I’ve never been religious, but wrangling my political convictions and a love for clothing taught me the vicissitudes of negotiating two value systems that are seemingly at odds while attempting to craft an image that reflects my beliefs and is aesthetically pleasing (to me, at least). It is this tension that drives Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, which looks at Muslim women who cover in contemporary England through a series of ethnographic profiles highlighting the diversity of their practices and perspectives. Anthropologist Emma Tarlo attends at length to how individual women reconcile visibly displaying their faith with the desire to dress fashionably and self-expressively.
Tarlo describes in great detail how her subjects adapt and negotiate signifiers of both Islam and style in order to craft their own looks, and she repeatedly emphasizes the great creativity of Muslim dress in the West. Noting that some of her subjects have more than 500 hijabs, she argues that the headscarf serves as “a new form of Muslim personal art” that in many cases “provides the aesthetic focal point of a young girl’s appearance.”
Designer Josiane Perron recently launched her eponymous label, and has now launched three collections of elegantly constructed vintage-like women’s garments, all made entirely in Montreal.
How and when did you get into making clothes?
At the age of ten, when I would amuse myself tracing Betty & Veronica comics, I decided to make a job of it. I was fascinated by Betty’s ability to make her own clothes and by the scope of Veronica’s closet.
What was your personal style like in high school?
I passed through a classic phase, a vintage phase, and a designer brands phase. In high school my personal style was marked by a transition from grunge style to skater, but there was always a touch of Britpop. My biggest influence at the time was music, especially Elliott Smith and Blur.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
My Second yoga jeans! The slightly tiedyed wash is superb, and they’re incredibly comfortable. It’s a real addiction, it’s impossible to wear other jeans once you’ve tried yoga jeans. The only thing that beats my yoga jeans is the pleasure and lightness of wearing a dress.
When I first received My Wonderful World of Fashion, my main concern was that I would write such a raving review that I’d sound like the publisher’s flack. Nina Chakrabarti’s lovely line drawings take us on an interactive tour of fashion history, letting her young audience explore their own twists on the designs en route. Opening it made me want to either take a hot tub back in time to play with it as a 12-year-old, or breed purely for the pleasure of giving it to my girls later.
The book contains a mishmash of colouring, design and basic crafty projects, the latter all simple enough that a ten- to thirteen-year-old (which seems to be her target audience) could do them without adult help. My favourite pages let you colour in iconic designs such as Marc Jacobs’ animal-face flats, Elsa Schiaperelli’s shoe hat, Hussein Chalayan’s wooden corset, Ferragamo platforms and two full pages of Roger Vivier pumps! She also includes guides to a mixed bag of sartorial topics, such as basic embroidery stitches, Yoruba Adire textile patterns and antique Bengali jewels, and throws in the odd project like making paperclip necklaces or pom-poms. She is keen to teach, often showing her audience how to draw an article and then giving them space to get creative with it; so, for example, she’ll include several examples of collar lace to colour in, followed by a page of blank collars where her users might render their own lace patterns.
I decided to test drive this bad-boy with an accomplice, the lovely and talented Miss Eva Barney, 11. Eva is a young designer, currently drawing a portfolio of her own dress patterns around a demanding public school schedule. I couldn’t have asked for a more fun book review buddy, and she helped me catch some of the book’s age-appropriate foibles that I otherwise would have missed.
A recent exhibition in Italy that includes several burqa-wearing Barbies has unleashed, of course, a wave of scandal, much of which is precisely the sort of ill-informed knee-jerk backlash about Islamic women that makes my skin crawl. Typical is Barbara Kay’s assertion, in the National Post, that these are “travesties of multiculturalism” that “make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization.” OK, so fierce rhetoric. But let’s unpack a little, shall we?
The Barbies in question are part of a 500-piece exhibition of Eliana Lorena-dressed dolls at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, backed by Mattel. These one-off dolls will be displayed, then auctioned off by Sotheby’s on behalf of a charity called Rewrite the Future, which benefits children affected by war. In addition to a few fluorescent burqa-clad Barbies, we find geisha Barbies, shalwar khameez Barbies, chador Barbies, and what can only be described as slutty co-ed Barbies. In short, the collection runs the gamut of cheesy feminine stereotypes, by region. So far, I’d say we’re pretty firmly on standard Barbie territory.
Kay writes plaintively that, with this exhibition, “Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.” It seems to me a thundering irony to accuse the burqa of having suddenly rendered Barbie anti-feminist, given that the doll is based on a German hooker called Lilli and has a—shall we say—fraught history as a model for women’s self-images.