CAIRO – Interweaving their faith with modern fashion, Australia Muslims are creating a new, flourished brand of modest clothes that apply to the needs of Islamic faith and everyday life.
“Modest fashion is one of the fashion industry’s largest potential growth areas,” says Glynis Jones, curator of Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia, a ground-breaking exhibition opening at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
“Many Muslims born here are forging their identity without some of the cultural background that impacted on their parents’ generation,” she says.
Living in Australia for decades, a new generation of young Muslim women was tapping into a new industry of modest Muslim clothes.
Fashion designer Howayda “Helena” Moussa, 35, was one of the young Australian women who took the challenge of creating a Muslim fashion after donning hijab for the first time.
“It was the most amazing feeling I had in my life,” she says. “I suddenly felt protected and safe.”
“If I was speaking to a man, he would look into my eyes, not at my chest,” she says. “He would talk to me.”
The moment Moussa decided to replace her backless summer dresses with long sleeves and hijab is still remarkable for the young Muslim who loves fashion, “but traditional Muslim outlets have mostly very basic things”, she says. “Very dark things.”
At such time, the young Muslims decided to offer with her sister Hanadi “Hannah” Chehab, 41, more fashion-friendly options in Sydney’s Muslim heartland, Bankstown.
“We even took the [long-sleeved full-length traditional Muslim tunic] abaya and made it funky,” Chehab says, giggling.
Although she chooses not to adopt the hijab herself, Chehab is sympathetic to her sister’s choice and is engrossed in designing for her.
“We both love designer clothes, we love up-to-date, feminine colourful fashion and accessories so that’s what we sell.”
Muslims, who have been in Australia for more than 200 years, make up 1.7 percent of its 20-million population.
Islam is the country’s second largest religion after Christianity.
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
The flourishing industry was inviting new participants with different stories who held new events like Faith, Fashion, Fusion as well as My Dress, My Image, My Choice.
“I started to wonder why I believed what I did,” Susan Carland, 32, Melbourne sociologist and consultant for Faith, Fashion, Fusion, said.
“I was raised in a Christian family but I started looking for answers to life, the universe and everything.”
She converted to Islam and assumed hijab at 19.
“I liked the idea of a religion that encouraged questioning,” she says.
At the regular event My Dress, My Image, My Choice, Carlend has answered thousands of questions about the religious, political and individual significance of her clothes.
“People are fascinated, horrified and curious because there is just so much baggage associated with our clothes,” Carland says.
“They’re either a symbol of repression, or they’re a personal [liberating] choice, or they’re something else … We need to see Muslim women as more than this piece of fabric.”
The combination of religious tradition with modern Western culture was producing a fascinating Islamic fashion, Jones said.
“They’re renegotiating their faith and their place in Australian society. And they’re interpreting the word ‘modesty’ in many different ways … It’s a very big choice to express your faith so visibly,” she said.
“It’s inevitable you’ll become a kind of ambassador for your faith.”