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Sunday April 12, 2009

Fashionable quandary

As Muslim women have become more affluent in the last decade or two, Islamic fashion has evolved into a lucrative industry. Yet, no one – not even designers, it seems – can actually define what Islamic fashion is.

DATUK Shah Rezza comes across as a suave, modern – even liberal – businessman. So what is he doing peddling Islamic fashion?

Because he is savvy enough to see the lucrative potential of fashion designed specifically for Muslim women.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir

But what makes garments “Islamic”?

According to the Quran, men and women are required to dress modestly by covering their aurat, which refers to the area from the navel to the knee for the former and all parts of the body except the face, hands and feet for the latter. However, there has been much debate on how this can be interpreted and how far one needs to go to ensure proper Muslim attire compliance.

If the idea is to dress modestly and not attract attention to yourself then surely “Islamic fashion” is a misnomer, as fashion is all about adorning oneself and attracting attention.

Shape evolution

According to Prof Madya Mohamad Najib Nor from the Textile and Fashion Department of the Creative Technology and Heritage Faculty, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, the Malay way of dressing has evolved over the centuries with the advent of different religions in the region.

He says, upon conversion to Islam, a whole new concept of covering up emerged among the Malay Muslims, who chose a kind of a tent shape.

Noor Kumalasari

He goes on to explain that the habbaya from the Arabian Peninsula became the kebaya matched with a shawl and sarong, which was tied in a style called tindih kasih.

Then there is the Turkish long tunic that became the baju kurung, worn with a wrapped and draped sarong.

The wrapping and draping concept appears in the Cik Siti Wan Kembang outfit (from Kelantan) that comes with a wide shawl and, later on (also for Kelantan women), the kain batik lepas, a piece of batik material.

“The bright 2m coloured fabric was used as a head covering; it became multi-functional to suit daily life,” says Prof Najib.

This was the origin of Muslim Malays’ clothing that, over the years, was further influenced by the trends of each era.

In the present era, Prof Najib thinks that most designers don’t quite understand fashion from the Islamic point of view.

“Most of them do not grasp what is required under the Islamic fashion concept. The Islamic silhouette does not emphasise the figure, especially the chest. The designs should focus more on practicality, in keeping with Muslim activities in daily life.”

Which basically means comfortable and practical clothing that a Muslim can wear while performing everyday tasks.

In today’s context, the most recognisable form of such comfortable, practical and, of course, modest garment in Malaysia is the baju kurung. That is a variation of the jubah that Muslim women elsewhere wear. Increasingly, Muslim women wear the outfit with a headscarf that’s called hijab in the Middle East but usually is referred to as the tudung, (cover) locally.

Rizalman Ibrahim

“As the name suggests – from the word kurung which means to confine – this shape of dress was to protect the human body from unwanted elements,” explains Prof Najib.

Adding style

With growing affluence and the increasing sophistication of Muslim women that have become very apparent in the last decade or two, Islamic fashion has evolved into a sought-after and lucrative industry of its own.

This is where Shah Rezza comes in. For the past three years, he has been organising the Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) in Kuala Lumpur. Shah Rezza calls it a fashion festival and not fashion week because the latter is a serious business, involving international buyers and media.

He has no current equivalent at the moment, but he does have a plan to turn the IFF into an actual fashion week, take it to other major cities, and create an awareness of Kuala Lumpur as a major Islamic fashion capital, within five years.

Shah Rezza hopes by then KL will have several boutiques and designers that offer various Islamic attire. However, he does have a grouse when it comes to the designers: they are given general guidelines and allowed to interpret them freely, but they don’t seem to make an effort.

“They just put a hat or a scarf on the head and think that’s Islamic. The point is, the audience wants to see what Islamic fashion is all about. The show has to be different from mainstream couture shows.

Prof Mohamad Najib Nor

“There are some designers who go out of their way to cover head to toe and still look stylish and chic. The best is Sebastian Gunawan from Indonesia. Until this year, our theme was ‘Discover the Beauty of Modesty’ but next year it will be ‘Less is More’, meaning less flesh and more material.”

Since its inception three years ago, the IFF has featured creations by 180 designers from various countries, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. There has also been participation from international labels like Milo, Etro, and Nitya.

Apart from the designers not interpreting Islamic fashion accurately, there are also the Islamic scholars to contend with. They want to know why the designs do not conform 100% to Islamic guidelines.

Shah Rezza argues that it’s about being gentle: “The religion itself took 23 years to complete. IFF believes that everyone will have their own pace (when it comes to covering up) and therefore IFF will create and present designs to suit each step and phase.

“We would love to rebrand Islamic dressing as a dress code that is more than just fulfilling religious requirements. Women should just love and be happy to cover up.

“IFF would also like to establish a circuit of Islamic fashion capitals with Kuala Lumpur being the major city. It should be an event that society looks forward to every year, an event associated with unifying people from diverse backgrounds and synonymous with charity.

“Most of all, IFF should be an event that lets the world know that there’s more to Islam than Osama bin Laden, terrorism and segregation. As Prophet Muhammad once said, ‘Allah is beautiful and indeed loves beauty’.”

Mix and mismatch?

Among designers, there are different schools of thought. Some like Kem Salleh from Kapas Couture are excited about the challenges while others like Rizalman Ibrahim do not believe there is such a thing as Islamic fashion.

Kem feels that it’s about infusing Islamic values and modesty into the world of fashion.

“As a designer label, we have to be open minded and not limit our creativity. We also need to educate Muslim women that Islamic fashion isn’t dull and conservative. Participating (in IFF) is a good way to show the world that Islamic fashion can be trendy, colourful and marketable.

Despite the gamut of styles at last year's Islamic Fashion Festival in Kuala Lumpur, some scholars feel that designers have yet to understand fashion from a Muslim point of view. - Montage by NORLIDAH RAMLI/THE STAR

“There are the main guidelines, such as covering the hair and the entire body and not being too figure-hugging. However, different designers may interpret them in their own creative ways, as long as the guidelines are followed.

“Islamic fashion is still new in the fashion industry. Further, how does one describe Islamic fashion? The tudung, for example, has been designed and interpreted in many ways. Some people just wear a shawl over their head and you can still see the front part of the hair, some will cover their hair with a scarf and you can still see their neck and some will cover the entire head.

“Islamic fashion is an educational process because some Muslim women who wear modern dresses may want to slowly transform themselves and begin dressing the Islamic way a step at a time. A good example is Datuk Siti Nurhaliza.”

Rizalman, however, feels very strongly that fashion and Islam cannot mix.

He has not participated in the IFF and neither does he promote Islamic fashion in any form for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.

“Fashion is fashion and Islam is Islam. I don’t believe in mixing religion and fashion because religion doesn’t stop one from participating in fashion and Islam encourages us to be beautiful, so it’s about what you think fashion is.

The evolution of Siti Nurhaliza: From stage-y outfits in 1999, through what looked like a leather phase in 2004 and elegant dresses in 2006 to a scarf covering her hair today. - File photos

“Like the Arabs, you can wear shorts, skirts, and bustiers but you must know when and where to wear such clothes – at home among the women. But when you go out, you wear the jubah.

“When you mix fashion and religion there is no way out, that’s why you see mid-length kaftans with calf leggings. Like you put up a Quran recital and mix it with hip hop. Aurat is still aurat.

“The reason why we cover our aurat and wear the jubah is to stop people looking at us. But if you wear colour, beadings, etc, that’s to invite people to look at you, and that’s wrong.”

So how does he deal with clients that wear the headscarf and selendang and want him to design Islamic-style clothes?

“If someone asks me to design something with specific requirements, I don’t consider it my creation. I am merely rendering a service to my client.”

He finds it very irritating when people think his designs are Islamic fashion, as he says there is a difference between referencing culture in a design and using religion.

“Middle Eastern fashion is cultural, that’s where the reference comes from. If you’re thinking of clothes that cover, our baju kurung is already Muslim wear so why bother creating anything else?”

Rizalman believes that before anything else, when it comes to covering up, what Islam says is God’s law, and that, to him, cannot be changed according to whims and fancies.

Well-known Star columnist and activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is also against the term Islamic fashion.

“I object to it because it implies that those of us who don’t wear these types of garments, particularly if we don’t cover our heads, are not Muslims. I think everyone should dress modestly and that is enough. Dressing in ‘Islamic fashion’ does not mean you are a better Muslim than one who does not.”

Like Rizalman, she feels religion and fashion should not be mixed: “Religion and fashion are two separate worlds. Yes, I think women have a right to dress in any way that pleases them and be modest about it as well. But I don’t think it needs to be called fashion. If it is fashion, not only is it by definition attention-getting but it’s also fleeting and transient and requires you to change every so often, even when there is no reason to.

“Following fashion can enslave you too. Does the Quran give fashion guidelines? No, it just tells us, men and women, to behave modestly. God is beyond fashion.”

Marina points out that “our mothers and grandmothers have been wearing traditional dress all their lives, so are we now saying that they are not Islamic?

“I think we should dress in our own custom and fashion, suitable for our climate. I am sometimes surprised that the people who fight so hard for the Malay language because without it, our culture will die, are so much less interested in preserving our own traditional costumes and daily wear.”

Former actress/singer/model Noor Kumalasari, who donned the hijab 10 years ago, frowns on the attitude of Muslims who believe that they can dress one way during solat (prayers) and in another, more liberal way, at other times. To her, this is irrational because “it is as if God is not watching us outside of prayers”.

Noor, who only wears black, says Islamic fashion should be “mosque compliant”, meaning, keep it simple. That applies to the IFF’s designers, too. “Otherwise, it might wrongly be interpreted that such designs are acceptable in Islam,” she adds.

Noor, however, believes that as long as there are clothes, there will be fashion, so to her, fashion is relevant to religion too.

“Simple designs are also fashionable. It is more challenging to design simple fashion, especially if it is limited to black. The objective of creating Islamic fashion should be different from normal fashion because making heads turn is not welcome in Islam. Islamic fashion should be based on practicality, presentability, choice of fabric, and creativity.”

Personal choice

For ordinary Muslim women, it’s about finding modest and practical clothing suitable for daily activities.

Lawyer Linda Harun, 30, who has been wearing the tudung for two years, believes a Muslim woman seeking to be fashionable contradicts Islamic teachings – but she doesn’t like being stereotyped as conservative, either.

“I like to look presentable and I find wearing long black jubahs do exactly that for the most part. But it’s annoying that people in general perceive women who wear the tudung to be conservative.”

To Farah Abdullah, a 25-year-old executive, clothes that cover the skin and are not too tight or transparent are in keeping with Islamic tenets. She wears the tudung, a decision that she did not make easily. “But once you wear it, everything else becomes manageable. I do get tempted by more fashionable dresses but I make do with other methods. For example, I will follow the colour of the season, but not the type of dress.

“Fashion is not just about clothes. You can still follow the fashion trends of shoes, bags and accessories, and forget about dresses and skirts that are not Muslim-appropriate.

“I think Islamic wear is evolving and becoming more and more fashionable. I like having plenty of styles to choose from when it comes to wearing the hijab.”

So is there such a thing as Islamic fashion? Are we trivialising a religious tenet or helping believers make it a part of their lives?

For this writer, writing this story has been a long and complicated journey. As a Muslim, I believe that when you cover up, you are submitting yourself to God, and fashion should really be the last thing on your mind. It no longer matters how pretty you look in public, it is about how your spiritual self looks to God.

As a fashion writer, however, I do admire the beautiful designs and the innovative ways in which designers try to marry religion and fashion. So I straddle the two worlds somewhat uneasily and try to find a balance. I believe the answer may be beyond all of us, and in the end, how one chooses to interpret religion is strictly between oneself and God.

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