Designing Modest Fashion



The following interview is an excerpt of the conversation with Hana Tajima for The Funambulist’s podcast, Archipelago. Hana is an artist and a fashion designer working between New York, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. Many of the apparels that she designs can be interpreted as modest fashion as understood in the Islamic faith. We talk about this part of her work, and more specifically of the various hijabs she designs.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In this conversation, we’re going to talk about the hijab, first as a neutral piece of fabric to understand it as a cloth proper, and then we will intensify it with its political implications. You design and produce apparels that, for many of them, incorporate the hijab, although it is important that we do not essentialize your work through it. Are you working with several kinds of hijab? A different type of fabric? Maybe different types of shapes once you unfold them? Can you give us an idea of how you work?

HANA TAJIMA: The interesting thing about the hijab is that there isn’t really one way of doing it. And what I began to realize after I started wearing it myself was, first of all, where do you start? Is there a particular kind I should be wearing? Or, what’s the protocol for someone who wants to start wearing a hijab? I came to understand that, purely as an object, it is very simple; the complexity comes in how you arrange it. Even in terms of starting points, it is incredibly open ended. The shape of the scarf and the kinds of fabric you use, whether it’s jersey or something with structure, will determine the way it looks and, in particular, the way it feels. Anything that comes into contact with your face has to feel comfortable. If it doesn’t, you’ll notice it immediately.

What has been really interesting for me has been exploring these ideas without an intention of what I want it to look like in the end. Some of the designs that I wear most regularly started as scraps of fabric laying on my studio floor after I’ve been working on something else. Playing around with it is the most important part, because you experience how a certain way of draping feels and looks. A person’s head is curved and round, and these are things that are incredibly difficult to account for if you’re working flat. At the same time, you aren’t just creating a design, but also the process of wearing it.

Funambulist Tajima 1
First collection UNIQLO x Hana Tajima initially launched in Malaysia, Indonesia,
Thailand, and Singapore in 2015. Photograph by Parker Fitzgerald courtesy of UNIQLO

LL: You made YouTube videos for people who were interested in finding a higher complexity in the way they wore the hijab. One thing that clearly appears through those videos is the performativity of the act of wearing the cloth: the fact that there are steps to follow to wear it. I mean, when you put on some pants, you definitely have a performativity to it too. But in the case of hijab and some other head garments — I’m thinking of the turban, for instance — the performativity seems to be more embraced. Sharing knowledge about the appropriate gestures certainly reinforces this feeling, don’t you think?

HT: Yeah, that aspect of it is really fascinating, too. There are two different parts of it. Because I don’t have any family members that are Muslim, what I’ve seen as an observer is that this knowledge is either passed down from an older generation or, most often, from your peers. So these tutorials exist, just not online. It’s not necessarily a rite of passage, but it’s definitely a way of keeping some sort of a thread that goes between Muslim women. And it’s a really beautiful thing if you see it like that. The other part of it, which is the ritual of it, is definitely something that can be applied to anything that you do, to any kind of clothing that you put on. The interesting thing with a lot of the versions of hijab is that, instead of putting on something that is ready-made to fit your body, you create it for yourself; your movements and the way that you interact with your scarf are what it becomes. So there’s an element of it being different and new every time you wear it. And I guess people have the same thing with maybe doing their hair, or doing their makeup, or something similar.

Funambulist Tajima 3
Hijab development process / Hana Tajima (2013)

LL: Now that we have this object that is still neutral, and since no social object could possibly be neutral in any way, we’re going to try to intensify the politics that are related to it by considering a specific case that I know all too well because it has been happening in France. In 2004, the Chirac/Raffarin government designed a law that banned what they called “ostensible signs of religion” in public schools in the name of the national “religion” in France, laïcité (secularism). It was quite compelling to see that most of the political class was almost unanimous to vote on this ban of religious signs in schools (494 votes against 36). Although the law does not cite Islam, it was obvious in the parliamentary debates that this was a direct political attack on the young women wearing hijab in schools. This shows that a majority of people in France in particular, and European countries in general, do not understand anything about this object because they completely miss the fact that the spatial and temporal context in which it is worn changes everything about the way it’s being worn.

HT: Absolutely. You have to ask yourself, what are you objecting to? If it’s oppression, it’s completely illogical to use oppression to fight the same thing that you’re disgusted with. It’s a battle that no one’s going to win. Or are you objecting to the fact that it’s a very outward symbol of a certain kind of thought, or a certain ideology? In which case, the same is true of anything and anyone. You can tell from looking at a person roughly their class or maybe what kind of music they’re into. There are certain traits that we bring out through our clothing that identify us as a particular kind of person because fashion is about self-expression; it’s about being able to create externally a version of your internal self. And if that’s the case, why is this part of you unacceptable to the rest of the world? That’s the part that is confusing because, on the one hand, the lawmakers claim to want to “free people” from this kind of oppression, but the only thing that combats it is understanding or a certain malleability on both sides — a certain education on what the root of the problem is. Because they’re not talking about every single person. In my experience, they’re talking about a very small minority of people. In countries, for example, like France where Muslim women are themselves a minority, it becomes a fraction of a fraction. You can’t make a law that marginalizes a lot of people for the sake of a tiny fraction of a very small minority. Or, I guess you can [chuckling].

LL: Well, apparently you can, but only through a fair amount of demagogy. Something that was compelling in that case was the role that was played by an intelligentsia of self-declared feminists. They constituted a group of people who were pushing for this law, claiming that they wanted to liberate women while being unable to see the irony of implementing an additional layer of violence on female bodies by doing so. This problem seems recurrent, and we can associate it with other symptoms: a few years ago, you were part of a symposium about modest fashion and someone implied an opposition between your work and members of the SlutWalk movement. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the problem here is not about how much layers of cloth a woman wears but, rather, in what ways a men-dominating society keeps policing whatever it is women wear.

Funambulist Tajima 2
Hana Tajima (2013)

HT: I think it’s because it’s so visual. You could see someone fully clothed from head-to-toe and then someone completely naked, and have this idea that those are somehow opposites because visually they are. But, at the same time, you’re not talking about something that is purely visual; in this case, you’re talking very specifically about something that involves the way a woman feels. I think maybe it’s difficult for people to understand what women are fighting for when they want to wear hijab: the idea that they are in full control of who sees which part of them; the ability to be free in what they’re wearing regardless of what it is. Maybe it’s none of these things, but it’s always about choice. The fact that someone is dictating to them what their external facade should be is the thing that’s difficult to accept. Regardless, we all live under a set of influences. Society is as preoccupied with the way women look as it has ever been, even more-so now that we have such strong capabilities to adjust the way we look, even if it’s just in a photograph. We are not just holding ourselves to the standard of someone else’s beauty: we have to hold ourselves to our own manipulated image, and we cannot compete. When I started to wear hijab, I was suddenly aware that I was rebelling against this mass consumption of such an exclusive form of beauty. And I have never felt more liberated.

LL: I suppose there is a strong hypocrisy in the West thinking that any Muslim who lives in the West is more ostracized by their local Imam than by the systematic administrative ostracization that we can see at work on their own bodies.

HT: Yeah, the idea that someone doesn’t have some sort of ideology, whether it’s secularism or some form of religion, is ridiculous. Everyone has something that they adhere to or something that informs their life. There is no impartiality hiding behind the facade of “the Law” ; it has never been impartial. It’s based on either prevalent thought or the people who are making the laws. It’s very difficult to try and convince someone to see the other side of it. I experienced the same thing before I became Muslim: I didn’t really think that I had beliefs. Or, to put it another way, I thought that I was impartial in some sense. But as soon as you cross the boundary of becoming Muslim or identifying yourself as being part of any religion, you realize that the only difference is that you are a person who asked a question of themselves. Asking “why?” is as important for not believing in something as it is for belief. I guess the feeling is that people want liberation, but we haven’t collectively decided — from what? It’s always based on your own definition of freedom. Until there’s dialogue, until there’s an understanding about what we want, what we all want… I really think that there’s something fundamental in humanity, that there is something shared. Until we can all connect over that and then discuss everything else, you’re talking from two very different places.

Transcript by Amrit Trewn (2015) / Find the rest of this conversation online in “Design of a Public Body: Wearing Hijab in the West.”