Paris Fashion Week Against the Backdrop of Appropriation
By: Namra Khan
This year’s Paris Fashion Week boasted designers like Jean Paul Gautier, Fendi, and Valentino in extravagant couture for their post-pandemic collections. One look at the Fall 2021 line-up showcased bold colors, shadow play, asymmetry, and decadent embellishments that gave me hope as a fashion student, after a year and a half of fashion industry turmoil. And then—just as this seed of hope was planted—it was instantly crushed as I witnessed the blatant, religious appropriation of the Muslim head garment, known in Arabic as the hijab. As I flipped through the runway images of Balenciaga, Valentino, and Christian Dior, I grew increasingly uncomfortable and frustrated at the sheer hypocrisy of these European designers to create a fashion trend out of the hijab, days after the E.U.’s workplace hijab ban.
The European Court of Justice ruled that companies may ban employees from wearing a headscarf, or any other visible symbols of religious belief, in the workplace to present a “neutral image” towards customers. This ruling was in response to two German women being suspended from their jobs after they started wearing hijab.
The irony of displaying the hijab as a luxurious trend is not lost on Muslim women. We are well-versed with Europes’ history of colonizing Muslim-majority countries and trying time and time again to ban head coverings under the veil of presenting neutrality and integrating Muslims into society. These incidents prove that those who benefit from the effects of colonization pick and choose what they want from other religions and cultures while disregarding the rights of those who actually belong to those religions and cultures.
Amongst the grandeur of utility-focused taffeta silhouettes in Demna Gvasalia’s first-ever couture debut at Balenciaga, look 63—a loose white dress with a hijab-like veil draped over the model’s head—seems out of place. At Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri showed a stunning collection of tweeds and romantic daywear, a collection focused on the designer’s appreciation for the atelier and embroiderers responsible for crafting Dior pieces. This thoughtfulness did not encompass look 31—a beige cape headdress that resembled the way hijab is worn in Pakistan and Iran. The bold proportions, feathered headpieces, and elegant ball gowns in vibrant colors at Valentino were undermined by the insensitive hijacking of the headscarf in looks 38, 57, and 74. Fashion is inherently political—and after examining Paris Fashion Week against the backdrop of the EU’s decision, it’s clear that headscarves are acceptable on white models, but not on brown-skinned Muslim women.
This is not the first time hypocrisy has been presented in the name of liberation. In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, covering your face with a mask for safety was permissible but still, courts upheld the burqa ban. Fashion is supposed to be an expression of creativity and hope, but these runway shows had me feeling disheartened. Many couture houses remain out of touch with BIPOC issues and are struggling to change their history of elitism and exclusivity. With Balenciaga’s stealing and profiting off of a Vietnamese design student’s work and Christian Dior coming under fire for their Sauvage cologne, which appropriated Native American culture and ad campaigns that played to Chinese stereotypes, I cannot say I’m surprised.
French brands in particular cannot turn a blind eye to the near 1300 years of colonial intrusion, invasive war, disrespect, and racism their country has waged on Muslim-majority countries like Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Morrocco. With the recent legal action directly correlated to women choosing to wear the hijab, I can’t help but think of the emotional toll this has taken on French Muslim women. They are forced to choose between leaving their identity at home when showing up for work or putting their careers in danger for staying true to themselves. When designers create insensitive costumes and tell stories of far-off, “exotic” lands, they are mocking the identity of Muslim women.
Unless the European fashion industry stands up to the innate islamophobia running rampant in their societal and legal systems, I’d appreciate it if they kept the Islamic garb outside of their collections. It only further proves the hypocrisy of colonizing countries, using hijab as an exotic costume, and failing to acknowledge the real meaning and pain that women go through to own their identities freely.