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.”
“Fashion is a social force that functions effectively not only as an economic engine but as a semiotic system that transmits social and political messages by means of nonverbal language rich in signs, symbols and iconography.” - Ayala Raz, The Equalizing Shoe
For most people, shoes are not the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Jewish cultural heritage. However, after taking a look at Jews and Shoes, a compilation of fourteen academic essays on the apparently unique relationship Jewish people have had with shoes, one must rethink the assumption that shoes are of no particular importance.
Given the Jewish people’s legacy as eternal wanderers, it makes sense that footwear may have taken on a deeper meaning for them. However, this book is far more detailed than that. Split into four thematic sections, it covers a variety of cultural instances where shoes play an important role: religion and the Bible, memorials, political ideology and the arts. To my mind, the strongest essay in this book is a fascinating analysis that questions the commodity fetishism of the piles of shoes found at Holocaust memorials. Having never been to a Holocaust memorial myself, I was surprised to learn of their emphasis on displaying the personal items of those interred and killed at the camps to show the magnitude of the numbers of possessions that were methodically sorted into piles by Nazis intending to redistribute them later. The author, Jeffrey Feldman, does an absolutely superb job of relating memorial attendees’ very visceral reactions to these piles upon piles of shoes of all sorts and the sights, smells, and textures that come from all that rotting leather. The questions posed are not only thought provoking in terms of the legacy of the Holocaust, but about how artefacts and museum objects are structured and displayed in order to evoke an emotional response.