Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. —Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Here’s a question for the water cooler this morning: Would modesty still remain a moral virtue if it wasn’t mandated by religion? Think about that for a moment. All our laws and social expectations regarding the necessity of being clothed in public; the very concept that the activity in which one is engaged determines the appropriateness of what one is wearing is heavily influenced by religion.
We reported earlier this year about Dolce and Gabanna introducing a new line specifically for Arab women. Many celebrated that move as forward thinking and very supportive of a community the fashion industry had largely ignored. However, when Marks & Spencer began selling their burkinis (full body swimwear) in their European stores, including England, not everyone was happy. Most notably, France’s women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol told The Daily Express:
“What’s at stake is social control over women’s bodies. When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.
“You cannot pass off as trivial and harmless the fact that big brands are investing in a market that puts Muslim women in a situation of having to wear that.
“It is irresponsible on the part of these brands. All those who participate in how society is represented have a responsibility.”
Then, on the heels of that statement, both WWD and British Vogue published stories this morning with comments from Yves Saint Laurent’s co-founder and the designer’s long-time personal partner, Pierre Bergé. Bergé used some rather strong and potentially inflammatory language in denouncing what he sees as fashion designers going for a quick buck. Bergé’s comments were on radio station Europe1 and reported by The Guardian:
“Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.
“These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions.”
One one level, it would seem that both Ms. Rossignol and Bergé are standing up for women’s rights. After all, if the full-body covering commonly attributed to Muslim women were, in fact, a symbol of their unwilling slavery, then by all means, the criticism would be appropriate.
However, such statements are made in ignorance of the fact that many Muslim women choose to wear the burqa and hajib and other modest clothing not because they are enslaved, but as a sign of their faith and devotion to their religion. To Muslim women of faith, dressing modestly is not “abominable” but rather a statement of how committed they are to Islam. These are choices these women have made for themselves, not something that was forced upon them.
If it is “irresponsible” for designers to provide choices for women of Islamic faith, then is it not equally irresponsible to facilitate the choices of women who practice any other religion? One can reasonably make the argument that if one religion’s dress code is practical enslavement, then the dress codes of all religions must fall under that same heading. If religious mandates are restrictive and to be abolished, then the fashion industry should immediately stop making the calf-length denim skirts favored by many conservative Christian women. So too, should they stop incorporating Hindu styles such as chador, kameez, and kurta into their styles, something which has been immensely popular among Indian women. Even traditional pagan clothing, most notably the long cloaks and capes that we’ve seen frequently on runways the past two seasons, would have to be forbidden. Oh, and by all means, let’s do away with those little gold crosses every teenage girl seems to wear.
Fashion has always been influenced by the religions of its wearers because religion influences most every aspect of society and the lives of those who believe. Because a designer may not hold to any one belief system is no reason for them to avoid providing clothing that is popular among women of faith. If anything, it would seem like a fairly astute business decision. Over one and a half billion people are Muslim. More than a billion people are Hindu. Why would a designer not want to provide fashion that speaks to those faiths?
Judging other people because of their religion is easy because judging religion itself is a fairly simple academic exercise. The claims of religions don’t tend to hold up well against arguments of logic and reason. However, while I am not opposed to criticizing religion for a host of reasons, criticizing the people who hold to those religions is absolutely wrong and morally reprehensible. Our failure to tolerate belief systems other than our own is one of the greatest failures of contemporary society.
Fashion designers who provide clothing that meet the restrictions of certain religious guidelines help build social bridges at a time when they are most desperately needed. It is not, as Bergé claims, a denouncing of one’s principals to help someone who believes differently than you. If anything, it is a statement of the strength of one’s faith to work and socialize with those who beliefs are contrary.
Fashion has a chance to help society. There’s no reason to not make the most of that opportunity.