On December 26, 2016, barely a month after Donald Trump was sworn in as the President of the United States, the New York Times announced in a bold article that San Francisco’s de Young Museum was embarking on the first major exhibition to explore the complex and diverse nature of Muslim contemporary fashion. The pioneering show would not only address modest dress codes but also examine the ways in which Muslim women serve as arbiters of style within and beyond their communities. “When the announcement was made we initially received some negative comments, but for the most part we’ve gotten very positive feedback and encouragement for the exhibition,” says Miriam Newcomer, the de Young’s Communications Director.
“This exhibition was planned long before the president was elected, but with the Muslim travel ban, the immigration debate and negative portrayals of Muslims in the media, we felt if was important to make the statement that we’d be moving ahead despite the country’s current political climate,” adds Miriam, noting that the de Young has already been approached about having the exhibition travel to other museums in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. “It’s heartening to see the amount of interest and curiosity this exhibition has generated amongst museums and curators, especially for the de Young, which was born out of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. So it made sense for us to showcase a facet of Muslim culture, which makes up nearly 25% of the world’s population,” she says, while making her way down a small unassuming corridor to the de Young’s Textile Study Center.
On top of three tables in the center of the room are carful arrangements of gallery floor plans and images of garments being looked over by the exhibition’s curators Jill D’Alessandro and Laura Camerlengo. “The idea for the exhibition grew out of discussions we had with the museum’s former director Max Hollein shortly after he arrived here in June 2016. We talked about the role fashion plays in society and how it often reflects the world around us,” says Jill, the de Young’s Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts, who joined the museum in 2002. The curators went on to conduct extensive research, in addition to going through hundreds of social media platforms and articles on modest fashion that regularly appeared online. “We also looked at publications such as Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, which has been chronicling the modest fashion movement in the Middle East over the past ten years,” notes Laura, the Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, who came to the de Young in 2015.
In January 2017, Jill was invited by the King Abdul-Aziz Center for World Culture to travel to Saudi Arabia, where she met with fashion designers and social media influencers in Jeddah. “It was an amazing trip where I not only got to explore private collections of historic dress belonging to the Mansoojat Foundation and Safeya Binzagr in Jeddah, but also met with women shaping the Kingdom’s fashion scene,” notes Jill, who visited the studios of designers such as Alaa Balkhy and Miriam Bin Mahfouz. “I was really impressed by the quality and sophistication of the designs I came across, some of which will be in the exhibition. I also had very interesting conversations with these women, who offered diverse perspectives on modest dressing,” says Jill, who also traveled to Indonesia, Malaysia and London to conduct interviews and studio tours with many of the designers featured in the exhibition. “Traveling to these places broadened my perspective and made me less western centric in my approach to fashion, because I met innovative designers who weren’t necessarily looking to the West for inspiration,” she adds, noting the importance of approaching contemporary Muslim dress from a global perspective.
Aware that they wouldn’t be able to cover the breadth and depth of contemporary Muslim fashion, the curators nevertheless endeavored to bring complexity and nuance to the topic by also focusing on Muslim communities within the United States and San Francisco in particular. “This city has one of largest Muslim populations in the country, with close to a quarter of a million living in the Bay Area alone,” says Laura, who together with Jill, traveled to different parts of the United States to meet with designers and influencers shaping the modest fashion scene. “Including this diasporic perspective was crucial when selecting garments created by Muslim designers living in the US and the UK, because it also demonstrates how migration contributed to shaping social and religious practices around dress codes,” adds Laura, who worked with Jill to incorporate diverse Muslim voices into the exhibition through quotes on label’s and wall panels, as well as images and videos culled from social media influencers around the world.
“While conceiving the exhibition, we were very conscious of including as many voices as possible because we felt it was important to give the community their own platform to discuss contemporary Muslim fashion,” notes Jill, who made it a point to include examples of modest dress by Muslim designers from across the world, as well as established western fashion brands such as Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta and Peter Pilotto. By doing so, the exhibition attempts to tackle a point of contention amongst Muslim fashion influencers, who felt the hijab was only deemed acceptable by popular media once it had been adopted by major fashion brands. “It’s important to acknowledge that modest fashion isn’t an emerging trend, but has been created and worn by Muslim designers and women for decades before major brands began to engage with that market.”
Early on, the curators also reached out to local mosques, community centers and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area to connect with the communities they were highlighting in the exhibition. “I was very touched by how eager the Muslim community was to get behind this exhibition, and their feedback contributed to shaping its content,” says Laura, noting that she grew from her experiences of interacting with young fashion designers and social media influencers from San Francisco’s Muslim communities. Nowhere is the intersection of fashion and identity politics more pronounced than amongst young Muslim women, who have become the focus of discussions about feminism and Islamophobia. Through their social media platforms, they are taking control of those conversations by emphasizing their choice in what they wear and how they express their faith.
“This is the community that’s supported and influenced modest fashion designers as well, and what’s repeatedly come up in my conversations with them is that all women, regardless of faith, should have the agency to choose what they want to wear,” says Laura, observing that Muslim influencers have found empowerment in self-styling, where fashion is being used to address other topics. “Particularly amongst a second generation of fashion bloggers, the conversation has shifted beyond simply wanting to be represented in mainstream fashion. Today, they also want to draw attention to social and political issues impacting them at a pivotal moment in time,” says Laura, as she makes her way down the hallway to the de Young’s textile conservation lab. Inside, Anne Getts, the museum’s Associate Conservator of Textiles, is filling out a condition report for a recently delivered Christian Dior couture gown and matching abaya, lent by the Saudi style icon Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, who also contributed to the exhibition’s catalogue.
Carefully laid flat on a nearby table is a stunning turquoise Marchesa caftan belonging to Sheikha Raya Al Khalifa, who wore it for a photo-shoot with Harper’s Bazaar Arabia in 2012. “This particular costume exhibition is unique for the sheer number of loaned garments coming from around the world. We’ve also asked each designer and lender to decide whether they prefer their garments be shown with or without a head covering,” says Anne, noting that the exhibition will feature examples representing a spectrum of modest dressing from voluminous styles to more body conscious looks. “We wanted to celebrate the multiple interpretations of modest dress and to underscore that they’re all equally legitimate expressions of contemporary Muslim fashion,” says Jill, adding that it’s ultimately the garment’s wearer who defines the parameters of modesty.
The de Young will also compliment the exhibition with an extensive program of talks and lectures with Muslim designers and social media influencers that will focus on promoting cross-cultural and inter-faith dialogue. “For the exhibition’s opening on September 22, I’ll be moderating a conversation with Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz and Ghizlan Guenez, founder and CEO of The Modist, about the evolution of the modest fashion sector, including the role of Middle Eastern designers in its development,” says Jill, noting that they also teamed up with high school and college students, who will create a podcast exploring the exhibition’s themes for teenagers and young adults. “It was important for us to create opportunities for the wider public to interact with some of the designers and influencers we’re featuring, to give visitors a richer and more informed experience,” says the curator, who hopes the exhibition will have a far reaching impact beyond the de Young’s walls. “When I started on this two year journey with Laura and our team at the museum, none of us could have anticipated how much we would grow and expand our world view from this project. Simply taking the time to listen to Muslim women, who are often spoken for or misrepresented in the media, is a step in the right direction and we hope this exhibition will open the door to more fruitful conversations at a time when they are very much needed.”
Contemporary Muslim Fashion at San Francisco’s de Young Museum runs from September 22, 2018 – January 6, 2019
From the September 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia