A New Fashion Exhibition in San Francisco Shows That Modest Can Mean Radical

With curving vignettes designed by Hariri & Hariri, Contemporary Muslim Fashion at the de Young Museum aims to upend stereotypes that come with modest dress.

Contemporary Muslim Fashion de Young
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Countering stereotypes of black headscarves and tent-like garb, San Francisco’s de Young Museum is hosting the first major exhibition of Muslim fashion around the globe. Contemporary Muslim Fashions, which opened September 22, highlights the diversity of women’s clothing, designed primarily by women, in response to a cultural/religious mandate for modesty. Yes, there is the all-black burkini swimsuit by Aheda Zanetti on display. But the 80 outfits also include a pink floral gown by Oscar de la Renta and a songket brocade jacket with horns projecting from the shoulders by Melinda Looi.

The exhibit design, by New York-based firm Hariri & Hariri Architecture, also explores ideas of being seen and covered, using a sculptural language that underscores the modernity of “modest” fashion.

“We wanted to celebrate and show the strength of women in the Islamic world, regardless of what they wear,” says principal Gisue Hariri, who leads the firm with sister Mogjan. The Iranian-born, American-trained architects launched their firm in 1986; among their recent work is the Jewels of Salzburg, a 100-unit residential development in Austria, whose faceted, stone-clad buildings were inspired by the former quarry site.

The exhibit space is strongly defined by an all-black background with architectural insertions in white, which are inspired loosely by the arches of traditional Islamic architecture. (A few instances of blue and purple LED lighting are the only sources of color besides the garments themselves.) Freestanding partitions, made of bent plywood painted white, curve gently above the mannequins to create a simple and effective backdrop for the varying silhouettes and textures. Also displayed are photography and videos that show Muslim garb as a rebellious form of expression and critique it, such as images of burqas overlaid with household utensils from Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian’s Like EveryDay series.

Contemporary Muslim Fashion de Young
Courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Towards the end of the exhibit, the architects created another contemporary riff on arches in a translucent, swooping pavilion of fabric stretched over a tubular steel frame. The pavilion highlights how some of the preeminent designers of the West have adapted their couture gowns to suit Muslim clients, who in total consume an estimated $44 billion of fashion a year.  To bring in a sense of the rich geometrical patterns of Islamic design, the architects projected an enlarged star-shaped pattern from a mashrabiya window screen (similar to a brise-soleil) on areas of the exhibit walls and floor.

A physical mashrabiya is also inset into the wall just inside the entry to the exhibition, behind which the blown-up photograph of a woman’s eyes can be seen. The Hariris wanted to set the stage with a familiar image in the West—a woman looking through a slit in a veil—as a prelude to how the exhibition opens up to new ideas and literally opens up to new views. Emphasizing the porosity of a space is a common architectural impulse, but in this case the architects felt it was conceptually important enough to create openings in the exhibit hall’s permanent walls (the original layout called for three distinct rooms).

The last major fashion exhibit to capture the public attention, the Met’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, presented some dazzling garments. Recent political events have imbued the de Young exhibit, conceived two years ago, with greater resonance than anyone might have anticipated.

“Given the past year, we think this is a very important exhibit and hope it will be a venue to educate the Western world about the world of Islam,” says Gisue Hariri.

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