On Monday, the University of Georgia’s textiles, merchandising and interiors department hosted the third event of its four-part diversity in fashion speaker series. Indiana University associate professor Heather Akou gave a presentation titled “Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion.”
Akou is a Muslim American woman who specializes in researching Islamic fashion. She teaches within Indiana University’s Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design,
The presentation honed in on Akou’s expertise in and personal experience of what Islamic fashion is, what it represents and how the Western world views it.
Islamic clothing is often regarded as “anti-fashion,” meaning the clothing doesn’t change. Akou said many people view Islam and fashion as an oxymoron, because of the faith’s emphasis on modesty, piety and restraint.
In Islam, modesty is recommended of dress for both men and women, according to a BBC article. While Muslim men don’t have any required garments, women can choose to wear garments that cover their face, head or body including hijabs, niqabs which cover all but the eyes and burkhas which conceal everything including the eyes with a mesh veil.
Many Muslim women adapt their style to meet this “dress code,” Akou said. For example, some women might wear brightly colored loose-fitting clothes, along with a head covering. Other women could choose to add large sunglasses to their look.
The Quran says women past childbearing age are no longer required to wear a hijab, however, many women still choose to do so to protect their modesty, Akou said.
“It’s very easy to put clothing that has a religious influence into the anti-fashion or non-fashion category where it’s more of a requirement,” said Maureen Lehto Brewster, a doctoral candidate at UGA.
Akou mentioned that although there are requirements and traditions for what is worn, Muslims are still able to express themselves with their outfits.
When looking at it from a Western perspective, fashion tends to have particular imagery, said Sara Idacavage, a doctoral candidate at UGA. She said it’s interesting to think about how things that seem normal in the U.S. have a greater significance in other parts of the world.
During the presentation, Akou also discussed recent innovations in Islamic fashion, specifically in things like online retailers and Islamic couture. Retailers such as Shukr and Sunnah Style offer modest, but stylish clothing for Muslim men and women. Both sites give new takes on traditional Islamic garments with various fabrics, colors and more fashion-forward styles.
In 2016, the well-known couture fashion house Dolce & Gabbana made a collection specifically catered to Muslims in the Middle East, Akou said. The collection consisted of hijabs and abayas predominantly designed for modesty, but each had that signature Dolce & Gabbana flair.
Akou also said Islamic fashion is sustainability-driven since this is a major facet of Muslim culture. Akou believes slow fashion, which is the opposite of the extremely profitable and popular fast-fashion industry, is very representative of Islamic fashion.
Fast fashion promotes the quick production of large amounts of clothing, often using harmful materials and creating a lot of waste, or a lot of excess garments that never get sold. Islam places a large emphasis on avoiding waste, so handmade garments made with sustainable materials are extremely popular in the Middle East, Akou said.
Both Shukr and Sunnah Style are transparent about the products and production methods used, according to Akou.
“The religious motivations for brands to be so transparent is not something that I’m typically thinking about in a capitalist world,” Idacavage said.
The driving factors behind this shift to more fashion-forward Islamic clothing include changes in technology, the desire to have something new, fashion influencers and icons, as well as deeper changes in society, Akou said. But these factors are not the reasons for change solely in Islamic countries, these are the reasons behind changes in the fashion industry at large.
“It’s so easy to separate religious dress, but it’s nice to have a more global perspective of fashion and it really makes me think about how I understand fashion as a whole,” Lehto Brewster said.
Lehto Brewster also said Akou’s presentation provoked a conversation about what is considered fashion, what is not and what we associate with fashion.
Nowadays, “there is a greater recognition of Islamic fashion actually being fashion,” Akou said.