Monday, April 09, 2007

Fashion and Cultural Identity

Thursday's New York Times had a very interesting article on the struggles of Muslim women in America who want to respect their faith while dressing fashionably. For the women profiled in this article, deciding what to wear each day has political and social meaning. On one hand, they must consider how other Muslims will judge their clothing, hair and makeup, but as young, working, urban women, they also want to fit in with the larger society, and use fashion as a form of personal expression. Muslim women face different expectations, and balancing these responsibilities with their own wants and impulses is very challenging. I can't imagine having to not only severely limit what I could wear, much less feeling like I had to choose between following my culture and religion. Even more, being perceived as a political enemy within my own country just for my choice of clothing is just mind-boggling.

When discussing culture, whether in the context of assimilation or conflict, we often focus on identities, power and political control. When it comes down to it, though, culture is how groups of people live their daily lives. Fashion is how cultures groups express identity- the hijab (traditional Muslim head scarf) was discussed in the article, but it's certainly not the first article of clothing or style that has a politically charged meaning. Think back to the Zoot Suit, the British punk movement, the Afro, even the shift from dresses to trousers on women in the early 20th century... what we choose to put on our body (or do to our body in many cases, but that's another post) has political and social meaning.

Even more interesting is how groups adopt styles, shifting the meaning entirely, like when rap and R&B artists in the late 90's started wearing Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, symbols of Upper Class WASP America, or when anti-establishment punk is repackaged and sold to rich suburban kids at Hot Topic in malls across America. We rarely stop to think about how certain trends developed, and what their original meaning was, but designers and retailers consciously choose what to sell, and we (at least subconsciously) realize that we make a statement with everything we put on our bodies. And we still continue to judge and make assumptions about others based on clothing, hair, makeup, etc. You may not have to worry about being perceived as a terrorist when you dress yourself in the morning (in the case of the American Muslims wearing traditional clothing) but you can't forget that you're still being judged.


Anonymous said...

Hi Meg, that was a really interesting read. Funny how society has those tags at the ready. For Muslim women of faith, I guess it's their faith before their fashion sense, and then to some Muslim women it's faith meets fashion (like with my sister's mother in law). She has the most exquisite taste in scarves and jewelry and accents, but for the most part, she dresses that way only at certain functions. For the most part, she has wears what she wants.

HijabiApprentice said...

This was a great post! I am a scarf wearing modest dressing Muslimah and it does get hard to find the balance. I tend to err in the side of modesty but I take pride in looking cute and occasion appropriate ;).

Thanks again!

[a} said...

Excellent post!!!!! I can't thank you enough!!!!!!!!!!