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Backstage at Gucci AW18, Marine Serre AW18, Versace AW18Photography Giacomo Cabrini, Lucie Rox, courtesy of Versace

Is the fashion industry fetishising the hijab?

Covered heads were all the rage this season, but designers risk alienating Muslim women by making headscarves into a trend

Hijabs were everywhere at the AW18 shows. The designers themselves may not have called them that – and, for the most part, the models wearing them weren’t Muslim – but in the eyes of many, their resemblance to the traditional Islamic garment was striking.

From close-fitting lycra hoods to carefully draped scarves and knitted snoods, head coverings of various styles were seen on the runways of major brands including Alexander Wang, Calvin Klein, Versace, Lanvin, Dior, ChanelBalenciaga, and Marc Jacobs. They were also at Gucci, where a number of looks were finished with scarves pinned under the chin, while one model wore what appeared to be a lilac jewelled niqab. In Paris, LVMH Prize winner Marine Serre sent out hooded looks and bodysuits featuring the crescent moon emblem which she is making her signature – a graphic which is strongly associated with Islam, and which she has been subject to criticism for using. (“By putting a blue-eyed, white woman in (the) first look, I thought it was actually saying, ‘Why should we actually be afraid of dressing in a hijab?’” Serre has said in response.)

Though to a Muslim woman catching up on catwalk coverage it may have been evident that some designers were sending out variations on the hijab, the reports did little to acknowledge any possible Islamic roots or references – instead, terms like ‘sculptural headpieces’ and ‘hooded headscarves’ were employed. On Instagram, Gucci – which found itself in hot water over sending Sikh turbans down the runway – described one of their headscarves as “a silk scarf with horse print designed to be worn on the head.” The Financial Times touched on the matter, but eventually equated the trend for covered heads seen throughout this season’s shows as a political and feminist statement in light of the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

A few shows actually featured hijabi models including Max Mara and Molly Goddard, which cast Halima Aden and Ikram Abdi Omar respectively – but for the most part, the regular line-up of non-Muslim women wore the garments in question. It raised the questions: were these simply styling tricks? Were designers actually planning to put these items into production and sell them to their Muslim customers? Versace’s SS18 campaign featured Christy Turlington Burns covered in baroque print silk from head to toe, but the models at the AW18 show were in miniskirts, making the cultural coding of their covered heads less easy to read.

Modest fashion has been a rising conversation point over the last few years. In 2016, Dolce & Gabbana released a line of hijabs and abayas (which are loose-fitting, full-length robes worn over an outfit), while Anniesa Hasibuan was the first designer to present an all-hijab collection at NYFW. “Women are not as afraid to wear their headscarf anymore. On the contrary, they proudly wear it and are determined to express themselves,” explains Hasibuan in Unapologetically Muslim, a report released last week which investigates the economic and cultural impact of millennial Muslim women.

“Wearing a hijab is not simply a fashion choiceit is a commitment to a modest way of life. If it is worn by a supermodel in a revealing outfit, this religious meaning is lost” 

Muslim female identity itself is also shifting, and has been for some time now. Although many were pleased by Dolce & Gabbana’s decision to offer abayas and hijabs, not all Muslim women saw themselves reflected in the campaign. “They exhibited a ‘decade-old’ persona of a middle-aged Emirati woman of ‘new money’, which is not quite the current image of the luxury Muslim consumer,” says Halima Begum, fashion photographer and founder of WWAGS studio, a creative agency specialising in hijab styling and photography.

With this shift in attitude and cultural perception, along with evidence of modest fashion’s mass market value, a number of brands are challenging Dolce & Gabbana’s nouveau riche idea of what it means to be a hijab-wearing woman in 2018. Last year saw luxury clothing e-tailer The Modist launch, which stocks modest but totally modern fashion from the likes of Lanvin, Simone Rocha, and Christopher Kane. In November, based on the feedback of Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, Nike created the Pro Hijab, which was later awarded the Beazley Fashion Design of the Year.

However, wearing a hijab is not simply a fashion choiceit is a commitment to a modest way of life. In Unapologetically Muslim, women expressed that the hijab “signifies a level of self-confidence and self-worth that transcends the attention you get for your beauty.” If it is worn by a supermodel in a revealing outfit, this religious meaning is lost.

When high street brands like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams released modest fashion lines this year and last, Muslim women contemplated the ethics of this visibility. “There has been a focus on Muslim representation through making the hijab or modesty cool and pushing back against narratives of oppression, submission, and prudishness,” says Asma Uddin, founding editor-in-chief of AltMuslimah, a website discussing gender issues in Islam. “Muslims consider anything that contradicts or confuses that narrative as a good thing. On the flip side, people are also concerned if this is staying true to the entire purpose of the hijab. Is there something that is being lost in ourselves as Muslims?” In order to win the trust of Muslim women, brands also need to follow their halal values. “What they’re looking for is not the same as your mainstream market. We’re seeing more of a focus on quality, ethics, and sustainability, which are important parts of the halal lifestyle,” shared Alia Khan, founder and chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council.

While the perception of the hijab is changing, designers keen to capitalise on the $230 billion modest fashion market are not considering the wider implications of what that market actually encompasses – and what pairing a mini-skirt with a headscarf at an international show might mean to a Muslim woman. By mainstreaming the style with no regard for the religion, brands may find themselves ostracising the very customer they’re actually trying to include. “We need to make sure that we are not going back to surface-level inclusion,” argues activist fashion blogger Hoda Katebi. We should stay critical of the capitalisation or commodification of a symbol that is very spiritual and intimate and has a lot of personal significance for the people who choose to wear it.”

Unapologetically Muslim highlights the economic and cultural impact of millennial Muslim women in the US, UK, and Indonesia. It can be downloaded here.

15th March 2018: This article was amended to include a comment from Marine Serre, taken from an interview with The Cut