It was the pursuit of all things chic that brought nearly 200 Muslimahs from all across Philadelphia to the campus of St. Joseph’s University last month.
More specifically, they had come for the Riyaadah Fashion Show, an annual showcase sometimes held in conjunction with the Riyaadah Convention, a conference that is usually men-centered. The fashion show is a women-only event, and photography from guests is banned to protect the modesty of the women strutting their stuff down the catwalk. Despite not being the ones on the runway, women in the audience came dressed to the nines.
Brightly-colored overgarments were offset by six-inch platform heels and beat faces. Hijabs were color blocked and creatively pinned, knotted and draped. A Muslimah in a lime green niqab adorned in an elaborate gold headpiece chain politely excused herself as she moved past two sisters in animal print khimars before taking her seat in the front row.
This year’s theme was “Modesty in the Millennium,” and as organizers tell it, the show is a chance for up-and-coming Islamic designers to showcase the latest in modesty wear. Yet for many outsiders looking in, modeling overgarments and head covers is not typically what comes to mind when thinking about what’s fashionable.
“I think that there is a misconception that Muslim women aren’t supposed to take pride in their appearance,” said Fatima Rashid, who is a board member of the Riyaadah Convention Steering Committee. “I think that people see sisters in burkas, which is a cultural thing and specific to only certain parts of the world, and believe it applies to everyone. Actually, that is not the truth. If you went to China, Malaysia, Africa and look around here in the U.S., you would see a lot more Muslim women expressing themselves through what they wear.”
Rashid has been coordinating the fashion show since its inception in 2001. It started as a way to give the women something to do during the national convention. The conference attracts thousands of men and their families from all across the country for a weekend of male-centered competitive sports and activities. But what started out as an event to help pass the time, soon morphed into one of the convention’s main attractions.
“In this particular area of the country, fashion has become a major component of the culture of Muslim women. And it has taken off as a business,” Rashid said. “There are tons of designers, boutiques and other kinds of apparel shops in Philly catering to the Muslim woman’s fashion sensibility by Muslim women.”
Philadelphia has one of the biggest populations of Muslims in the entire country, with more than 200,000 followers of Islam calling the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection home. Eighty-five percent of them are African American. Rashid is a second-generation Black Muslim whose parents converted in the ’70s. Between them, they had nine children.
“For economic reasons, mom would make all of our clothing,” Rashid said. “Sometimes I would go along with her to the fabric store – that’s how I learned how to pick out fabric. In fact, that is how a lot of Muslim women learn to sew here. It was a bonding experience.”
A bonding experience, which at one time was bred out of need. In spite of its growing presence in Philadelphia, Islam is still relatively new to North America. In fact, many Americans’ first interaction with the religion came by way of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks. Some media outlets pushed narratives that indirectly (and sometimes directly) attempted to paint most followers of the faith as terrorists and nonconformist foreigners. Consequently, there are a lot of misconceptions about Islamic customs and practices, particularly around the way they dress.
But as Rashid reminds us, the garments are only meant to symbolize their modesty. And they are modest because, in the Quran, God commands them to be. As such, loose-fitting clothing, long pants, long dresses and hair coverings are all meant to not only identify themselves as followers of Allah, but to also limit earthly temptations, which might distract them from their personal relationship with God.
Although the strict clothing requirements apply to both men and women, it is the women who cover who are often unfairly stigmatized as oppressed fanatics and fundamentalists. But as Rashid notes, the act of covering is a choice. And while Muslims wear their religion on their sleeves, it doesn’t mean that the sleeve can’t be chic.
“Just because you see a woman in an all-black niqab doesn’t mean that they are not wearing some top-tier designer or in high-quality fabric, which is imported from overseas,” Rashid said. “I know people who travel to New York to get fabric because they don’t want anybody in Philly to have what they have. So while they are fully covered, it does not mean that they are not showcasing their identity.”
Saniyyah Bilal, co-organizer of the Riyaadah Fashion Show and founder of Curio Styling Consultants concurs. “Yes, you have to dress to the rules of Islam. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your dress and style just because you are modest.”
Bilal has been doing fashion styling in the entertainment industry for three and a half of years now. Her work has appeared in New York Fashion Week, at Ann Taylor Loft and in Vibe Vixen. Although much of her work centers primarily around styling non-Muslim women, Bilal said that she has seen an increase in demand for her services from women in the Islamic community as well.
As Islam continues its rapid growth worldwide – and becomes integrated into more secular, Christian-based societies – Muslimahs, in particular, are looking for contemporary attire. They want garb that puts them in more than just a simple overgarment and a khimar. Bilal said that they seek evening dresses and business suits for work. They want classic lines and vintage. They want patterns, bold colors and plenty of gaud. And most importantly they want clothing, which respects their faith as well as their styling choices.
Bilal said that a lot of the inspiration for the Islamic modesty industry in the U.S. comes from overseas, particularly from places like Dubai, Turkey, and Indonesia, where dress codes are part of the culture. However, she also notes the role that the African-American community has played in revolutionizing the modesty industry here in North America. Most notably, the Black Islamic communities in Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the DMV area, which have cultivated unique and yet modest style.
“I would say that Muslims in Detroit are known for their turban style hijabs while the DMV area is more eclectic,” Bilal said. “And Philly is known for wearing more colors and dresses and skirts. We definitely have our own ways of doing things, which I think is good because our individual styles help to show the diversity of Islam.”
Bilal said that the rise of the fashionable Muslimah wasn’t without debate. And some in the community wondered if the colors and bold prints and designs were an attempt to sidestep strict modesty requirements. But as mainstream America continued its finicky infatuation with Islam, the demand to understand and embrace the culture, especially in the face of those who opt to vilify it, also increased.
Not only were Muslim designers being invited to feature their work in New York Fashion Week, but the proliferation of social media gave voice to Muslim bloggers, particularly in the realm of fashion, who also provide valuable insight into the culture. Bilal said that by 2011, many detractors grew to appreciate how the Muslim fashionistas were helping to paint the religion in a positive light.
“There is a word in Islam called Dawah, which basically means showcasing Islam in a positive way by Muslim having the best behavior as possible,” she said. “So I believe that being both modest and fashionable, according to Islam, shows the outside world, particularly non-Muslims, that who we are is not what you necessarily see or hear about in the media.”
Bilal also added that “I think it helped too that many non-Muslim women want to dress modestly. Modesty fashion is a sense of understanding that you don’t have to be revealing in how you dress to be considered fashionable. And I think that is what Muslim women in fashion help bring to the table.”
It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, which has caught the attention of more mainstream and secular designers. In particular, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, and Oscar de la Renta, who have all either introduced or explored Ramadan-inspired modesty capsule collections, which appeal to women both of and outside of the faith.
With some mainstream design houses putting more emphasis on appealing to this new demographic of fashionistas, the need for authentic representation of the culture is also being considered. “I think it is important for these women to see themselves in the industry,” said Nailah Lymus, founder of UnderWraps, which is the world’s first Muslim and modesty modeling agency.
In addition to seeing themselves in the industry, Lymus said she started the New York-based agency three years ago as a way to help Muslim and non-muslim yet modest women who wanted to model, but did not want to defile their religious and personal beliefs. “In my travels and meeting different Muslims, they had what it took to be a model including height and weight, but didn’t entertain the idea because they felt that in order to be a model, they had to conform to the sexy ideas of modeling including taking off their hajibs,” Lymus said. “But fashion does allow for different avenues of expression. And I am here to show them that they don’t have to sacrifice themselves and their comfort levels just for the sake of making money.”
With the tagline, “covered is the new couture,” Lymus also aims to promote modesty in an industry, which she says has gotten away from its roots. She points to fashion eras of the past, which catered to women and their current needs as mothers and career women as opposed to unrealistic ideas of how women should be.
Thus far, UnderWraps models have appeared in and done both editorial and runway modeling, including editorial campaigns, New York Fashion Week and photo shoots. Some of the models have even done secular, but positive, music videos. Lymus understands her agency has its niche appeal. And designers and fashion magazines who hire her models must go the extra mile to ensure that they are providing safe spaces for them to work. “Our models just can’t get dressed in unisex spaces like everybody else,” she notes.
But for those who are willing to think outside of the box, using Muslim models not only brings positive attention to a show or event but attracts an entire new clientele as well.
“I mean, just look at high-end fashion. Many times the women are covered” Lymus said. “They are making gowns and making layered pieces, cover-ups, and dusters. To me, there will always be a niche for Muslim models because there are already designers designing clothing that Muslim women can wear and do purchase.”
As mainstream design houses continue to draw inspiration as well as customers from Islamic communities, Bilal said that both the mainstream modesty fashion industry as well as the Islamic-American population are also taking some cues from the Black Islamic community. In particular, incorporating bold prints and vibrant colors as well as African-inspired tribal prints, which have long been used to symbolize heritage among the African diaspora.
“As you look into the past, especially when pertaining to the Middle East, there has been a bit of resistance to dressing in that way. But in the last couple of years, you can see more women of different nationalities expressing themselves in colors and styles associated with the African-American community,” Bilal said. “So in that respect, I do think African-American culture and styling is visually appealing enough where lots of people want to emulate it.”
Mercedes Prater of Couture Creations by Kulthulm agrees.
“Even in mainstream America, everything is pulling from the African-American culture,” Prater said. “Now we are seeing more women with full hips and bottoms, which means that there are more sizes for us, and everything isn’t so tight and ill-fitting as it was before. But it is still not perfect.”
A recent convert to Islam, Prater founded her design company two years ago after experiencing difficulty finding contemporary clothing to meet her modest needs. She said that while more luxe clothing lines are expanding their fashion palettes, more commercial, affordable brands have been slow to follow the trend.
“Before I started my company, there really wasn’t enough cute clothes to wear. And there was nowhere to go,” Prater said. “If I went to the mall I would have to buy something too big. And the things people were sewing were boring colors and didn’t have any shape. I am a lively person, so I started making my own things. Then people started asking if I could make them things. That’s when I realized I had something here.”
A self-taught seamstress, Prater describes her clothing line as a modern-day take on the ’50s fashion era, which is known for being high on glamour and short on skin. Although a lot of her business comes from her sisters in the Philadelphia Islamic community, Prater also has an Instagram page, which has helped her share her designs with Muslimahs all across the country. She says, “The thing is, social media allows us to get a glimpse of other people’s style. And, for me, social media has tripled my business in a year.”
As more women began to embrace comfort in their style, Prater said that she is also seeing a higher demand for her designs among non-Muslim sisters. “I honestly think that this comes as more Americans become interested in traveling to more modest countries. They are seeing that there is a place for modesty in the world, which doesn’t require them to dress in layers upon layers of fabric.”
One of the most requested items is her signature swing dress, which can be worn in both corporate America as well as for a night out on the town. Prater said that she often gets requests from Islamic sisters who may have received a promotion at work or a new job and don’t necessarily want to wear an overgarment to mark their special occasion. “Also, my clients definitely love color and prints,” Prater said. “You can get black anywhere.”
Prater said that what most people get wrong about modesty fashion is thinking that the only way to be covered is to hide behind big clothing and dull, boring colors. What fashion-forward Muslimahs are bringing to the table is an idea that modest women can be trendy. “I like to make clothing that women feel comfortable in, ” Prater said. “I want them to feel good about themselves when they wear something of mine.”