The Modest Style Effect of “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” at the de Young Museum


September 22, 2018 – January 6, 2019 

 San Francisco - Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore the complex and diverse nature of Muslim dress codes worldwide. It was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, this ground breaking exhibition examines how Muslim women – those who cover and those who do not – have become arbiters of style within and beyond their communities and, in so doing, have drawn attention to the creative variations and nuances of their daily lives. 

In December, 2018 I visited this compelling fashion exhibit at the de Young Museum, which has captivated fashion initiators across the country. The exhibition was observed as a fitting companion to “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, formerly on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Both exhibitions considered the relationship between ancient multicultural faiths and the contemporary world, while showcasing objects that have extensive appeal. But Muslim culture and dress have often been seen as something more exotic, even though as co-curator Laura Camerlengo reminds us, it’s not necessarily an East versus West thing: Islam is a global religion”. 

Upon entering the exhibit, I observed an atmosphere of austerity, but as I moved further into the premier gallery I was drawn to the dynamic rows of modestly crafted Muslim sportswear, daywear & evening wear; all with varying degrees of body coverage. 


Part of Camerlengo and curator in charge Jill D’Alessandro’s task was to demystify Muslim dress, which has often in the past been under appreciated or misrepresented. I was delighted to see this show wasn’t about the severity & restrictive aspects of garments like the burka or hijab; on the contrary the exhibit featured garments & ensembles that celebrated the diverseness & creativity of modest dressing. Modest fashion has become an important market that the larger fashion industries are finally becoming aware of as a significant demographic. 

Modest fashion worn by Muslim women has often been painted as a monotone design & viewed within the American popular culture, with images of heads, faces and bodies in swaths of dark, somber fabrics. But in the past decade, due to the high profile fashion bloggers & immeasurable social media coverage, revealing the innovative varying degrees of body cover, this modest style of dressing has become an International fashion success story. 

While spotlighting places, garments and styles from around the world, the exhibition focuses on clothing that responds to individual and collective interpretations of modesty. It considers how Muslim women define themselves and are defined by their dress, providing a picture of the current moment in Muslim modest fashion. As Islam is a multicultural faith, the dress of its exponents are shaped not only by religious traditions but also by local customs and global trends. Contemporary Muslim Fashions looks at parts of the globe where designers are creating and consumers are wearing highly fashionable garments, with a specific focus on the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and diasporic communities throughout Europe and the United States. 

“Fashion is at its best when it both adapts to the needs of society and reflects its social and political undercurrents”, says Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts.

“It is in this transformative moment where we now find modest fashion”. 

In addition to approximately 80 ensembles drawn from established and emerging designers in high-end fashion, streetwear, and couture, the exhibition includes about 40 photographs that will contextualize the garments on display. Using social media as primary source material, Contemporary Muslim Fashions credits much of the recent, popular awareness of this sector to bloggers and influencers who took to social media when they could not find representations of themselves in traditional media. 


The exhibition galleries were designed by Hariri & Hariri Architecture, and explore the dramatic interplay between the seen and the unseen, the idea of being covered and protected yet looking contemporary and quite fashionable.  

In recent years, there has been increased awareness of Muslim consumers as an important segment of the global fashion industry. With more than 1.8 billion practicing Muslims worldwide-among them, 250,000 living in the Bay Area alone – the complexity of this topic is both wide and very refined. In the West, however, the image of Muslim women is often quite monochromatic.

After I viewed the premier gallery, which features a comprehensive introduction to the modest fashion industry (currently valued at $44 billion per year) I saw that the profiles of established & rising Muslim designers are boosted by major Western retailers, which was demonstrated by the recent Verona collection at Macy’s. Around the world ‘modest fashion’ weeks promote these various designers who are creating more covered styles.

Headscarves, perhaps the most noticeable element of a Muslim woman’s dress. Through dynamic photography from artists like Alessia Gammarota, Rania Matar and Tanya Habjouqa, the gallery showcases the high degree of diversity in head coverings and the lack of them, across regions, generations and individuals.

The exhibition’s regional explorations begin in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East; with the work of creative designers who are taking regional garments and making them uniquely their own. Designers such as Faiza Bouguessa, Mashael Alrajhi and Wadha Al Hajri, among the most notable. The traditional abaya- a simple, loose black garment designed to cover the body from neck to feet- has received more modern updates by designers whose experiences are informed by their transcontinental lifestyles, mores and fashion educations. Today’s abayas reveal the infusion of regional textile traditions and global fashion trends to form alternatively new garments that appeal to both local and global audiences. 

IMG_4491 (1).jpg

Moving on to Indonesia, Contemporary Muslim Fashions explores the luxurious textile and costume traditions of a country that is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, and whose designers such as Itang Yunasz, Khanaan Luqman Shamlan and NurZahra, employ sumptuous fabrics in vibrant colors and complex patterns in their modest-wear designs. Similar trends are found in neighboring Malaysia, where an outburst of social media platforms and e-commerce has produced a rapidly growing market for halal (referring to something permissible by Islamic law) beauty, technology, food, and fashion, such as Blancheur, as well as a high demand for bespoke looks by the Muslim elite represented by forefront designers Melinda Looi, Bernard Chandran, and FIZIWOO. 


The exhibition’s final section explores high-end fashion designs that have been customized to accommodate Muslim women’s diverse approaches to their  modesty considerations. Since I’m drawn to vividly colored designs; I equated this section to a series of resplendent fireworks, each garment color appearing more dazzling than the last, a truly splendid display of fashions that were designed for Muslim clients that have been important patrons of the couture houses of Paris. These designs were often adapted for regional and religious sensibilities. Today, this tradition continues among the Western fashion houses that offer special collections for Ramadan and Eid, such as Oscar de la Renta, as well as retailers that collaborate with the international brands to form modest capsule collections, such as The Modist. The growing desire for modest and stylish fashions for Muslim women has given rise to a market that serves diverse needs even beyond Muslim communities. 

Special Thanks to the San Francisco DeYoung Museum’s website article; regarding further information about the curating layout, social media information and special photographs for the Contemporary Muslims Fashions exhibition, c. 2018.