Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Amid the jungle of Paris Fashion Week runway shows and afters, shimmering dresses and sky-high heels, there was an unexpected trend this year: headwear.
Balmain presented models entirely hooded dresses, as models walked the Rick Owens fashion show draped in misshapen hoods and long scarves wrapped around their head. Giambattista Valli showcased classic silk scarves tied around the mannequins’ headdresses, and even Louis Vuitton included dazzling headdresses on the hair of several models as a dominant element of their presentation.
At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Hair scarves have been a staple in the fashion world for decades, most notably the quintessential silk scarf in the caricature of the ‘French girl’. But what confused him was the elephant in the room: doesn’t France hate the headscarf? Or is it only when Muslim women wear them?
France launched its latest Islamophobic controversy earlier this year when the national legislature attempted to pass a law ban muslim girls those under 18 to cover their hair in public; and mothers wearing the hijabi to accompany their children on school trips. France has been targeting Muslim women and girls for decades: hijabs have been banned in public schools since 2003, and niqabs, or face veils, were banned in 2010. It’s something I have myself lived: during a trip to France in 2017, I was forced to take off my hijab against my will by agents at Nice airport. “You are in France now,” they told me.
So what happens when headwear appears on France’s most visible global platform: the Paris Fashion Week catwalks? And above all, who has the privilege of wearing them?
In recent years, Muslim women and their styles have suddenly become commodities around the world. Hijabi models like Ugbad Abdi and Halima Aden are now at the forefront of Fashion Week and are the stars of national and international brand campaigns. Vogue Arabia launched in 2016; the following year, designer Mara Hoffman invited activist Linda Sarsour to open her New York Fashion Week show. Brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Uniqlo have launched collections aimed at Muslim women, and some, like Lisa Vogl and Alaa Ammuss, even have their own clothing lines in department stores.
In the age of sheer dresses and lingerie, Muslim women kept modest clothing alive in the mainstream culture. When Kim Kardashian appeared at the Met Gala last month in a head-to-toe black fabric ensemble, she was praised for her edginess. While the Balenciaga piece didn’t hide her ponytail, it covered everything else, including her face. For Muslim Twitter, Kim’s look was immediately comparable to a traditional form of Muslim women’s dress. Some – wrongly, but nonetheless speaking of the allusion of the gaze – even interpreted it as insensitive to Afghan women under the Taliban regime. What I found most interesting is that designer Demna Gvasalia’s apparent interpretation of anti-glamor is similar to the pure concept of hijab (modesty) itself, apart from today’s patriarchal intrusions: it is a rejection of the outside gaze, a deliberate reappropriation of one’s body and its presence. I won’t show up as you demand me to show up, or I don’t play this game by your rules.
I would be lying if I said that seeing headwear stuck on the catwalks at Fashion Week this year didn’t bring a level of assertiveness that had been denied me for most of my life. I couldn’t be a “fashion girl” growing up, not only for my hijab, but also for my plus size – a double whammy of the seam. It confirmed my alienation from society and seemed like an assurance that girls like me are “out”. Now our look – from voluptuous bodies to flowy dresses – is finally “in”, but are we?
French influencer Hanan Houachmi certainly don’t think so. “[Our hijabi sisters] are tolerated for this week to target a specific market, ”she said of Paris Fashion Week. “They are marginalized and disrespectful the rest of the year.” She grew up feeling her own sewing fault: “Being a woman of color and a Muslim in French society is like a double crime in their eyes.
And the dissonance doesn’t necessarily come from brands and designers, many of whom have fully embraced – whether through social media or otherwise – a greater diversity of shapes, sizes and colors on their catwalks. Moroccan model Imaan Hammam, although one of the only Muslim models at Paris Fashion Week, took part in the Balmain show last week in a fully hooded gown that made her look like a typical veiled Muslim woman; A few days before at Milan Fashion Week, the models of the Fendace collaboration show between Fendi and Versace wore silk scarves tied around their hair in the same classic way as the generation of our Arab grandmothers. “Obviously, I don’t think all brands have malware, but I think it’s up to us to educate them on where that fine line is,” Houachmi says of the difference between representation and operation. “It’s sad to be told what to wear and what to reveal to accommodate the patriarchal concept of freedom.”
Aden herself initiated a whirlwind exit from her IMG modeling agency last year to protest what she considered to be the exploitation of her hijab, an outcome many of us feared. She decided to take a step back from her work rather than compromise and commoditize the true purpose of the hijab so that it is superficially accepted as “trendy.” It’s also worth noting that Aden, perhaps the most visible hijabi model working today, turned down an invitation to this year’s Met Gala because she exclusively confirmed to Muslim Girl.
There’s no denying that the fashion world is a dominant power in shaping the Zeitgeist – and the new frontier of the functional challenge against xenophobia could be transformational if done right. It reminds me of the infamous 2016 burkini ban on the beaches of Nice which gave birth to the shameful viral photo French police forcing a Muslim woman to undress; in solidarity, divers showed up at the beach in wetsuits to underline the double standard. Fashion houses are the divers – but are they taking a stand?
Rick Owens and Giambattista Valli both declined to comment for this article. Balmain did not respond to requests for comment; Louis Vuitton responded to our request but has yet to comment at the time of posting.
While the fashion world takes advantage of Muslim women and their tastes, Islamophobia is rampant. These women and their fashion sensibilities may parade to seemingly overwhelming applause, but for those outside the cord, the silence is deafening.
Amani is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com, the largest platform for Muslim women’s voices in America.