The Politics of Fashion

Words by Nada A.

Identity and fashion are inseparable. What we decide to wear sends an unspoken message to those around us. Consider how clothing is produced--the fast-fashion model has taken root in the industry, with many major companies outsourcing production to oversea sweatshops, usually in countries with predominantly brown workers who are paid severely below a living wage and often exploited or abused. Fashion has become part of colonization, with cheap labor providing often disposable goods to the “West and global economic upper classes”​.

Oftentimes, conversations about sustainability in fashion excludes people of color, when they are in fact at the receiving end of environmental racism and waste colonialism (i.e. western countries literally exporting their waste)​.in recent years, companies like Nike, who produce the Nike hijab, have actually profited from movements disavowing islamophobia while continuing to commit human rights violations in Muslim regions of the world.

I often receive ignorant comments from people who see me in my hijab and tell me ​it’s ok now, I am in America, I don’t need to cover my beauty any longer. ​ I have experienced a spectrum of reactions, stares and unsolicited opinions. The inconvenience of having to explain my personal decision to a stranger may seem trivial, but political agendas revolve around these pieces of fabric as a cover. Laura Bush, the first lady at the time of this quote, cited “saving women from oppression”​ as a reason to go to war in the Middle East as if the west was some sort of poster child for women’s liberation. This reason, given over eighteen years ago, continues to reverberate in the present, with hate crimes against Muslims becoming increasingly prevalent​. Combined with volatile language permeating political spaces, the message of us and them persists, and the image of what a Muslim looks like creates a dangerous uptick in the potential for violence. The diversity of the image of an actual Muslim is “denied visibility by popular culture and media​”​. Even when Muslims are deemed fit for consumption by western media, that image comes in “forms that perpetuate dominant imperial structures.”​.

When I was fourteen and first started wearing a hijab, I didn’t know how to dress and feel beautiful or confident or even fashionable. There were no images of beauty associated with Muslim women, especially ones wearing the headscarf. I felt at times both invisible and conspicuous, standing out because I wore a headscarf but remaining unseen as an individual. The only thing I could control back then was the clothing I wore--so I started to experiment. By the time I was sixteen, I was mixing patterns, wearing mismatched eyeshadow on my waterline, and searching for comfort in myself through my fashion identity. Looking back ten years later,, I realize that “being fashionable” was my security blanket, and it helped me reject the stereotypical Muslim imagery I often found pushed onto me.

In her article, ​On the Political Value of Fashion​, Hoda Katebi questions why fashion is often “stripped of its political value” when it is clearly an art form (and art either challenges the status quo or it doesn’t)​. Consider Chicago based Palestine-inspired arts shop Watan—Palestine is a country currently under an apartheid regime, intent on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. As a shop that creates clothing, artwork, and jewelry to celebrate and preserve the Palestinian culture in Diaspora, it falls on one side of the political divide, because wearing a pair of earrings from Watan will never be just a simple gesture to celebrate a cultural identity. The clothes we wear mean something—either we have the privilege to blissfully go on our way without having to care about what our clothes say beyond advertising our favorite band, or we encounter varying degrees of microaggressions and systemic oppression. What else is more telling of such a reality than here in the United States, in which a black or brown body dressed in a hoodie is seen as a threat and more often than not, killed for it?