Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course


Hijab and fashion

Muslim women have shown active initiative in translating the concept of hijab into diverse veiling practices in many different ways. This can involve selecting precisely which parts of the body should be covered by the veil and adopting practical garments, such as sportswear, that conform to notions of modest dress and enable them to pursue active lives. However, women have also taken creative control of their hijabs through the use of different materials, patterns, layers of fabrics and accessories. In her observations of different styles of hijab worn on contemporary British high streets, Tarlo notes the great diversity of colours and textures women use:

Popular media representations of Muslim women swathed in black often give the impression that Islamic dress is about sombre uniformity and conformity to type. A stroll down any multicultural British high street does, however, create a very different impression. Here fashionable Muslim girls, like other young women of their generation, can be seen wearing the latest jeans, jackets, dresses, skirts and tops which signal their easy familiarity with high street fashion trends. Often the only feature of their clothing which clearly identifies them as Muslim is the headscarf, but here too, one finds much diversity. In fact, far from promoting an image of dull uniformity, the headscarf is often the most self consciously elaborated element of an outfit, carefully co-ordinated to match or complement other details of a woman’s appearance. Worn in a diverse range of colours and textures, built using different techniques of wrapping, twisting and layering and held together with an increasing variety of decorative hijab pins designed for the purpose, the headscarf has in recent years become a new form of Muslim personal art. In many cases, it provides the aesthetic focal point of a young woman’s appearance. Such scarf-led outfits, known by many as hijabi fashions, often lend a splash of colour and light to the grey uniformity of British high streets and university corridors. They also contrast strongly with some of the more austere full-length all-black covered outfits favoured by some Muslim women.

(2010, p. 1)

The sociologist and anthropologist Annalies Moors makes similar observations with regard to the emergence of an increasingly wide variety of interpretations of ‘modest fashion’ which is appearing in different guises in different parts of the world, often reflecting a cross-fertilisation of various cultures and styles of dress:

Such a turn towards more fashionable styles has first been recognized in Muslim majority countries, linked to the fragmentation of Islamic revival movements, the diversification of its constituencies (including upper middle-class women), and the general turn to commoditization of dress. Highly fashionable styles have emerged, which enable women to claim in one move piety, modernity, and an aesthetically sophisticated and pleasing look.

In Europe many young Muslim women have developed their own fashionable youth styles, often combining the very same items of dress as their peers, but combining and layering these in such a way that it becomes halal (Islamically permitted) fashion.

(2010, p. 113)

This can, on the one hand, be read as an opening for opportunities of creative expression. On the other hand, the increasing desire or need to conform to popular fashion trends and ideals could also be regarded as an added social and financial pressure on women. However, Moors comes to the conclusion that

these young women whose voices are hardly heard in public debate have indeed found alternative ways to be present in the public through sartorial styles that are far more difficult to label as signs of subjugation. Yet, whereas fashion theories have pointed to the complex ways in which markets, the cultural industry, and individual creativity are intertwined in the field of fashion, it is remarkable that in the case of Muslim women, the regime of fashion becomes so unidimensionally linked to freedom.

(2010, p. 113)

This sense of creative freedom is perhaps related to the fact that in Europe and North America the hijab has not yet fallen into the grasp of the mainstream fashion industry. On the one hand, this means that it is harder to access ‘modest fashion’ in high-street shops. However, since the beginning of the twenty-first century there has been a growing number of internet websites that are targeted at Muslims living in the west which market and sell modest fashion, or serve as a platform for information on how to put on a hijab or for the exchange of fashion ideas. Just type ‘hijab’ or ‘hijab fashion’ into an internet search engine, and you will have multiple hits. According to the Guardian fashion blog (2012), market research in 2012 estimated the global Muslim fashion market to be worth £59 million. While Muslim fashion is a growing business, in many European and North American countries it is still a relatively small niche market that leaves plenty of scope for small independent fashion retail businesses and room for the creative combination of a wide range of different styles and designs.

Activity 6

In this interview, Emma Tarlo (Reader at the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London) speaks about her research into Muslim women’s motivations for adopting the hijab. She considers how Muslim women combine notions of the ‘pious self’ with their interest in fashion and explores specific features of Muslim modest fashion retail. Listen to the interview now, with the following question in mind:

What kind of contested perspectives on the issue of veiling does Tarlo highlight in this interview?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Interview with Emma Tarlo
Skip transcript: Interview with Emma Tarlo

Transcript: Interview with Emma Tarlo

Stefanie Sinclair
Would you mind telling us a little bit about your research and the different projects you’ve been involved in please?
Emma Tarlo
Well I got interested in Muslim women’s dress in around 2004 which was just about the time when the French government had said that they were going to ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools.
And so I began to get interested in seeing how people in Britain were responding to that proposition. And at that time I began to realise the extraordinary diversity of different types of Muslim dress that there were in Britain. And the different types of emotional investment that people had in it.
And so I began to start doing research, really, about why people wear what they wear. And I was also interested in the fact that so often that debate is viewed in terms of: is it a question of force or is it a question of choice? And is it right or is it wrong? It’s viewed in these very sort of moral terms.
And I was actually interested in the fact that Muslim women like any other women in Britain are trying to work out how to present themselves in the public space. And there’s all sorts of different issues that come in to play.It may be religion. It may be politics. But it may be family background. It may be cultural heritage but it may also be fashion. It may be your relationship with your peers.
So it can’t just be boiled down to religion or politics. So, in a sense, I just got interested in exploring as an anthropologist. So, exploring, sort of, enthographically through people’s own dress practices and how they understand their own dress practices, looking at what they were trying to do, what sort of new fashions were emerging in this context. So I did research with people, sometimes working in areas with a strong sort of particular ethnic and religious population, like parts of East London where there are a lot of Muslims. But also working with Muslims who are not living in these sort of pockets of concentration like that. And also with university students, with entrepreneurs who were interested in sort of developing new types of Muslim fashion. And also with people who were trading things both in markets and shops. But also online. So I was just sort of interested in immersing myself in that whole sort of area, really, attending Islamic events, looking at those debates online, interviewing people and getting a sense of what was going on in relation to dress.
Stefanie Sinclair
So why do Muslim women actually adopt the hijab?
Emma Tarlo
I think it’s difficult to say there would be any one reason why people would adopt hijab because people may be attracted to it from a variety of different reasons.
But one is trying to practise Islam as part of everyday life and not just as something that you do at the moment of prayer. So it’s part of a kind of incorporating a set of values into everyday life. But it’s also about having an assertive presence and being proud to be Muslim and a kind of badge of identity, if you like, and that’s very important to people. Because there’s a very powerful sense of recognition that people have when they see other people in hijab. They feel a sense of bond towards them.
And so this sense of a kind of bond that extends beyond your immediate family, networking kin, and has this sort of global potential, is really important. And you see it in how people interact. You see it within universities that the hijabi girls recognise each other and they get together quite early on. They feel a sense of affinity with each other. You see it when people travel abroad. And they feel that they can recognise and react to each other: total strangers on the basis of hijab. And you also come across it very strongly on the internet, through the sort of exchange of stories, and all of that.
So that sense of a building of a kind of community I think is really important through this visible self. And I think since 9/11, when there’s been such a focus on Muslims, and a kind of suspicion around Muslims in relation to appearances, that has actually motivated a lot more people to invest in being Muslim in the public sphere in a more assertive way. Sometimes as a gesture of solidarity. They’ll look at sort of a larger scale sort of global political situation. And they’ll feel that Muslims have been treated or stigmatised in a particular way. And they’ll want to identify with that. So that can also be a quite important element of it.
And then, of course, now that the fashion possibilities that it offers is also something, you know, that can be very attractive to people. The great thing about a headscarf is that it doesn’t fit any particular body. It can be given, it can be shared, it’s very cheap to buy. Unlike a lot of other type fashion things. And you can combine it in all sorts of different ways. You can accessorise it with jewellery. You can layer it and you can make all sorts of ensembles with it. So it can become a very glamorous and kind of appealing kind of item to sort of play with, if you like.
And in a sense, I think, in my book, I refer to it as a sort of form of body art in many ways for some women. Because, for a lot of young Muslim women, it’s the most elaborate and most worked part of their appearance. And I’ve interviewed some women who say, well, you know when I get up in the morning, I begin by thinking what I’m going to wear on my head. And what colour combinations I’m going to do. And then I work my way downwards.
So this thing which, in some ways, is about, sort of, modesty and the idea that you don’t want to be, kind of, at least sexually attractive and assertive at the same time, is also being used as a kind of key item of adornment by a lot of young women.
And then in contrast you have others. Other Muslims who would have a much more sober interpretation of what the hijab should be. And who feel that all this fashion work and this sort of aestheticisation of hijab goes against the essence of what hijab is meant to be. So you’ve got very different attitudes amongst Muslims in Britain and elsewhere in Europe as to what that should be. Those kind of internal debates. And in the world.
And I think those internal debates very often are just not recognised beyond the Muslim community because there’s always this tendency to sort of look at this whole thing in relation to Islam versus the West. That kind of absurd, kind of dichotomisation through which everything’s boiled into. And therefore very often all these kind of nuances of what’s going on and the subtleties of debates that are taking place amongst the Muslims gets completely sort of effaced within the presentation in the media very often.
Stefanie Sinclair
Is the association of Muslim women’s styles of dress with fashion something entirely new or have Muslim women always thought about dress styles and how it would fit into fashion but possibly in different cultural contexts?
Emma Tarlo
Yes, I mean, I think there’s always been a diversity of cloth and textiles and ways of wearing them. And so, in that sense, people have always been interested in fashion. But, I think, what’s happened is a lot of things that were classified as local cultural, regional practices have now become classified as Islamic.
So, you can almost think of it in sort of three parts. You’ve got people wearing local forms of dress, which may have had different fashions in different countries. Then you’ve got a kind of a moving away from that that have emerged very often with the migration process and people wanting to assimilate within European contexts.
And then, in that context, if people started to wear something like hijab or niqab then it was very much associated initially as a religious statement. People perceived it as almost as the opposite of fashion, that you were kind of asserting a kind of pious religious self.
And what has happened more recently is this kind of coming together of this idea of a sort of pious religious self. And a kind of active visible assertion in the public sphere and fashion all coming together.bAnd they want to be modern. And they want to be able to wear jeans. And they want to be able to follow local fashion. But at the same time they want to be able to assert their Muslim-ness. And quite often the older generation are very ambivalent about that. And they’ll say to their daughters, well, do you really have to wear hijab?bThat marks you out in a particular way. Why do you have to make such a fuss about it? Can’t you just sort of blend in more?
So the sort of classic tension you might get, for example, in say a Bengali family would be the mother looking to the daughter and saying, you’re jeans are too tight. And why do you have to wear that hijab, you know. She’s kind of objecting to both those things. And the daughter will be looking to the mother and saying, well, that sari’s cultural dress, it’s un-Islamic, and what I’m doing conforms more to what is appropriate in the Koran.
So you’ve also got this kind of intergenerational conflict. And for the younger generation it can often be a kind of platform of assertion. I can go out. I can be in the public sphere. I can have a job. I can go to university and I can be covered and Muslim. And all of that’s all right. Whereas you, mum, you’re stuck at home, doing what dad says, cooking the chapattis, or something like that. I mean these are these kind of cultural things that are being played out in a sense through dress.
Stefanie Sinclair
The association of the hijab with fashion could be seen as a form of self-expression of women being creative, making the hijab their own?
But doesn’t it also mean that hijab wearing women are increasingly exposed to the pressures of a fashion retail industry that likes to tell women what to wear?
Emma Tarlo
All women are living in a world where they’re kind of encountering that combination of, sort of, commercialisation and pressure. So I don’t think it’s, in an individual women’s life, I don’t think it’s that they sort of started off just doing it as religious and now they’re sort of pressurised into becoming fashionable. I think it’s more that a young woman born today and brought up in a particular sort of multi-cultural context, say in Britain, encounters a whole range of discourses which are fashion, individualism, discourses from their peers, from their family. And they are trying to find something that makes sense of that whole composite mixture.
Now, I think it’s right to say that there are tensions there. And the tension that I think most people live, if they express a tension is that, is, on the one hand, they see being Muslim and wearing hijab in part as a sort of critique of the sexualisation of women of consumerism. And the emphasis on consumerism. But at the same time they are attracted to buying more and more hijabs. And many girls, when they look in their wardrobes, they’re quite shocked if you ask them, oh, can you count how many hijabs you’ve got? And they suddenly find that they’ve got 120, or something. And they’re sort of shocked.
So you get quite interesting debates on the web. I remember one particular debate where someone had, precisely, sort of, found that she’d got over 100 hijabs. And someone else was saying to her, well you know, sister, this isn’t good. You should take some of them to the Oxfam shop immediately. So that sense of being drawn into kind of excess commercialisation, yes, they can feel a tension in that. But I think a lot of people do. I don’t think that’s so different from tensions that somebody might feel as a feminist. But, on the one hand, I don’t feel that I have to look a certain way. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to have hairy legs. You know, that sort of tension.
Stefanie Sinclair
Where does the Muslim modest fashion retail differ from other fashion retail industries?
Emma Tarlo
In many ways, the modest fashion and Islamic fashion on the Internet is not dissimilar from other types of fashion industries. And, quite interestingly, quite a few of the people who are involved in it may have started out in the mainstream fashion industry or been trained through the mainstream fashion industry. And, in many ways, they’re using very similar kind of tropes and metaphors and modes of display and advertising as the mainstream industry. But, they do face this dilemma, which is how you display the objects. Where, on the one hand, making garments sexually appealing, if you like, is very much a mainstream strategy within the fashion industry. And because within these companies they are trying to say that we are not involved in sexualising women, then they, therefore, very often have a quite complicated relationship to how to display the goods.
Now, obviously, they can just display them without bodies in them, which also happens to some extent with mainstream fashion retail. But where bodies are displayed, there is this problem of how to display the bodies. So, some companies, for example, will display the items with bodies inside them, but they’ll be cut off at the head so you don’t see the face. Others will incorporate the face, but they’ll try to be not too made up or this and that and the other. Others will, in fact, use a very mainstream, sort of, sexualised styles of body presentation. So, companies situate themselves very different along the spectrum of in a sense how seriously they want to be taken in terms of religion. Or whether it’s closer to the kind of fashion side, if you like. There is a tension there.
End transcript: Interview with Emma Tarlo
Interview with Emma Tarlo
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Tarlo highlights the wide range of diverse, contested perspectives on the hijab. She argues that media and politics tend to present the issues in terms of a direct opposition between Muslim and ‘western’ points of view and often fail to recognise the nuances and subtleties of internal debates within Muslim communities. Tarlo stresses that there are many contested perspectives on the hijab, and different understandings of notions of modest dress codes among Muslims. Key areas of tension and debate concern issues of migration and the question of whether regional, traditional forms of dress should be lost, preserved or adapted to new cultural contexts, and which styles of dress can be considered to be modest. Another area of tension explored in the interview is the contrast between notions of the hijab as a symbol of modesty and the use of the hijab as an item of adornment and a key fashion item.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371