Melanie Pitkin, assistant curator
It was back in September 2010. I was preparing for a university research trip to Egypt, which meant I already had modest dress on my mind, when I first heard that my colleague, Glynis Jones, had been given the green light to develop an exhibition on contemporary Muslim women’s fashion in Australia. “Alhamdulillah!”, I thought – quickly followed by “I hope she needs an Assistant Curator. This exhibition is a perfect fit for me!”.
You see, outside of my work at the Powerhouse Museum, some might jokingly describe me as being more “Arab than an Arab”.
Let me explain.
I am studying for a doctorate in Egyptology and I travel to Egypt on an annual basis (to either lead tour groups, research or dig). I’ve also been studying Arabic for the last couple of years – specifically, Fus’ha (the classical Arabic language of the Qur’an which I need in order to be able to read and write) and Egyptian colloquial (which I need to know for speaking). Through these ventures, and an organisation I am involved with called Mirath in Mind, which celebrates and promotes Arab arts, heritage and culture in Australia, I have developed what you might loosely describe as a pretty good understanding of both the ancient and modern Arab world (cultural customs, manners and habits included).
The concept of modest dress also resonated with me, having a second wardrobe marked ‘Egypt’ which comprises long, loose-fitting pants, long sleeved and high neck tops, vests, jackets, scarves and boots. This wardrobe, which I must say has had more thought invested in it that any other item of clothing I’ve ever purchased, has been put together based on their ability to help conceal my body shape and provide more coverage, yet still be stylish enough so that I feel comfortable and confident in what I’m wearing. I still like to go for bright colours and nice cuts, but I layer my garments so as to detract attention from any particular body parts and always complete the outfit with a neck scarf which covers my chest.
But you may be wondering, “why do you need to dress modestly in Egypt?”. Well, first and foremost, Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and it is customary to find both men and women (even the Coptic Christian minorities) conservatively dressed. In the big cities like Cairo and Alexandria, for example, women wear anything from jeans, tops and long-sleeved jackets usually with the hijab (headscarf) to the traditional abaya, niqab or burqa (full-body and face covering). These latter styles of dress are more commonly worn in rural areas. As a foreigner travelling in Egypt, I always respect local customs so similarly adopt a modest form of dress which helps me to not only blend in better, but cope with the different environmental conditions (a head covering, however, is not necessary unless visiting certain mosques). Egypt is a very sandy place with quite high pollution levels and so, the more covering you have, the better protected you are from all of the elements!
During the course of developing the exhibition, Glynis and I met with countless Muslim women who generously shared with us their anecdotes of shopping for fashionable, yet modest, clothing and the dilemmas faced in trying to put an outfit together. As you’ll hear in the interviews we’ve conducted, until relatively recently, Muslim women struggled to find fashionable, concealing clothing and were often limited to shopping when the winter collections were in store, since they better catered for the longer length tops, cardigans, maxi skirts and pants in the more opaque fabrics. In fact, this is a similar experience to what I’ve had. I typically do the bulk of my shopping 6 months before I’m set to travel or, if I’m simply not in the headspace, I wait until closer to the time, but then do my shopping online. As Faith, fashion, fusion shows, however, Australia is now in the grip of an emerging new modest market which caters to women of different faiths, ages and backgrounds who still want to dress stylishly but with that extra coverage. This means women now have a year-round choice to shop for modest clothing in a range of different local stores which have changing collections and are on trend.