The Power of Fashion
Issue 100 January 2013
Fashion is powerful, but not always good. Sarah Joseph declares Muslims can create a viable counter narrative to the excesses of the fashion industry.
Fashion was, for me, one of the more contentious additions to emel—I had been brought up in the industry. My mother owned one of the world’s top model agencies with offices in London, Milan, Los Angeles, and Tokyo throughout her 30-year career. Surrounded by fashion-conscious models, fashion shoots, fashion shows, and fashion magazines from three weeks old, I was all fashioned-out by the age of eight. I had seen how the industry worked, and I did not like it. Yet my experience is nothing to what happens today. When I was growing up, the models were size 10 as standard. Today, such sizing would be considered ‘plus size’ in the industry. Photoshopping makes models in mainstream magazines and advertising campaigns appear as illusions, not reality. With all of this as my background, how could there possibly be a “Muslim angle” to fashion?
There is no denying the power and pull of an industry worth close to one trillion dollars. The British fashion industry alone is worth over $32.75 billion. The luxury group LVMH—Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy—has global sales of $14.4 billion. Muslims are not immune to that allure, and focus groups wanted fashion in the magazine. So the question was how could I overcome my considerable mistrust of the industry, and more importantly, how could we conceptualise fashion from within an Islamic framework?
The Qur’an itself references the need for, and the objectives of, clothing, describing it as a protection, and one of God’s blessing (16:81). The purpose of clothing is so that one can be recognised as upright (33:59). Clothing is used as part of a metaphor for paradise (18:31), and for the closeness of the marital relationship (2:187). It is to cover and to beautify: “O children of Adam! Indeed, We have bestowed upon you from on high the knowledge of making garments to cover your nakedness, and as a thing of beauty: but the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all. Herein lies a message from God, so that man might take it to heart.” (7:26) Given that the Divine has made so many references to clothing, the question we asked ourselves was how fashion could be relevant to the broad spectrum of social issues, and how it can make one more God conscious.
The first concern was the use of models. I was not comfortable with using models for any fashion feature. How would they be chosen? Should they be tall or average height, blonde or brunette, Western, Arab, Asian, size 0, 4, 8, 12, 16? Should they wear a scarf if they didn’t normally wear one? Many Muslim fashion companies do use models—tall, thin, Eastern European girls with full make-up, tiny figures, and a scarf stuck on. Instinctively, I would not agree, and so we had to find different ways of displaying clothes: we hung them from trees, on mannequins, and laid out on the floor, but there is nothing quite like a human wearing clothes to give them shape and form. So we tried what affectionately became known in the office as the “French Revolution Approach”—we used models shown with their heads cut off. This carried with it huge logistical problems during the fashion shoot, and many readers found the pictures strange. Eventually, I agreed that people could be used to display the clothes, and we would show their faces, so long as they were ordinary people and not models. We would not choose the individuals, rather any person could volunteer. This would mean that our fashion was real and attainable.
Muslim tradition has dealt with fashion in many ways. In terms of fabric, silk and cotton were historically made of a very high quality in the Muslim world. Egyptian cotton is internationally famed. Renaissance painters would paint Arabesque on the edges of the silk in paintings of The Holy Family so as to be associated with silk from the Muslim world. But fashion extends beyond the fabric of the garment, it permeates every aspect of its style. In emel we have covered designers, High Street designs, the layered look, traditional clothing, protest clothing, men’s and women’s clothing, children’s clothes, second-hand fashion, ethical and fair trade, and many more themes and styles.