Hussein Chalayan’s Spring/Summer line was met with critical acclaim during London’s Fashion Week in the autumn of 1998. The Guardian, a traditionally left leaning newspaper, commented on the ambitious theatricality of the show; the honesty and progressive viewpoint that permeated Chalayan’s sartorial subject matter. Interviews with members of the audience recall the visually lingering contrast of eerie, attenuated kohl silhouettes – European models dressed in Yashmaks - against nude ivory bodies brushing past each other up and down the catwalk. Archive footage from the unveiling of Chalayan’s incendiary collection features a fashion journalist praising the show to have not just been a statement resonating from the high fashion world but a reflection of the intellectual vibrancy of London’s cultural milieu.
The show began with an entirely naked woman except for a black facemask, with large cuts around the eyes, and black sandals walking onto the clinical white stage. As each female body appeared from behind delicate opaque ivory cascading muslin curtains, each gained larger amounts of black material increasingly covering the model’s body from the top down. A string quartet played live behind the women as they slowly formed into a line and stared vacantly into the audience.
Hussein Chalayan is a British fashion designer of Turkish Cypriot descent. Not long after graduating from Central St Martins in 1993, Chalayan began to form what would be the inspirational hallmarks of his career as a designer: an infatuation with the body and the relationship between East and West. For the Spring/Summer 1998 collection Chalayan aimed to voice his experience of growing up amongst a Muslim culture and specifically how he viewed the traditional Islamic women’s dress (Yashmaks in the Turkish context) as a symbol of inferiority antithetical to Western ideas of ‘Freedom’.
What is interesting about this overtly political line of clothing is the way it has mostly transcended a social or political commentary. It is both shocking and apathy inducing to think of a paper such as The Guardian once praising Chalayan for what is a deeply problematic attempt at reconstructing Muslim women’s sartorial choices from a non-Muslim Western male perspective. Interesting ideas about what it means to be a ‘free woman’ are also addressed in this avant-garde fashion line. Evidently, sartorial liberty is achieved through the process of unveiling. The naked model that initially enters the stage is therefore conceptualised as the most ‘free’. This is actually a misogynistic articulation of Western female bodies as achieving agency through nakedness. Clearly, we live and have lived in a society where naked bodies are an enduring symbol of female objectification. Therefore, what is seemingly praised as a progressive evokes a darker, implicit message.
Whilst it is clearly beyond the scope of this article to discuss how traditional Islamic dress may be viewed as a ‘symbol of inferiority’ – the terms the French Government used shortly before banning the burqa in 2010 – the problem of Islamic women’s dress reoccurs in our very recent past. Earlier this month many British news outlets reported on cases of Islamophobia and highlighted one continuing similarity; women in Islamic dress appear to be a target. This show and the paucity of political critique about it struck me as a case of sartorial obliviousness, which by extension forms part of a larger cultural ignorance even in the elite world of design.