Modest Fashion Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith By Reina Lewis, ed. (London, I.B. Tauris, 2013. 232 pages.)

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Katherine Bullock



Finally it seems the academic study of hijab has come of age. The contributors
to this collection neither treat it as an object of curiosity or derision, nor wonder
at Muslimahs’ “false consciousness”; rather, they treat this “piece of cloth” and
the accompanying dress code as a “normal” object of academic enquiry. For
example, they expand the investigation to include attire for modest Jewish and
Christian women, as well as for secular women who dress in similar ways albeit
for different reasons. The title captures this broad focus by using modest, rather
than limiting the focus to the hijab. While some Jewish and Christian women
also dress modestly, discursive politics only label the hijab as oppressive.
It is refreshing to read academic studies that treat the hijab with the same
respect that they do modest Jewish or Christian dress codes. This is not to say
that the book necessarily endorses or advocates modest dress, which it most
certainly does not, but only that its contributors (e.g., a journalist and a panel
discussion with bloggers, designers, and entrepreneurs) study in a sociological
way the different meanings behind religious dress while maintaining respect
for those they study. Even Elizabeth Wilson’s “Can We Discuss This?,” which
finds secular women’s recourse to modest dress depressing (“the human body,
clothed or unclothed, is a cause for celebration” [p. 171]) and asks secular feminists
to “fight their corner” (p. 171), respectfully summarizes the rationale behind
modest dress in order to argue against that very rationale.
The contributors also link the study of modest dress with the concept of
“fashion,” which is a matter of women who want to dress modestly but have
to look long and hard for nice, fashionable clothing that meets their standards.
But as Lewis (“Introduction”) and others, like arts journalist Liz Hoggard
(“Modesty Regulators: Punishing and Rewarding Women’s Appearances in
Mainstream Media”) note, the mainstream fashion industry does not treat
modest dress as “fashion.” Therefore, some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim
women entrepreneurs have opened stores as well as designed and sold their
own creations to those who want to dress modestly and yet be stylish and fashionable.
By investigating the link between fashion and modest dress more
closely, the book provides a very refreshing analysis of modest dress. After
all, we receive the obfuscations of “oppressed” or “false consciousness”
through the mainstream fashion lens.
Lewis argues that the Internet has allowed this niche market to blossom ...

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