Is the New Trend in Haute Couture Fashion Hijab a Form of Cultural Appropriation?
With the launch of Dolce and Gabbana’s haute couture hijabi line in January, many people are questioning the motivations behind such a move. This wouldn’t be the first western fashion group to launch a line aimed at garnering a chunk of some of the $266 billion spent by Muslims annually (a number expected to rise to $488 billion within 3 years). H&M also launched a campaign that was aimed at supplying hijab-wearing shoppers with modest and fashionable apparel. Dolce and Gabbana represent a much different market than H&M and are looking to tap into the haute-couture market of the gulf countries, where approximately 33% of the world’s haute couture purchases originate from.
Hijab fashion is nothing new. Take five seconds to plug that into Youtube or a search engine and you will be inundated with videos of hijabi women from around the world saying “Salam Alaikum everyone! Today I have an amazing hijab fashion tutorial for you.” Usually these videos and blogs offer fashion tips and tricks for looking good while staying modest, ranging on the modesty scale from jeans and boyfriend sweaters, to all-out maxi dresses or fashion abayas.
Dolce and Gabbana are at the more modest end of the spectrum, coming up with a range of long flowing abayas and complementary head scarves with eye-popping accessories to boot. So if the hijab fashion market has always been around? What’s different? Why are some people questioning the motivations of the Sicilian designers? Is what they are doing an example of the now-infamous “cultural appropriation” or patriarchy or neo-colonialism (or all of the above) simply because they are non-Muslim, Western men?
I don’t think that such accusations are very productive or make a whole lot of sense. For me, what they are doing depends on their research. I’ll admit that so far they don’t have a great track record for research, especially considering that last summer, the designer duo scheduled an ultra-exclusive fashion show during Ramadan, meaning that many of their Middle Eastern/Muslim clients could not or would not attend. The faux-pas has stimulated the pair to learn more about Islamic religious practices though, and with such prominent names doing this research, especially while Islam is continually and perpetually under siege (that’s not up for discussion folks), I can’t argue with that kind of publicity.
And, in actually looking at their designs, I am floored by how stunning they are while being much more modest than most fashion hijab purports to be these days. They are obviously catering to the Gulf aesthetic taste for abayas and that’s great: they know their market and in the world of business, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. They aren’t forcing it down the throats of women and they aren’t necessarily dictating what those women should wear. In fact, hijabis around the world have been cobbling together modest outfits (let’s be honest about how many of you have about 5000 layers going on daily in an effort to make sure you’re just covered) from designer fashions and clothing labels not marketed towards them since…forever. And we’re all going to keep buying our scarves at the same store that hipsters do but instead of wrapping them around our necks ironically, they will be pinned to our heads. Suddenly, because someone decided to pitch something directly to us, it’s an issue? Frankly, I’d prefer if someone took us into consideration because I am getting really tired of wearing turtlenecks under everything because the sleeves are too short.
My first real concern comes from an Islamic perspective more than anything and centers on the ethics of the labour that went into making them. This, of course, is something that can be asked of everything Muslims wear. Are we dressing ourselves on the slave labour of others across the world? Are children being forced to make our clothes? As Muslims, believe it or not, these are important questions to be asking. We should not be supporting companies that partake in poor manufacturing processes or do not take care of their employees’ working conditions and pay. While the ethics behind a company’s manufacturing practices is not always clear, we should feel obligated to do the research necessary to make sure we are not unknowingly participating in the entrapment or forced servitude of other people. This is critical wherever manufacturing takes place and whoever is doing it. For Muslims who might not particularly care, it is important to note that clothing manufacturing dominates in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – all countries that have large Muslim populations which could be directly affected by poor work conditions. Of course, it is the duty of the Muslim to care for all people in positions of injustice, not just other Muslims; however, if it takes imagining your little brother or sister chained to a sewing machine for 15 hours a day to wake some people up, then so be it. Theoretically, Dolce and Gabbana manufacture most of their clothing in Italy, however, some of their eyewear and accessory lines are made in China, and knockoffs abound from all over the world.
Other issues have been raised by Muslims about the new line and others that will follow suit, including the fact that it’s too little too late – that after a lifetime of suffering because of wearing the hijab, the slight joy of it becoming a fashion statement does little to ease the trauma. While I don’t doubt that some women have felt that their modest Islamic dress has caused them untold suffering, whether from limited opportunities to outright physical violence, it doesn’t follow for me that if an industry suddenly starts to catch up on that fact that, hey, we’re women too and we like to present ourselves well to the world (indeed, looking good is part of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him) it is negated by the fact that they have operated in ignorance for so many years prior. Bring on the knowledge and understanding!
The claim that the move reeks of Western double standards (because people in the West don’t want women to wear hijab?) is also a gross conflation of a) the opinions of Westerners and b) the entire concept of the West. There are plenty of people who have zero issue with hijabi women choosing to wear a headscarf and modest dress every day and to presume otherwise is unproductive and accusatory. I have little patience for binaries (in case, you hadn’t already noticed). Sure, D&G might be more interested in tapping into a lucrative market, but there is something to be said for the fact that they even have the gall to try. It might have something to do with the fact that they are Sicilian and the gorgeous Italian island was colonized by Arabs for 200 years, but I’m a Calabrese (neighbouring province to Sicily) convert to Islam so I’m a bit biased when it comes to residual cultural DNA cropping into my vocabulary.
The final criticism that I want to address is an important one: the whiteness of the model used to photograph the abaya collection. The issue of this woman’s skin colour has come up more than I can count and while I do agree that Dolce and Gabbana missed a huge opportunity for intersectional visibility here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing to have happened. In fact, it actually goes against presumptions found within the Arab world itself: that Arabs are the truest Muslim because they come from the same tribes of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) and they know the language of the Qur’an, despite the fact that they only represent about 15% of the worldwide Muslim population. Having a white (or Italian?) hijabi Muslim also flies in the face of stereotypes lobbed against paler converts to Islam who get accused of converting only for marriage or of being Orientalist – pretenders who will never actually grasp the weight of their conversion by virtue of having come from the land of the great colonizers. For me, embodying my own peripheral intersectionality as an Italian convert from the West, I didn’t mind such a model, but I wouldn’t, obviously. And I suppose that’s just my privilege talking because it just so happens that some of my people (even though I hate nationalism) decided to represent some of my other people (ie. Muslims) – an overlap I never expected to happen.
Islamically speaking, the price tag is the real issue for me when it comes to buying modest, hijabi clothing from designers like Dolce and Gabbana, simply because it is the only part of the equation that is not modest. The collection has yet to be priced, but if it is anything like the rest of their designs, it is going to be substantial. To put this in perspective, the only floor-length maxi dress in the D&G 2016 collection is priced at $7070 US and a standard headscarf from the same collection is approximately $484 US. That’s a lot of dollars being spent on “modesty”. Money that could be better spent on charitable ventures, one’s own family or the general betterment of society.