By Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore the complex and diverse nature of Muslim modest fashion, or highly stylish dress with varying degrees of body coverage. The exhibition was organized by FAMSF curators Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts, and the author, with consulting curator Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion. It debuted at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in September 2018 (Figure 1). Contemporary Muslim Fashions offers a snapshot of Muslim modest fashion by highlighting select areas of the world where thriving sectors are producing stylish garments that adhere to concerns for modesty. Islam is a multicultural faith—religious customs shape the dress of its practitioners, as do local textile traditions and modes of dress. The exhibition’s narrative addresses these regional particularities to underscore the diversity found in Muslim modest dress codes today.
The exhibition presents two regional overviews of modest fashions from the Middle East and from Southeast Asia—both of which are home to vibrant costume and textiles traditions. In the Middle East, one of the most common forms of modest dress is the abaya. Historically, this loose overgarment has been shaped as a floor-length robe to cover the body from the neck to the feet, with sleeves extending to the wrists. Many young fashion designers from the Middle East have offered new interpretations of the abaya in recent years, inspired by transcontinental lifestyles and informed by fashion education in the United States and Europe. United Arab Emirates-based designer, Faiza Bouguessa, distinguishes her collection of abayas with straight, rather than flowing, lines and forms, which reflects her training as a tailor and patternmaker in England (Figure 2). In contrast, Saudi Arabian designer Mashael Al Rajhi blends traditional and contemporary elements by deconstructing the abaya into her cutting-edge looks (Figure 3).
The second regional exploration examines modest fashions in Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia is the largest majority-Muslim country in the world and one of the leaders in the contemporary Muslim modest fashion sector. In the past two decades, an Indonesian urban middle class has grown rapidly, with some of the highest recorded levels of consumer confidence in the world. Indonesian designer and social media leader Dian Pelangi was born with an impressive textiles lineage, whose tradition she incorporates into her designs. Her mother hails from Pelambang, Sumatra, one of the oldest cities in Indonesia and home to premier producers of exquisite gold-thread songket textiles, whose designs Pelangi masterfully incorporates into her demi-couture creations (Figure 4).“All [of] the emotions and feelings of the weavers [are] embodied . . . in every piece of songket. . . . If someone wants to use the songket cloth as a shirt or dress, it means that the cloth must be cut into pieces. This will change the story behind it and . . . disrespect[s] the weaver.” With respect for this tradition, Pelangi uses machine-made rather than handmade songket in her designs.
In neighboring Malaysia, designers reflect the cultural and religious diversity of a secular country in which sixty percent of the population is Muslim alongside significant numbers of practicing Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. Some fashion-forward designs are inspired by traditional Malaysian costume, such as the baju kurung, a loose-fitting tunic and skirt ensemble. Malay designer Bernard Chandran fuses this traditional costume with modern materials and textures to create fashion-forward designs that suit his Muslim clientele’s concerns for modesty (Figure 5).
Contemporary Muslim Fashions is currently installed at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, until August 23, 2020. Please note- due to Covid-19, please check the museum’s website for visiting restrictions and opening times as they become available.
Please click this link to the exhibition’s page on the Cooper Hewitt website to view a virtual tour of Contemporary Muslim Fashions, as it is currently installed at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, presented by Associate Curator Susan Brown.
And, check out the Cooper Hewitt’s video playlist for the exhibition at this link.
Laura L. Camerlengo is the Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. She is a former Textile Society of America Director at Large (2014 – 2016) and a current member.
Jill D’Alessandro is the Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Franciso. She is a former Textile Society of America Director at Large (2012-2016) and a current member.
Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and is a former Treasurer for the Textile Society of America’s Board of Directors.
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