Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the fashion critic for The Washington Post.
It may be that someone steeped in Islamic traditions would find Elizabeth Bucar’s exploration of style among Muslim women in Iran, Turkey and Indonesia simplistic. Indeed, the main message in her book, “Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress,” is quite basic: Fashion among Muslim women, whether they are fully cloaked in a chador or wearing an Alexander McQueen skull-print scarf as a head covering, along with skinny jeans and a fur vest, is varied, highly individual and nuanced. At times, their style is intentionally political and subversive. At others, it is aimed purely at modesty — as the faith dictates. And sometimes, it is all about fashion, beauty and personal delight.
But Bucar, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University, balances her academic inquiry with the wide-eyed surprise of an eager fashion student. She boils down generations of political change into a few easily digestible paragraphs. Historians might be horrified, but this isn’t a book about revolution in Iran or colonialism in Indonesia. It isn’t even about the traditions of batik fabric or styles of dress in the Ottoman Empire, although there is a bit of that here. “Pious Fashion” is a look at contemporary dress and how it can help us see the “Muslim community” as a vast array of individuals rather than an inscrutable monolith.
Bucar argues that fashion is a form of communication and self-identity. Some readers will find that position alone provocative. Using pious fashion as a tool for exploring diversity among Muslim women will undoubtedly be seen as both subversive and political by many. But Bucar strives to be nonjudgmental and apolitical. As part of her research, she organized focus groups, visited college campuses, interrogated shopkeepers and loitered in bustling neighborhoods like an itinerant street-style photographer. It should not take all of that effort just to document what should be so obvious to non-Muslims. But this is where we are in 2017: overwhelmed by assumptions, prejudices, ignorance, miscommunication.
Bucar is an able and reassuring guide. She tells her readers up front that she is not a fashion expert. Her mission is not to opine on whether a woman’s coat is in vogue. She is not, as she says, Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada,” casting judgment from on high. But Bucar has taken a lesson from Priestly’s famous monologue, in which the powerful fashion editor coolly traces the history and meaning of a frumpy “cerulean ” sweater worn by her dismissive and self-satisfied assistant, Andy.
“This monologue helps to show the value of the scholarly study of fashion. The bookish Andy thinks fashion is of interest only to silly, superficial people. She thus represents the long-standing scholarly tendency to devalue the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon,” Bucar writes. “Close reading of pious fashion allows us to understand the nuances of Muslim women’s dress. Just as a blue sweater is never just blue, pious fashion is never merely clothing.”
When readers meet Bucar, it’s 2004 and she’s flying to Tehran to study Persian. Before her trip, she’s been struggling with her attire, attempting to figure out how best to abide by local laws dictating that women wear proper hijab. This is more challenging than she expects, because “hijab” is not a uniform or a specific dress code. It simply means modest dress, and that is open to interpretation depending on occasion, geography, social class and a host of other elements. It is not as simple as covering herself from head to toe in black wool because, under the wrong circumstances, that would be akin to a man showing up for a business meeting in Silicon Valley wearing a top hat and morning coat: overly formal, terribly self-conscious and a bit ridiculous.
There are nuances of pious fashion that are rooted in history and politics. And those nuances change from country to country, as do the terms used to describe modest attire. Bucar focuses her attention mostly on 20-something women because they were most accessible to her and because, she believes, they are most attuned to and interested in fashion. She speaks to groups of them in Tehran, where hijab is dictated by law.
She visits Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where pious dress is a choice. There, it is generally seen as the culmination of a personal journey of self-awareness and self-improvement. It is a style of dress, but it is also a personal commitment.
In Istanbul, Bucar learns that women’s clothing styles are a reflection of the tensions within Turkey itself: its European-ness, its secularism, its Islamic character. Here, too, a head covering is a matter of choice.
For those women who decide to cover their heads, the choice of scarf is significant. Women experiment to find the most flattering color and the most attractive way of securing it around their heads. Perhaps they wear a little faux bun under the scarf to create the illusion of an abundance of (hidden) hair and to elongate their faces. They consider how the scarf will accent the rest of their attire. And in Istanbul, they will often fold the scarf in such a way that the identifying brand tag hangs off the back for all to see.
In Iran, pious fashion means not showing the curves of the body. In Indonesia, it means covering the body, but an hourglass figure is celebrated. There’s no tension between being modest and being attractive. And in Turkey, dressing modestly carries a particular onus to be beautiful and stylish as well, lest a woman look old-fashioned and out of touch in a country that strives to look forward.
Pious fashion is not a defense against scrutiny and critique. Indeed, Hayrunnisa Gul, who was the first Turkish first lady to wear a headscarf, was brutally criticized by the Turkish elite for being provincial and by other Muslim women who thought she simply had bad taste.
While Tehran has its hijab enforcers, what’s appropriately pious is something that seems to be forever in flux. It’s not simply a question of whether a woman should or should not show her hair or her ankles, it is also a matter of how she chooses to cover herself. Is it too ostentatious? Too matronly? Too matchy-matchy? The answer is influenced by cultural norms that are, in part, dictated by other women, local fashion designers and . . . fashion bloggers. Instagram, it seems, knows no boundaries.
Bucar disabuses readers of any preconceived ideas that women who adhere to an aesthetic of modesty are unfashionable or frumpy. They are far from it. Indeed, a photograph of a woman in Turkey wearing an ankle-length leather dress — fitted through the bodice and with a flared skirt — paired with a lace scarf and a structured handbag exudes sophistication and elegance. What she wears and how she wears it are her choice. And she has chosen skillfully.
The source of some of Bucar’s most striking images of women in Tehran is a fashion blog called the Tehran Times, founded by an Iranian fashion designer named Araz Fazaeli. The blog includes photographs of art as well as pictures of women snapped on the street — women who are dressed in ways that would delight any social-media addict.
“The main issue in Iran is not the dress code,” Fazaeli says. “Fashion is creative enough to make its way through any restrictions.”
This is true. Fashion always finds a way.
But the question that keeps nagging is this: Why should there be any restrictions to begin with? Why should a government create laws that impinge on a woman’s right to choose her attire freely? Bucar notes that when a culture invests so much of its identity in the appearance, in the piousness of women, it also is investing women with a cultural and social power. Perhaps. It’s an interesting argument but not one that Bucar makes convincingly.
Still, she introduces her readers to the lively Muslim women in her focus groups. They are thoughtful and stylish, funny, opinionated, devout and delightfully bitchy when they are asked to assess the style chops of their peers and some of the local fashion editors.
In the conversations Bucar has with them, we learn that they, like women who call themselves Methodist, Catholic, Jewish or atheist, are simply trying to present their best selves to the public. And no matter who you are or where you live, that can be complicated.
By Elizabeth Bucar
Harvard. 235 pp. $29.95