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"Contemporary Muslim Fashions" at de Young Museum

The de Young Museum in San Francisco, CA unveiled their new exhibition "Contemporary Muslim Fashions," on September 21st and has been mesmerizing visitors since.

Since 2001, Americans have exhibited intense and emotional reactions to Islam and those who practice it in the country and across the world. The hostility and fear shown in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was reminiscent of the reactions to Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

The following decade has seen violence, public displays of animosity and ignorance towards Muslim people. Artists, activists, social workers and non-profit groups responded with fact-checked information, pleas for kindness and understanding, rebuttals and calls for peace, hoping to combat the ignorance behind the fear.

The terror that once blinded Americans' against empathy and cooperation has waned and the war-hungry monster that reared from the dust of the World Trade Center has calmed down. Most of the country doesn't see the entire religion of Islam and all of its practitioners as the enemy anymore, but understanding of Muslim culture is still very low.

Muslim culture and dress is still seen as exotic and "other". Even further, many people in America today find Muslim practices to be oppressive. When Max Hollein, the director at the de Young museum at the time, announced his idea for the exhibit, he as met with very intense reactions from the community.

Some of the emails he received said, in very harsh terms, that this is not the time to celebrate Muslim culture. Others were worried the exhibit would idealize the oppression of women. The museum also heard from people of Islamic faith who found the notion of “fashion” antithetical to the religion’s modest dress codes. For them, the very idea of the show seemed sacrilege.

“We knew from the start we were entering new territory,” said Mr. Hollein, now the director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The idea wasn’t to provoke,” he said. “We wanted to share what we’ve been seeing in Muslim fashion with the larger world in a way that could create a deeper understanding. Museums are one of the few places where you can have a deep and non-polemic debate about the intersection of cultures.”

The 80 ensembles on display are a captivating fusion of fashion and faith, modesty and modernity. All of the pieces were designed to cover the body according to Islamic principals, which sounds quite restricting but the wide range of fashionable pieces say otherwise.

The exhibit challenges Muslim stereotypes and shows Islam as a global culture that can be expressed in more ways than previously believed by many of us who know very little of the practices and principals. People often see this faith as harsh, oppressive and confining but these pieces express the beauty and joy that lives within Islamic communities.

Islam feels more relatable and present through this exhibit. It feels less far away from the reality we built for ourselves. And one can't help but find the culture intriguing once viewing the gorgeous pieces on display.

The curators heard the feminist critique that Muslim head coverings, such as hijabs, are symbols of patriarchal oppression, which was my first thought, too.

Reina Lewis, a professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London and leading expert on modest fashion — which she calls “a cross-faith movement” — joined the curatorial team and addressed these critiques.

Her perspective is that “some women try to create change from within, and that we all live complex and contradictory lives.” She also noted that some women wear a hijab on occasion, or for particular stretches of time, and that it’s not always a clear-cut case of allegiance or rejection.

The exhibit reflects this sense of variety and fluidity. For example, while some mannequins wear hijabs, others go bareheaded. And the hijabs appear in a striking array of colors and styles. The hijabs on display don't feel oppressive. Rather, they look so fashionable that one would opt to wear it for it's beauty.

More than displaying beautiful fashion, the de Young Museum is opening new discussions and revealing different perspectives on a culture little discussed in America.

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