I’m not sure if Contemporary Muslim Fashion at the De Young, San Francisco, is the right swan song for Director Max Hollein en route to the Met, but it’s a far more interesting exhibition than I expected. His stated impulse was to extend the reach of the classic museum show, inclusivity etc, themes he plans to continue at the Met.
So it’s an interesting counterpoint to “Heavenly Bodies” the fashion show that just came down at the Met and was a truly splendiferous display of both the richness of the Catholic church and the imagery and craft it has spawned over the centuries.
Should one even compare?
What’s most engaging about the Muslim fashion is not the Saint Laurent or Oscar imports of elements of traditional garb or even the glorious embroidery in the more traditional garments but rather the ingenious ways Muslim designers from the world over (and I mean the world over—one forgets how global the religion really is) have owned the religious restrictions. So, the street fashion Instagram stars and the videos that document original takes on the burqa and other hallmarks of religious Muslim garmentry are the things that pop. It makes you want to wear a burqa.
Yet the Burqa (and it’s offshoots the hajib, et al) is one of the most incendiary items of clothing that a woman can don—or remove. Wearing one can mean devotion to religion or to the state. Removal can mean compliance with state law and defiance of religious law (eg France, where it’s not permitted to wear one in the street). Some of the designs seem to skirt that by showing hair or neck, but as I am not as attuned to the gradations I must refrain from commentary on that aspect. (One of the least intriguing displays is of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the consort of an ex Qatari Emir. She looks like a fashion model with expensive camera crews trailing her ‘philanthropic’ efforts in slums and amidst the ruins. (What does this remind you of in Africa this week?)
With the two exhibitions piggybacked what is safe to say is that religion has nurtured some of the most creative artistic responses and some of the most exclusionary. And now nobody gets ruffled when fashion exhibits are in museums anymore. Remember those recent, dark, days?
Check out the Instagram feeds of Langston Hues, Feda Eid, Nabiila Bee if you’re not near San Francisco. Otherwise, the exhibition is up until January.
*The 'Presenting' sponsor of this exhibition is listed as Anonymous. That is a highly unusual situation for a major museum exhibition. In light of recent events surrounding journalist Jamal Khashoggi we are asking the de Young museum to identify the funder.