In 2005, I got a job teaching dance in a studio near a neighborhood of Chicago where many Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews reside. During my orientation, I was told that my dancewear needed to cover my elbows and knees. An opaque ballet skirt over leggings paired with a three-quarter-sleeve leotard or exercise top was suitable, and that became my teaching uniform for the seven years that followed. In 2012, I went to Cairo, Egypt, as a US Fulbright Scholar and — from my Chicago experience — I found myself well prepared for dressing and dancing in a conservative culture.
Egypt is an interesting place, full of fashion options. Yet, when Americans ask me about what Egyptians wear, they usually ask only about the women: “Is Egypt one of those countries? Do women have to cover themselves there?” The answer is no. There are fashion columns and fashion academies. Hijab or scarf, niqab, chador, burka, loose curls, ponytail: all are acceptable in modern Egyptian culture, but it very much depends on context and location. There are also unwritten rules determined by each neighborhood and whether or not you are in a church or mosque.
After living in Egypt for a few years, I actually felt a new sense of freedom. While I desperately missed wearing shorts, I was liberated from the pressure I feel in the US to tan and to dress in order to reel in the men of Chicago. I started to slowly appreciate my white skin instead of finding it pasty or ugly, and I started to dress more for myself and for practicality. I hadn’t realized how much the western, commercialized, sexualized pressures had affected me over time.
Since the short-lived burkini ban in France this summer, I have been thinking much about the world’s obsession with what women wear — or don’t wear. While a spate of hate crimes have me worried about a resurgent Islamophobia, Anniesa Hasibuan nevertheless became the first designer to present a hijabi collection for New York Fashion Week. It was fabulous.
Influenced by her personal choices, actress Mayim Bialik of The Big Bang Theory, who is Jewish and observant, recently offered a great response to the recent burkini controversy on social media:
I wear a bathing suit like this because I’m comfortable in it. I’ve found that protecting certain parts of myself is actually empowering, and it allows me to have control over interactions with other people, especially with men. It protects genuine intimacy for me, both publicly and privately…and that’s what I call empowering.
In many countries, there has been a failure to respect the fact that modesty can be a personal choice, a self-empowering one. As Deirdre Clemente, history professor at the University of Nevada, explained in The New York Times:
People in positions of power say, ‘We’re putting these rules in place for the woman’s good.’ The implication is that women are unable to regulate their appearance themselves.
This world seems like it has a right to decide for women if they need to be protected from religious and cultural traditions that could lean toward being either too suppressing or too seductive. I, on the other hand, believe that personal choice is beautiful. Women’s choice is the one reason the fashion police will never defeat ISIS. Because women’s choice does not need policing.
I now present six humans — most of whom identify as female — who will share the influences and decisions regarding what they wear, in their own words.
Samata: Fashion Entrepreneur, United Kingdom
“I had a moment last year when realised that if other people can appreciate — and sometimes appropriate — my culture, why shouldn’t I be able to wear it proudly. If you are black and wear traditional gear you can get boxed so easily — when adorned by you, it is pro-black or political, when worn by others it is considered edgy and fashion forward. I got to the point of refusing to care — wearing a traditional print is me reaching a space where I am proud to wear my heritage and let people make assumptions as they wish to. Whilst I was born in Cambridge and hence grew up surrounded by a more western design aesthetic — which clearly still influences me today (I love Vivienne Westwood and independent British brands as much as the next person) — I just mix and match my wardrobe much more now with headscarves and other more traditionally Ghanaian pieces.
“[I am wearing] a two-piece bespoke Ankara set — handmade in Accra, Ghana, where both of my parents come from. Ankara fabric commonly known as “African Prints”…a 100% cotton fabric with vibrant patterns — it is primarily associated with Africa because of its tribal-like patterns and motifs. Ankara was formerly known as “Dutch wax print” and was actually intended for the Indonesian textile market, but for some unknown reason the prints garnered significantly more interest in West Africa so instead the Dutch decided to focus on West Africa. As such, the prints changed to reflect African culture and lifestyle more and African Wax Prints were born.”
Sofana: Lawyer/Social entrepreneur, Saudi Arabia
“The origin of hijab predates the advent of Islam and was initially embraced as a cultural practice, i.e., as a symbol of social status. Over time, however, the concept of hijab has gone through several stages of development interns of form and style according to the nature of the society where it was worn and according to the time in which it was adopted.
“However, Islam associated modesty to hijab. Modesty was translated in how a Muslim woman should carry out herself from they way she dresses to how she behaves. Hijab in a broader meaning is a barrier between oneself and sins. In Saudi Arabia, hijab’s implication is two-fold and is defined by its cultural and tribal context (head-to-toe black abaya). In the western region, particularly in Hejaz where I come from, it was worn as a symbol of modesty yet with colorful dresses or white long dresses. Although I am not a hijabi, I wear the Abaya (cultural attire) willingly, as a way to respect my culture and traditions and it’s always been a source of pride for me. I do not find it inhibiting, impractical or interfering in any way. For me, it’s a means of representing our identity in a widely diversified global society.”
Silvita: Dance Artist, Chicago, IL
“The clothes and accessories I wear are an opportunity to express who I am and feel grounded! I believe that how I carry myself into the world is important and makes a statement of who I am. What I wear is a fusion of several things: my Mexican heritage which embraces bright colors and accessories, functionality that supports my active life as a dancer and yoga instructor, and femininity that embraces and celebrates the fact that I am a woman and that I love being a woman! An accessory that has become essential to my dress is flowers in my hair and it started in 2013.
“It might sound crazy but this style and the need to accessorize my femininity came from a traumatic childhood and losing my mother when I was five years old. I was mostly raised by my dad who was a very loving father but a very practical man who was trying to cope with many things on his own. He dressed me with pants and t-shirts and dark colors and very short hair just like my brother; at school kids often thought I was a boy and it made me mad, shy and sad. I missed my mom, who made dresses for me and let me have long hair. I craved long hair, pony tails and feeling feminine. When I became a teen, I rebeled against my dad’s choices on how to dress. I started to find who I was, what I wanted to do and how I wanted to dress and be perceived. Now, I know who I am and I love being feminine and I enjoy wearing a flower in my hair every day!”
Melanie: Consultant, Manitou Springs, CO
“An outfit isn’t complete without a hat. When I wear a hat, it’s to express playfulness or mystery; to dress an outfit up or down. Hats accentuate my personality, facial features and outfit. Hats have been part of my style since I was a young child playing little league baseball. In this photo, I’m having happy-hour cocktails with my beloved. A denim shirt with ironed on patches and a fedora makes perfect sense to me. I would say my influences are the Midwest, the outdoors, indie music, queer politics and texture.
“Physical location, current company, and pop trends also influence my style. Gender expression, fit availability, and spirituality also influence my style.
“Bottom line is: what I wear is my decision, and my decision only. I have men’s pants altered to fit my body. I get dress shirts custom-made by a company making men’s clothing for women’s bodies. I wear men’s shoes, and don’t even know my bra size.
“I dress to match or enhance my self-esteem, not society’s standards or expectations. Clothes aren’t gendered. Besides my interpretation of a dress code, no one can tell me what to wear or how to wear it. And, most important, I am grateful every day this is the case.”
Brianne: Associate Professor, New York, NY
“First day of school, fall 2016. A little blurry. It was hot so I wore a sleeveless tunic shirt and linen pants (you can’t see them here). This is the first time I taught without hiding my tattoos, at least somewhat. I got promoted, so I felt free to do it and it felt great. The students also responded well to it, from what I could tell. I usually wear make up to teach. It irritates my eyes, though. I decided to just do some bright lips with a stain that I don’t have to reapply all day. My necklace was a gift from my partner.
“My hair is dirty. My great-grandmother had long hair that she always wore in two braids that she pinned up, not exactly like this, but kind of. I did a solo performance that involved her as inspiration and started playing with these hairstyles. They are really great for skipping a wash or two and people compliment the ‘do a lot. I do have a fancy bobby-pin holding my bangs back that you can kind of see. My backpack is the best. It is all canvas and made by esperos, an Austin-based company that funds one year of education for a child in need for every bag you buy. They are also super sturdy, ethically made and I carry mine everywhere. I’ve given in in the interest of avoiding back pain. I felt so comfortable and so myself in this.”
jenn: Artist, Chicago, IL
“armor: there are days when entering the world requires paint and shields. time spent on pressed creases and parted hairs. this is how the world will see me. somedays there is a crackingshrunken shouldered being. hiding and protected behind my constructed shell. other days. the good days. there is a warrior. greeting the day with stacked bracelets and clinking heirloom rings. guarded. ready.
“ritual: vanity. green and aged white. tipping with bottles and brushes. products and powders. i face myself in this mirror. daily. twisting hair. melting coconut oil on skin. celebrating the growth of chin hairs that on another day will be plucked. this is when i listen to the narratives i tell myself. be gentle i say. grooming as a way to self soothe. this is how the world will see me.
“memory: this blue jean jacket. a high school graduation gift. has seen things. shrouded my eighteen year old skin as i stumbled into chicago for the first time. jacket, i’ve abandoned you in grey puddles and sweaty house parties. but you. have always come back. it has been thirteen years together. now you seem more like a second skin. familiar. you’ve sat with me when my gut was knotted. when i buried my home in someone’s chest and wandered empty hallways. searching. i have tied you around my waist and leapt freely into the moment. the things we’ve seen. beauty finds rest on your tattered shoulders. you are a relic.”