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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?

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Interview with Emma Tarlo
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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.