Modest fashion

The image created by Western media of Muslim women as dark floating figures is being replaced with symbols of modernity, social progress and cultural inclusion, one amazing look at a time.

Last month, I visited the de Young Art Museum in San Francisco to see the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibit. Dynamically curated, and first ever of its kind, the presentation explores the theme of modesty and garments like the burkini. It also examines local fashion revolutions taking place among younger, more digitally connected Muslims, such as the incorporation of the head scarf in sportswear. But, the most interesting topic highlighted was the advent of modest fashion.

Thanks to social media and institutional support, the ignorant notion that Muslim women are fashionably repressed is finally beginning to fade away. The more accurate reality is that many of these women dress modestly with a deep sense of pride and identity. From a purely design perspective, the challenge of coverage presents the opportunity to get creative with what you put on and how you wear it. Modest fashion transcends what it means to be a modern woman. If an outfit requires more fabric, then more thought goes into pairing accessories, color accenting and the overall silhouette. All is soft sculpture; less about bodies and more about clothes. And a similar sensibility underlies today’s modest fashion landscape.

An actual sector of the apparel industry with its own fashion weeks in major capitals and market analytics, modest fashion is a mode of dress heavily associated with the values of the Muslim culture. Sleeve and dress lengths considerations, layering of garments, skin revealed minimally and conservative necklines are all identifying components. Did you know that there are Modest Fashion Weeks now taking place in Dubai and London? I didn’t, until now. What’s delightfully glorious is that all this movement unfolds under the “for us, by us” mantra. In the Muslim world, fashion freedom is being brought to women by women. 

Muslim women represent an enormous global market and regardless which societies they call home, their fashion inspiration connects them with design aesthetics on a deeper level than what might meet the eye. This is how Algerian entrepreneur Ghizlan Guenez started an online modest fashion retailer The Modist—with a sophisticated yet postmodern approach to style, packed with enough substance for its very own article. Stay tuned as I plan to delve into Guenez’s story and project later.  

Women pursuing appearances of their ideal imagination are by definition empowered and I am excited at the chance to share more relevant points from the exhibit with you in future posts.  If you are in the Bay Area, don’t miss this one before it is taken down in January.

 

Unsweetened, Please

This month, I’ve made yet another attempt to cut most sugars out of my diet. Despite my best efforts, I’ve only made it one week before relapsing with a fave like raw honey, dates, or ice cream.

The cravings have been really intense so far. Day 2 was emotionally challenging—oscillating between space cadet airheadedness and frustration bordering on rage. Two nights ago, all I could think of was desert and my tongue was moving around uncontrollably searching, salivating, fiending. All throughout the pandemic, I’ve struggled with uncertainty using food, primarily sweets, to cope with it all. Some weeks more intensely than others.

Right now, I’m on Day 9… and if I said I was going strong, I’d be lying. This has not been easy. Thankfully, there is good evidence that helps me carry on—cleaner skin and a face that’s no longer swollen. And this is just nine days. Good motivator, for sure.

My sugarfree program still allows some natural sugars like fructose. But only low fructose fruits, such as berries, pomegranate, green apple and grapefruit. I am also permitting bananas since the intensity of my workouts demands a lot of potassium.

While I know that going to extremes with anything isn’t healthy, I sometimes secretly wish I could become a dietary purist, eating paleo and keto long enough to detach completely from craving grains and complex carbs—not to mention sugary things like deserts from around the world. That would be nice.

For now though, I’m hoping I can get through May with the current program.

I will follow up again after the next 9 days to update on how I’m doing. Wish me luck, whoever you are.

Five Letter Name That Starts With ‘M’

All my life I’ve struggled with my own Self-Concept.

At six, an unprepared for and probably unnecessary hospitalization left me thinking I was an orphan. At eight, a rejection into a Hillel revealed that I was Jewish, but not quite enough to attend the school. By ten, I understood that I had moved to “rich” America from a highly controversial place–a collapsed Soviet Union. I was a refugee immigrant kid, taught to feel embarrassed about my birthplace, and about my non-Americanness.

To survive my shame, I embarked on a lifelong campaign to hide my origins. I needed to reconstruct my reality and erase the one I left behind. As a creative and empathic child, this was easy to do in 1990’s America. I leaned into rap music and immersed myself into fashion and visual culture through magazines at the local library. I made friends quickly and almost as a sport, practiced surrounding myself with non-family influence.

During the first few months in the US, constant arguments between my grandparents and parents about how to behave in public often involved criticisms over how I was being parented. As no kid would, I didn’t fully comprehend the purpose and intentions of their active conditioning. I just knew one thing: I needed to be as American as possible if I wanted to be a “good daughter.” This pursuit, however, was quickly challenged by an innocent mislabeling. Age nine I was a Masha, and by age ten I was a Marsha. In theory, this would have helped my Americanization campaign. Instead, it confused it and created a split in my own sense of self.

My dad chose my universally common name, Maria, which was and still is commonly expressed as its diminutive form “Masha.” In the first year, I often translated between ESL teachers and my parents despite my limited capacity to articulate institutional formalities or interpersonal nuances. One day, a teacher asked if I preferred to be called by what my parents called me. Like, I didn’t know at that moment what I preferred, so I agreed with her, after a convincing bit about how “very American” my name was. I didn’t realize she was referring to “Marsha”—not “Masha.” We felt too voiceless to object, correct the subtlety or ask for more time to decide, and so I accepted the mislabeling. That year during lunch or recess I often heard “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha,” followed by uproars of laughter. Unaware of why the name was drawing so much mockery led to feelings of isolation—a bewildering sense of freakdom. Was it the teachers or the students in whom I could seek solace? The answer grew more and more unclear.

By twelve, an aggressive puberty transformed me physically from a scrawny girl into a curvy woman. Suddenly I drew unwanted attention, again. Bullied for having full breasts, I bullied right back, but within my own friendships in an effort to regain my power, autonomy and control. As signs of my campaign success, I grew addicted to praises from my American teachers and friends, and grew emotionally distant from my family. Navigating these dynamics left me turning to the darker corners of my self-reliance.

At sixteen, I took matters into my hands and legally changed my first name to Marie. Indoctrinated for cultural assimilation, my parents’ decision to Americanize their first and last names signaled to me that I, too, had earned this right. After all, I couldn’t stand being called Marsha, because by then the name had earned me a terrible reputation. Since I never felt like a Marsha from the get go, denouncing it was also an act of self-liberation.

For the past 19 years, I’ve introduced myself as Marie, sometimes telling fables about what inspired it and which family member named me. The truthful backstory was too painful to get into with people; only until recently, I lacked the tools or emotional maturity to discuss such matters. Now, after 7 years of self-help and inner-child work I’ve come to terms with the role of Marie—a survival tactic, an invention, a conceptual sculpture of the Self that quelled the angry Marsha, and healed the wounded Masha inside.

I am now going on to 36 years of age, and re-introducing my childhood nickname Masha as my first name. It feels so much more authentic on a personal level; and “Marie” as more of an American invention, and a shell of that “good daughter” label I so badly craved. I will continue to use Marie in professional contexts, but plan to very gradually phase it out. This commitment has already helped me feel more “at home” and at peace with myself, so I’m OK with taking things slowly and won’t force the change onto others who know me as Marsha or Marie. They’ll adapt with time.

As I’m finally ready for romance again, I’m excited to start introducing myself as Masha moving forward, as the most accurate representation of who I am.

Lice and viral aerosols

This month, I was to make a first-ever return to my birthplace.

Apart from reconnecting with relatives, I wanted to finally bring closure to a traumatic event that tormented me for years. It was there that I had my first experience under quarantine. That’s what’s so ironic about then and now. It wasn’t an action taken by informed guardianship or social responsibility. Instead, the isolation was the result of a primitive and inhumane standard of care.

It was October of 1990 and tension filled the air in the streets of Ukraine. We had just lived through the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl, so the ubiquity of gas masks was a part of many of my memories. The current personal protective equipment deficit reminds me of those days.

Then we ‘hid’ from radiation. Now, we hide from viral aerosols.

Life was confusing, the USSR was collapsing and escapism ruled the world.  Like other new parents amidst a crisis, mine meandered away from answers when met with my endless questioning. As a precocious only child, I talked to strangers whenever possible and accepted our grim reality on condition that I could only ‘go on’ living through fantasy. I created imaginary worlds to find solace in and draw from to entertain myself and the adults around me.

One day as she was brushing my hair, my mother noticed a strange patch on my scalp. My grandma was a doctor, so through her connections I got to see a specialist the following day. They explained that it was an infection caused by the widespread lice/ human flea infestation common among kids at the time. They also confirmed that it was contagious, and ordered a hairless treatment under a strict quarantine. In true Soviet fashion, they didn’t explain the details to me. I knew something was wrong but had no idea what it would take to fix it.

My mother did not react well to the order. She cried and I felt responsible for her pain. As my father shaved off my hair that night, I sat firmly in the chair pleading with her to not be sad. Unprepared for a hospitalization, I thought we’d spend a few hours at a clinic and return home—a dose of medicine I was willing to endure.

The week flew by and next thing I knew we were there. Through minimal conversation, a nurse waiting outside proceeded to escort me in. When I realized my parents weren’t joining, something feral in me awoke. It felt like I was being abandoned; that my health problem deemed me unworthy of a family. What felt like an injustice, my grandma’s right to join [as a medical professional] over my parents angered and frightened me. As I got pulled inside, I watched my father quell my mother standing there in a puddle of her own tears.

This is where I’m going to live, I thought.

First, nurses showed me the shared dormitory. Then, they introduced me to my roommates. Each minute felt like an eternity as white walls caved in under the high ceilings. The most subtle of sounds traveled from corner to corner and private thoughts had the potential to be heard. As my legs moved, my mind floated.

Eye blink, heart beat, step forward. Repeat.

The mood was restless and desperate. Echoing cries were the soundscape of daily life. The energy was dark, unforgiving and cold to the bone. Every few days, a flaming torch was used to burn the infection off my scalp while I laid atop a sterile steel table. It hurt so bad that in the beginning I cried. Once I sensed that this frustrated the doctor and delayed the process, I bucked up. By week two I was slightly cringing at the pain, and by week three I’d slip into a dream state and feel no pain at all.

How quickly kids adapt to torture.

The hospital doubled as an orphanage for children with chronic conditions, and some of my roomies were victims of the AIDS epidemic whose heroin-addicted parents passed away shortly prior. Determining who had living parents and who did not was of primary import to these residents. Those claiming at least one parent enjoyed a higher rank among the group, so right away, I knew I was dealt a fine hand of cards. Bed-making disobedience never ended well so we helped one another avoid disciplinary action. I bonded with a girl who’d, through our cafeteria window, often point to a shanty in the distance. She said her mother lived there ‘eating her own snot,’ and that soon enough she would return for her. Something told me she would not, so I promised to take care of her.

Much like life in prison, we were shut off from the outside world and visits were rare and tightly controlled. Two weeks into my stay, a shocking visit from my parents thawed some of my cold inner hardness. After interacting through an indoor glass window for an hour, we separated and again I found myself torn between hope and despair.

No one could say if and when this would come to an end.

This treatment took three weeks during which I developed survival tendencies that evolved into both personal strengths and deep flaws in character. Some of these were abusive behavior patterns that are taking years to unlearn while honoring the uniquely special set of skills I also gained. Despite how traumatizing it was, this quarantine pales by comparison with the unfolding tragedy we face today.

I don’t feel imprisoned or abandoned the way I did then, as this experience is packed with opportunities. In rediscovering the loving inner voice that gets muffled by constant processing of social interactions, I’ve resumed creative projects and embarked on small wellness journeys — both of which I failed to make time for pre-pandemic. I also postponed my return to Ukraine to next year and I am so glad it worked out this way.

Through a new frame of reference to capture the experience in words, closure will be that much more meaningful. Had I not had this chance for reflection, perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready to physically face and make peace with the memory.

Alas, even through crisis, the universe shows us connections we were too preoccupied to see.

Slow it down

We all buy clothes.

Those of us privileged enough to think about what prices reflect still find little time to contemplate the implications of our purchases. We are too busy deciding if we like how a garment makes us look and feel given its price tag.

Let’s face it. At some point in our lives, we have bought a new clothing item for less than $10 off some clearance rack. As long as we can accept that, we can move on to admit that someone in that supply chain, whether the factory worker who sewed it or the retail employee who folded it a million times before it went home with you, got fucked so you can enjoy a seemingly sweet bargain. People can no longer deny the horrific reality of fast fashion: cheap production for low price tags. As it continues to surface with more global child labor operations exposed and mass producing factories going down in flames due to hazardous conditions, we need to seriously reconsider our buying habits.

The easiest way to change your impact is to buy second hand and sell unwanted clothes as often as possible. Style is not about what you wear but how you wear it, so getting the latest isn’t necessary. If you have a budget to enjoy new fashion design, however, the best way to contribute to conscious industry (small batch production and fair wages) is to choose pieces with a wardrobe building approach. This may mean spend more money on fewer unique, high quality pieces over time. If you choose wisely, they will integrate into your personal style regardless of the trends and fads of the changing times.

Supporting indie fashion brands is a quick way to stand out but more importantly it contributes to a healthier and more sustainable creative economy in which makers and movers of goods are all treated fairly. There is a satisfaction in wearing clothes that was meticulously crafted with care and attention to detail. This adds value to everything from your look to your entire clothing collection.

I recently invested in some wardrobe classics, a leather neck jersey knit halter tank, paneled microfiber leggings and a finely cut leather bolero. All are in black and were hand made in a small batch size runs. The top and leggings are both by an independent designer collaboration, Hilmer + Sparrow and the bolero is by the talented and very rare Shawna Hofmann. The construction and structural integrity of each piece is unparalleled and simply outstanding. All were purchased at the one and only Five & Diamond—a San Francisco design house and retailer. They weren’t cheap but worth every penny. I feel proud that my contributions helped sustain passionate craftsmen, designers and retailers.

Each opportunity to evaluate the significance of a material possession, Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo has taught us to ask ourselves this question: “Does it spark joy?” If the answer is no, then your wardrobe doesn’t need it and you shouldn’t buy it.

Follow on Instagram : Jan Hilmer + Sparrow @janhilmerdesign and Five & Diamond @fiveanddiamond.

 

Upcycling for kidswear

What if you could make children’s clothes for the purpose of handing them down across generations?

Sew Laurel Lee‘s work embodies this idea precisely. A New Zealand based fashion designer, Lee repurposes secondhand textiles into beautiful and timeless outfits for kids. Recently, she partnered with Kimono Kollab, a Singaporean reuse project, to repurpose vintage kimonos into adorable one-of-a-kind dress ensembles. Though clothes like this tend to have a fleeting wearability by one single human in childhood, its appeal is in the concept itself. Such upcycling in the fashion industry has already come into focus as an innovative way to create consciously and reduce waste, but for children’s clothes specifically the idea remains under-explored. Until this past decade, there have been fears surrounding fashion-izing children and what they wear but that was only a projection of adult insecurities about their kids’ futures. Just look at Japanese Coco Princess! Clothes don’t have to be gender specific to help kids feel great about themselves but it helps when they are unique. That’s where upcycling vintage bedding, clothes, homewares, costume and other decorative fabrics can swoop in and impress.

Just imagine cute little overcoats made from 1970s upholstery material. Or bucket hats reconstructed from 1980s marine themed bedding? Old school patterned pillowcases could easily become tops while antique tablecloth can be sculpted into high functioning tween overalls. The possibilities are endless.

If you’re looking to infuse character to the youths in your family while acquiring wearables consciously, Laurel Lee is available for custom orders through her site. Find her at http://www.sewlaurellee.com.

Follow her on Instagram at @sewlaurellee.