Glynis Jones, curator
Hi, I’m Glynis Jones, fashion and dress curator at the Powerhouse Museum and curator of Faith, fashion, fusion an exhibition and publication showcasing the work of Australian Muslim fashion designers and retailers and the emerging modest fashion market.
I’m frequently asked where the idea came from and must admit the exhibition had a long gestation. It was a striking media image of Mecca Laalaa standing on Cronulla beach in 2006 that first sparked my interest in modest fashion styles. Mecca was dressed in the distinctive red and yellow colours of the surf lifesaver, but was wearing a two piece body covering swimsuit called the burqini®. Concerned by the damaging events of the Cronulla riots in December 2005 Mecca had volunteered for the arduous surf lifesaving training offered as part of the federally funded, community bridge building ‘On the Same Wave’ project.
I hadn’t given much thought to the intersection between faith and fashion and Mecca’s photo sparked my interest in exploring this in the Australian context. While initially I was only looking at modest swimwear and the work of burqini designer Aheda Zanetti, by 2009 it was apparent there was a significant new sector emerging in the local fashion industry. A group of Muslim entrepreneurs, based predominantly in Western Sydney were designing, retailing and marketing stylish clothing for the growing number of Muslim women wanting to dress creatively and fashionably while still expressing their faith.
Thematically the concept fitted well with the Museum’s collection and exhibition policies. The Museum has one of the largest and most diverse collections of fashion & dress ranging across history and cultures from 18th century embroidered waistcoats and 19th century crinoline dresses to djellabas from Morocco and dragon robes from China. Our Australian collection is particularly rich, documenting the diversity of the local industry from global boardwear brands like Quiksilver and major design labels including Collette Dinnigan to niche businesses like bespoke shoe-maker Andrew McDonald. It seemed the right time to explore a relatively new sector in the local fashion industry, one where faith and fashion, two words that don’t normally appear in the same context, were forming a new relationship in the emerging modest fashion market.
Once exhibition development began assistant curator Melanie Pitkin came on board and an exhibition team drawn from all parts of the Museum was assembled. By the time the exhibition opened, over 40 staff members had contributed their ideas, skills and time to the exhibition – from the Librarians who sought books to assist with our research to the exhibition designer who took the storyline from the exhibition brief and began to conceive it as a three dimensional space.
I also quickly recognised that we’d taken on more than a fashion exhibition. I knew very little about Islam and had no real understanding of its relationship to Muslim dress styles. It was therefore essential to the development of the exhibition that Melanie and I consult with a wide range of people from Australian Muslim communities and organizations. Staff at the Migration Heritage Centre and the Community Relations Commission provided much needed advice and contacts in the community and we met with Muslim designers, retailers, activists, writers, academics, teachers, students, sportspeople who generously opened their lives, homes and workplaces to us and helped shape the content of the exhibition.
While they have the commonality of their faith, we found the Muslim community very diverse, coming from over 70 different cultural backgrounds and traditions with many different ways of expressing their faith through dress. This diversity informed the approach we took which was to narrate the exhibition through the multiple voices and perspectives of the people selected to feature in the exhibition. Through filmed interviews and fashion shoots we captured their stories and signature styles which fed into exhibition labels, projected footage beside the garments on display and extended interviews on iPads. It is their stories and experiences that make this exhibition and publication so visually and emotionally rich.