Contemporary Muslim Fashions Exhibition at The Cooper Hewitt

Contemporary Muslim Fashions
All photos Marilyn Kirschner

The timing of “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” finally landing at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (February 28th through August 23rd) could not be more fortuitous, coming as it did just days after Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault. Ever since the “Times Up Me Too” Movement, many women, and not just Muslim women, have decided that dressing modestly rather than baring all, is the preferred, modern way to go. This exhibition is the first to examine “modesty dressing” in the fashion industry.

“Modest fashion refers to garments that are both highly fashionable and provide sufficient body cover to address cultural concerns for modesty.” The exhibition is a celebration of the unique styles of Muslim women, a confluence of fashion trends, regional dress styles, and personal interpretations of modesty. Muslim women have become arbiters of style in their communities, and in so doing, they have brought wide attention to contemporary Muslim Life.

Jill D’Alessandro is the organizer of the exhibition, curator in charge of costume and textile arts along with Laura L. Camerlengo, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The lead conceiver for the New York presentation is Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles, Cooper Hewitt. Both she and Ms. Camerlengo were on hand Thursday morning at the press preview making brief remarks.

“Fashion can be a platform for self-expression and a tool that reflects diversity. The complex nature of the designers’ featured works reflects not only their religious beliefs and their cultures but also their philosophies. In sharing their designs, they provide insights into the complex nature of dress and personal identity.” – Susan Brown

Ms. D’Alessandro echoed many of Ms. Browne’s sentiments. They both acknowledge it’s not possible to capture the ever-evolving connection to fashion, modesty, global trends, and local customs in one overview, even one with such a broad scope as this exhibition. Instead, it is a snapshot of the current moment in modest Muslim fashions.

Photographs of Muslim Women

The exhibition makes use of contemporary art, street photography, social media, and music videos along with the work of established and emerging designers from 16 countries from the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.

Contemporary designs incorporating batik

More than 70% of the designers, artists, and influencers in the exhibition are female, Muslim, and under 40 years of age. Their focus is on entrepreneurship, inclusion, and sustainable and ethical practices. The rich textile heritage of Southeast Asia informs many of the contemporary designs on view.

The 80 ensembles on view range from evening wear and couture to street styles and athletic apparel. For generations, Muslim women have self-fashioned their sportswear. Still, since the turn of the 21st century, female entrepreneurs have been creating new modest garments for a rising generation of Muslim female athletes.

Performance Wear

In recent years recognizing the size and importance of the Muslim consumer base, global brands have also begun to develop performance apparel geared toward both the everyday Muslim athlete as well as the elite competitor.

There is an entire section devoted to designer evening wear, including gowns by Christian Dior, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Marchesa, Dolce & Gabbana, and Oscar de la Renta. Peter Copping, who was head of design at Oscar de la Renta, devoted his caftan filled resort 2015 collection to Ramadan.

Designs by Dolce & Gabbana, Marchesa, Christian Dior, Jean Louis Scherrer, Oscar de la Renta

Muslim clients have been valuable patrons for the French couture houses. Today, top European and American fashion design houses have begun designing clothing to satisfy the needs of Muslim women by closing slits, adding sleeves, and substituting opaque for sheer fabrics.

Famed couture client, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Masser, lent four of her ensembles to the exhibition. There is a pants outfit by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, a gown and matching turban by Jean Paul Gaultier, a white dress cape and turban designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior.

Couture designs commissioned by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned

In each case, there are lengthy descriptions of the alterations done to make them modest enough for her Highness to wear at various public appearances.

Al-Kouture designer scarves refashioned into naqib face masks

Across the aisle, there is a photograph of three women wearing Chanel, Valentino, and Gucci silk scarves as niqabs (face veils). Wesaam Al-Badry refashioned them for Al-Kouture, and they illustrate the influence of Western consumerism on the traditional Muslim culture.

Two piece dress by Mary Katrantzou for The Modist

There is a 2017 Mary Katrantzou printed shirt and skirt on display. The designer showcased modest designs in Qatar in 2011, and she creates capsule collections for luxury e-tailer The Modist.

Among the lesser-known designers represented in the exhibition is Nzinga Knight, whose pink silk jersey wrap dress and scarf are on display. Ms. Knight, who was at the press preview, has the distinction of being the first Muslim contestant on Project Runway in 2014.

Nzingu Knight and her pink dress on exhibition

The Brooklyn born New York-based designer studied fashion design and fine arts at the prestigious Pratt Institute School of Design in New York City, where she received a BFA in Fashion Design. Ms. Knight was recognized by the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) with an award for her achievements in design. She currently heads up her eponymous company known for its edgy yet modest designs.

Designs by Celine Semaan Vernon and Rami Hatta

One particularly exciting section features the gender-neutral designs of Rami Hatta. One does not usually associate gender-neutral with Islam. Rami believes that the oversized fit of her clothing can serve the needs of those who dress modestly and also help erase gender stereotypes.

Celine Semaan Vernon’s statement-making flight jacket and Banned scarf

Alongside this is Celine Semaan Vernon’s “U.S. Constitution and First Amendment” flight jacket. Celine designed it in 2017, in response to President Trump’s immigration ban on several Muslim majority countries. Ms. Vernon is a 37-year-old Lebanese-Canadian designer, advocate, and writer.

The immigration ban was the inspiration for Celine’s scarf. It is printed with the word ‘Banned,’ and the background is the night sky over the Middle East where many of the prohibited countries are located. She is also the founder of The Slow Factory, a sustainable fashion agency that aims to re-architect fashion into a zero-waste, circular economy.

Marine Serre Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear

The Fall 2020 runway shows are winding down in Paris. Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but in general, it’s all about longer lengths, oversized clothing, and the employment of luxurious fabrics that swaddle the body. In some cases, models are covered from head to toe. The runways are rife with elegant, modest designs, many similar to the clothes on display at the “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibition.

Marilyn Kirschner
Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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