Project Manager Kate Ford and Curator Glynis Jones recently installed Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) travelling exhibition Faith Fashion Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur. It was launched on 2 November 2017 by Malaysia’s Minister of Tourism and Culture, YB Dato’ Seri Mohammed Nazri Abdul Azizi.
The exhibition explores Australia’s emerging modest fashion market and the work of a new generation of Muslim fashion designers, retailers and bloggers offering stylish clothing and fashion advice to Muslim women. Through garments, a streetstyle fashion montage and interviews, the exhibition looks at the way Australian Muslim designers are rethinking the model for designing, retailing and marketing modest fashion to a local and global market.
Faith Fashion Fusion first opened at the Powerhouse Museum in 2012 and toured across Australia covering 10 venues from Melbourne and Maitland to Katanning and Canberra. Its last local venue was the National Archives in Canberra where it was viewed by staff from the Australian High Commission in Malaysia and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, setting in motion the international tour.
I’m frequently asked where the idea came from and admit the exhibition had a long gestation. It was a striking media image of a young Muslim woman, Mecca Laalaa standing on Cronulla beach in 2007 that first sparked my interest in modest fashion styles. Mecca was dressed in the distinctive red and yellow colours of the surf lifesaver, but was wearing a two-piece body covering swimsuit with attached hood, called the Burqini® designed for her by Aheda Zanetti. Concerned by the damaging events of the Cronulla riots in December 2005 Mecca had volunteered for the arduous surf lifesaving training offered as part of the federally funded, community bridge building ‘On the Same Wave’ program.
I hadn’t given much thought to the intersection between faith and fashion and Mecca’s photo sparked my interest in exploring this in the Australian context. While initially I was only looking at modest swimwear and the work of Burqini® designer Aheda Zanetti, it was increasingly apparent that a growing number of Australian Muslim women were choosing to engage with global fashion trends while also visibly expressing their faith. A new sector was emerging in the Australian fashion industry with a small group of Muslim entrepreneurs, based predominantly in Western Sydney designing, retailing and marketing stylish clothing for the growing number of Muslim women wanting to dress creatively and fashionably within the requirements of their faith.
I pitched the idea of an exhibition about faith and fashion to the Museum’s exhibitions committee and received the go ahead to develop the concept into a small exhibition. Assistant Curator Melanie Pitkin came on board to assist with exhibition development and we quickly recognised the limitations of our knowledge around the religious and cultural context of Muslim dress styles. Community consultation became an essential part of exhibition development with staff at the Community Relations Commission providing much needed guidance with the content, and assistance with relevant community contacts. Melanie and I spent many months meeting with Muslim designers, retailers, activists, writers, academics, teachers, students, bloggers and sportspeople who generously opened their lives, homes and workplaces to us and helped shape the content of the exhibition.
While they have the commonality of their faith, we found the Australian Muslim community very diverse, coming from over 70 different cultural backgrounds and traditions with many different ways of expressing their faith through dress. This diversity informed the approach we took which was to narrate the exhibition through the multiple voices and perspectives of the people selected to feature in the exhibition. Through filmed interviews and fashion shoots we captured their stories and signature styles which fed into exhibition labels, projected footage and extended interviews on iPads. It is these stories and experiences that make this exhibition so visually and emotionally rich.
This consultation process also brought up some of the issues Muslim women deal with on a daily basis. In Australia and in the West generally there are many misconceptions and assumptions surrounding Muslims and Islam, and in particular Muslim women who express their faith in the way they dress. In the course of researching for this project, we spoke to a number of Australian Muslim women who are actively working to dispel these misconceptions but are frustrated by being constantly asked to justify Muslim women’s dress choices, limiting their opportunities to speak about anything other than what they wear.
To address this in the exhibition, faith, fashion and Muslim identity were further explored through a series of ‘Women in profile’ showcases featuring the stories of nine influential Australian Muslim women who, through very different activities, are involved in breaking down these stereotypes, building understanding between Australian communities, fighting injustice and mentoring Muslim women and youth. Through photographs, treasured objects and interviews, this diverse group of Australian Muslim women shared their opinions, challenges and achievements.
With confirmation of the exhibition’s international tour to Malaysia and Indonesia we decided to update some of the content including the street style slideshow. Working with Muslim fashion influencer Delina Darusman-Gala we shot some of Sydney’s most stylish women in front of the cities iconic landmarks. The slideshow allowed us to capture the diversity and creativity of Australian Muslim women’s style and give context to the exhibitions content.
The Australian High Commission also generously hosted the visit of designer Aheda Zanetti to attend the opening and take part in various talks and events. It was quickly apparent that Malaysia’s Muslimah’s were very aware of Aheda’s ground-breaking Burqini® swimwear with bloggers, designers, start-up entrepreneurs and media seeking her story and advice.
As Faith Fashion Fusion travelled around Australia many of the museums and galleries engaged with members of the local Muslim community to add their stories to the exhibition. We were delighted when the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia also suggested they complement the exhibition with dress from their own rich collection of historical Islamic dress from around the world. Head of Curatorial Dr Heba Nayel Barakat selected traditional outfits and accessories from the Ottoman World, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia to highlight their use of fine materials and embroidery and reflect on the wealth of design and cuts that still influence today’s fashion.
Travelling exhibitions like Faith Fashion Fusion provide a wonderful opportunity for the Museum to showcase our fashion collection, innovation in the Australian industry and our diverse communities. The exhibition tour was made possible with support from the Australian Government through the Australian High Commission Malaysia, the Australia ASEAN Council, the Australia Indonesia Institute, Australian Embassy Jakarta and corporate partner Lend Lease projects (M) Sdn Bhd.