If asked to identify typical Islamic dress, many Westerners would likely name the veil and the turban, articles of clothing that are both visually powerful and politically and emotionally charged in today’s world. This exhibition seeks to enlarge upon these monolithic images by exploring a range of garment styles, colors, and motifs worn by Muslim men and women across the reaches of the Islamic world—from North Africa through the Middle East to Southeast Asia—from the 18th to the 21st century. A comparison of specific dress items from various areas in which Islam has thrived reveals fluidity and interaction across ethnicities, but also distinctions spawned by the forces of local culture. Just as interpretations of Islam have emerged and transformed with time and geography since the religion’s establishment in early-7th-century Arabia, so too have the appearance, symbolism, and function of the attire worn by its adherents.
On the whole, the items on display respond to the Quran’s explicit counsel to dress modestly. The loose, enveloping shape of these otherwise stylistically diverse garments—which is to say their common sartorial sanctuary—unites them in accommodating the moral sensibilities advocated by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime. Together with the requisite to conceal the body’s contours, the obligations to cover one’s head and to wear an additional outer layer in public have formed for centuries the basic guidelines for dressing in accordance with the Muslim way of life (shari’ah). While additional dress recommendations were issued in the time of Muhammad—in regard to avoiding extravagant fabrics, for instance—such prescriptions have tended to relax with the rapid and widespread dissemination of the religion following the Prophet’s death (632 CE).
By the mid-8th century, the Islamic empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Central Asia, and thus incorporated a vast array of cultures and textile traditions. Far from a static tradition, dress in the expansive Islamic world has ceaselessly adapted to suit both requirements of religious belief and local codes distinguishing a person’s social rank, domestic role, tribal affiliation, or geographic origin. From a sumptuous Moroccan brocade kaftan to a stunningly quilted Syrian coat and breathtaking Indian tapestry chogha, the clothing on view in this gallery manifests not only Muslim socio-religious ideals but tradition and honor, intricacy and splendor.