A “Topless Burka-Clad Model” and Radical Islamic Fashion

“The art of apparel is made all the more important in Islamic countries by the absence of any human image,” wrote Titus Burkhardt (1908-1984), a scholar of, and convert to, Islam. “It is,” he said, “the art of clothing that in a way conveys the Muslim’s ideal image of himself as a Muslim.” Perhaps this partly explains the negative reaction to American fashion label Diesel’s latest ad campaign – Diesel Rebooted – that features a woman in a makeshift denim-niqab (a face veil that leaves the eyes visible).

Using “real people” as models, in conjunction with the slogan, “I Am Not What I Appear To Be,” the campaign was the brainchild of Nicola Formichetti, the former stylist to Lady Gaga who joined Diesel, as their artistic director, in April. The campaign uses, among others, a “plus size” and an androgynous model. No big shockers there. The ad that has provoked a stir shows a heavily tattooed female model wearing a makeshift denim niqab, or full Muslim face veil.

Denim is an interesting material to make a niqab from. Fred Davis, in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (University of Chicago Press), refers to the “blue jeans’ ‘base-line’ symbolism of democracy.” It’s a fabric identified with America, and American youth culture. Jeans and denim have long been totally mainstream, rooted in cowboy, biker and rock ‘n’ roll culture, they nevertheless partly retain the symbolism of being outside the corporate system. Denim represents the dreamer, the dropout, the cool, more than democracy as a system. A denim niqab seems at once to indicate a rejection of both Western values and religious literalism, and it seems to hint at the fusion of East and West on the level of material culture.

While commentary on it is often trivial, fashion is a complicated subject. And so is religion. Though in many respects opposite to one another, the latter has frequently provided inspiration for designers. Muslim dress has influenced Western fashion, particularly at the more avant-garde end of the spectrum. And its influences include the niqab and burka (a full body covering, which veils the eyes with a mesh cloth) – the female garments (which we should distinguish from the hijab, or headscarf) often associated with the religious ultra-conservatism of Wahhabism and Salafism.

Diesel denim burka
Causing controversy: Diesel’s denim niqab.

Islam is far from the only influence on Western fashion, though. The logo of US apparel label True Religion is Budai Luohan (laughing Buddha) playing a guitar. From glittery crosses to nun-inspired outfits and “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts, Christianity is a big theme for fashion, high and low. In February, Italian couturiers Dolce & Gabbana sent a model wearing a gold dress and crown down the catwalk. It imitated – or was very closely inspired by – some traditional images of the Virgin Mary. To the best of my knowledge, none of this provoked any kind of controversy.

Perhaps we’re more sensitive to Islam. We live in an era in which many people feel that members of the faith are being singled out for surveillance and discrimination. When the West was insensitive, it didn’t mind portraying Muslim women as the stereotyped burka-clad submissive, of course. Strangely, now we’re sensitive, we’re shocked at images that challenge such stereotypes. Something seems a little off.

For feminist fashion blog The Gloss Diesel’s denim niqab image made the whole campaign “extremely provocative.” Yahoo Shine also picked up on what it referred to, rather oxymoronically, as the “topless burka-clad model.” To be clear, of the “topless” model we see only the eyes, side and one arm. By contemporary standards it’s not exactly porn.

But let’s leave that aside and look briefly at the influence of Islam on fashion:

Shock comes and goes. Not much more than a century ago, the idea of women wearing pants was highly controversial. One of the earliest designers of pants for women was Paul Poiret. He created the wide-legged jupe-culottes for women in 1911, and called them “harem pants.” Politically incorrect today, Orientalist in its time no doubt, but the name wasn’t meant to be degrading. Poiret was inspired by Eastern and Asian culture, and shocked one of his clients – a Russian princess – by naming a robe he designed after the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Taqwacore: Tesnim Sayar (left), and a Kominas limited edition t-shirt design (right).
Muslim Punk: Tesnim Sayar (left), and Taqwacore band The Kominas t-shirt design (right).

But, Poiret’s inspiration went beyond influencing his design to influencing his own self-image and natural showmanship. During this era, prior to the invention of the catwalk show, models wore the designer clothing, and showed them to prospective clients, in couture houses. In 1911, Poiret toured Europe, stopping in the avenue d’Antin garden, Paris, with his 1,002 Nights Ball. Here he showed his Eastern-inspired fashion collection, in which his harem pants and “minaret tunic” were prominently featured. Poiret himself dressed as a sultan for the occasion, not entirely surprisingly given his claim to be the reincarnation of a Persian prince.

Fast-forward to the other end of the twentieth century, and Muslim dress reappears in high fashion. In 1996, Hussein Chalayan, a young Turkish-British designer – darling of British fashion – launched his “Burka” show. Down the catwalk went a parade of young women, the first of which emerged completely naked except for the golden mask often worn with the black, body-covering abaya (a “cloak” or body covering, sometimes worn beneath the niqab). The next model wore a niqab along with an abaya cut off cut off just above the waist, exposing the model’s sex. Then another model appeared, with the abaya cut off just below the waist. The procession continued with the models increasingly covered, until they were completely hidden beneath the garment. Chalayan had meant to make a statement about nature (symbolized by the nudity) and nurture (symbolized by the chador).

The Diesel denim niqab ad really isn’t shocking in comparison. But the reaction to it is illustrative of a change in the psyche over the last couple of decades. In 1992, print adverts for Bijan perfume appeared in Vogue magazine. These showed two female faces, close up, and side-by-side. The first woman – meant to represent a Muslim woman – was veiled, serious, and sober looking. Although the woman’s face was heavily made up with cosmetics, the impression was of a nun-like woman (who can, perhaps, be seduced nonetheless). A caption next to the face read: “women should be obedient, grateful, modest, respectful, submissive, and very, very, serious.”

The face of the woman next to her was completely different. Carefree, this woman was smiling or laughing, with her mouth wide open. She was wearing a baseball cap, but had let her hair hang down at the same time. Next to her was a small American flag, and the caption: “women should be bright, wild, flirty, fun, eccentric, tough, bold, and very, very, Bijan.”

As Faegheh Shirazi observes in The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, “The function of the ‘exotic’ woman in this ad is to show the contrast between the who wears Bijan and the one who does not.” “It also implies,” as Shirazi also says, “that Muslim women are not bright, wild flirty, eccentric, tough, bold, and very, very, Bijan.” The Anti-Discrimination Committee complained to Bijan’s management about the ad, saying, “being Muslim and American are not a contradiction and should not be portrayed as such.”

Whether intended or not, critics of Diesel’s denim burka ad seem to be saying – to paraphrase Shirazi – that Muslim women are not bright, wild flirty, eccentric, tough, bold, or very, very, Diesel. Perhaps many are not very, very Diesel, at least. The “topless burka-clad model” probably isn’t even Muslim – hence the slogan, “I Am Not What I Appear To Be.” But, we might also read the ad as meaning that the Muslim woman doesn’t necessarily conform to the stereotype. And that is also partly what the fuss is about.

Hussein Chalayan "Burka" show.
From Hussein Chalayan’s “Burka” fashion show.

Western sensitivity often means deferring to those who advocate religious literalism and conservatism. That’s a shame. Members of the faith are more diverse than the stereotypes. Whether or not the model in the Diesel ad is a Muslim, the image reflects some things that have been going on in some Muslim subcultures.

We know that Heavy Metal is big in the Muslim Middle East, as is Hip Hop to a certain extent. And we know that underground fashion shows in Iran have so worried the authorities that they have attempted to introduce their own line of “Islamic and beautiful” women’s clothing. It’s irrelevant whether we think this is good or bad. The fact is that religion – including Islam – will negotiate modernity, not just through theology, but through dress, art, popular culture and more. The Diesel ad is just the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. And it reflects some interesting manifestations of culture created by contemporary Muslims.

A story of “burqa-wearing riot girls, mohawked Sufis, straightedge Sunnis, Shi’a skinheads, Indonesian skaters, Sudanese rude boys, gay Muslims, drunk Muslims, and feminists” populating a house in Buffalo, New York, Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 novel The Taqwacores, inspired a Muslim punk movement in the USA and abroad that challenged the stereotypes of non-Muslims and Muslim literalists alike. Tesnim Sayar, a Danish-born “Muslim goth-punk” and design student became one of the better-known faces of the movement, recognizable by her Mohican-hijab. With the arms, legs, and head covered, “Hijabistas” are mixing Muslim clothing with jeans and high and low fashion. Hijab fashion blogs appear and disappear, but are a staple of the internet, and hijab fashion shows are appearing in both the West and the East. Young British fashion designer Sarah Elenany has created garments with printed patterns that seem halfway between M. C. Escher and New York artist Keith Haring, except that the motifs – if not the style – are inspired by Islamic culture – rows of minarets, printed on the lining of a coat, or kaleidoscopic images that also seem to be inspired by Islamic geometric design. In 2011, the Muslim women’s fashion magazine Ala was launched, and Dubai is currently positioning itself to become one of the world’s future fashion capitals.

It appears that Titus Burkhardt might have been right when he said that it is clothing that, “conveys the Muslim’s ideal image of himself as a Muslim.” But that self-image may not necessarily conform to the stereotypes, whether of non-Muslims or of religious conservatives and literalists. And, frankly, that is something to celebrate.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


2 Replies to “A “Topless Burka-Clad Model” and Radical Islamic Fashion”

  1. […] A “topless burka-clad model” and radical islamic fashion […]

Leave a Reply

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box