and attendees come in their best display of modest fashion. Most of the designers are also Muslim, although this year there was also a Jewish designer. From the crowd attending and designers creating it feels quite clear that this is a faith-based movement. Modest fashion sets out to provide an alternative to what might be seen as dowdy or frumpy modest clothing religiously observant women may wear, offering them a more modern alternative.
Understandings of visibly Muslim women have for a long time been shaped by the presence of a headscarf as a distinguishing factor, regardless of whatever else she may wear, so it’s interesting to me that at the London Modest Fashion Week event so many of the women walking down the catwalk appeared unveiled – no headscarf. Some of the pieces were loose and flowing, while others were cropped and figure-hugging, high heels were aplenty and elaborate make-up consistently applied; begging the question of what makes something modest enough to make it onto the modest fashion catwalk and how is modesty being defined? Is it simply that the designers and audiences are mostly Muslim women who buy into the trend and choose to adopt similar aesthetics?
It could be argued the modest fashion trend offers only a subtly different product for capital gains, but clever marketing serves as a form of validation for women who might otherwise feel excluded from the fashion industry. It’s often described in terms of progress and gains by Muslim women with connotations that those buying into the area are forward-thinking and those of a more traditional mind-set become associated with notions of backwardness or even ‘extremism.’ Its emergence is changing the way Muslim women and the headscarf are seen.
Fashion reflects the politics of its time and continues to reformulate every season. The hemline this season may flip upon its head the next. But the bankability of the area has caught the attention of huge brands and that’s what gives the trend staying power. Last year hijab-wearing Muslim model Halima Aden made her debut on the mainstream catwalk with her headscarf; her presence an indication of the inclusion of ‘visibly Muslim’ women in fashion. And it was only last season that Marc Jacobs elaborately styled turbans on his models on the runway – they weren’t Muslim and you could align them to Studio 54 but it’s the way a number of Muslim women are choosing to wear their headscarves ‘hijab’. A way you could say buys into the modest fashion trend.
The most religiously and culturally significant turban this season came in another form. Traditional Sikh turbans appeared on the Gucci catwalk – they were worn by non-Sikh models and immediately came under fire for appropriation and disrespect for the use of a religious symbol as a trend. Shown in four variations, the highly influential designer received much criticism for the styling. Creative director Alessandro Michele presented an article of religious faith and practice but without those who observe it. The same thoughts could be applied to modest fashion and its use of religion and religious symbols where much of what appears to buy into the act of religious observance simply buys into a trend.