Like other aspects of human appearance, clothes have various cultural and sociological implications. Wearing specific kinds of clothing, or even the manner by which they are worn can convey a lot of things about its wearer—it can spell the differences between classes, beliefs, faiths, and attitudes. In many parts of the world, traditional clothes declare memberships in certain religions, tribes, nationalities, etc., as well indicate a person’s social and marital status.
Clothing expresses messages that reflect its society, culture, and era. Sometimes they are testaments to the social conditions from which they were conjured from, and sometimes the message is silent and can only be understood by those with the same cultural background.
In many Muslim countries, clothing signifies the modesty of the wearer. Many Muslim women practice a way of dressing called hijab (image in “Hijab Poster”, 2006). In many western countries, the term hijab is frequently used to refer to the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. However, hijab does not only pertain to headscarves, but is a complex practice that has developed a set of related meanings .
The Qu’ran orders Muslims to dress in a modest manner, and Muslim communities have interpreted hijab in various ways, depending on their interpretation of the Qu’ran and their current circumstances . For some, a head cover would suffice; but others believe that no part of the woman’s body, even the eyes, should be visible such as the case with the Afghan burqa.
Hijab is the Arabic term for barrier. It can also refer to the clothing that upholds modesty by creating a barrier. Muslim women proclaim their respectability by wearing various forms of head and body coverings. According to El Guindi (1999) this veiling practice reveals a “highly stratified social system based on class, moral and marital status, and respectability” . Its primary purpose is to safeguard the women’s modesty, dignity, and honor.
However, many western and feminist views consider hijab as a form of repression—that it serves as a tool for the emancipation of women . However, according to Dr. Fatima Naseef, author of Women in Islam, sees hijab as a “woman’s right to maintain her modesty and to be respected as a person” (qtd. in Mischler, 2004). Many Muslims also believe that hijab actually elevates the status of women by preserving their honor and dignity .
Unfortunately, in some Muslim countries hijab is used not only as a means of prohibition, but as a reason for punishment. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, women should don traditional clothes or face punishment from religious police. In others, women who have eschewed the norms in clothing face public scrutiny and and scorn (El Guindi, 1999). But whether or not they are forced to wear it, the hijab conveys the message of freedom .
For many Muslims, the hijab has long been a statement of identity. Aside from conveying a Qu’ran mandated modesty, one of the reasons for hijab is to distinguish between believers and non-believers of the Muslim faith. Many women feel that wearing traditional Muslim clothes is an affirmation of their faithю
The kimono (image in “Kimono History,” 2006) is the traditional garment of Japan. The term kimono refers specifically to the full-length garment worn by both men and women. There are many variations in style, color, and fabric, as well as in ways of wearing it. Traditionally, the kimono is loose and floor-length, has wide sleeves, and is fastened using a sash.
The styles correspond to the kind of occasion, and often, the type of kimono worn indicates the occasion’s level of formality, which could range from weddings to casual day-to-day activities. It can also convey a woman’s age and marital status. The level of formality is usually determined by the costume’s color, the fabric, and the design. In fabrics, silk is considered the most formal, and cotton as casual. The type of kimono that one chooses to wear symbolizes many subtle social messages.
The kimono does not only serve as a national attire, it is also, according to Goldstein-Gidoni (1999), a “marked feminine attire” . This distinction has helped in creating Japan’s cultural identity. Even in modern times, the kimono-clad female has become a symbol of Japan’s tradition—the kimono is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that is serves as one of the country’s most important cultural distinctions. As such, the kimono-wearing women has become the model of Japanese femininity.
Just like the hijab and Muslim women, the kimono serves as the model of the Japanese ideal of women. In both instances, the choice of how to dress and behave were rarely left to them. According to Goldstein-Gidoni, (1999), “preoccupation with women’s proper role has remade them as representations” (p. 351). Wearing of a kimono also invites feminist criticisms that it restricts the female form, and is therefore oppressive. But in the same way that Muslims value modesty and dignity as intrinsic to their culture, patience and endurance are considered as innate Japanese characteristics .
But whereas the hijab, with its garments’ muted undertones, hides the female appearance, the kimono celebrates it. A closer examination of a kimono reveals many design motifs which belies the designer’s skill and mastery (Goldberg, 1993). The Japanese prizes beauty, especially feminine beauty, and fosters harmony. These attributes are deeply rooted in conveying the kimono’s cultural image (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999). As such, seeing that Muslims’ and the Japanese’ ways fall on different ends of the spectrum, if the two cultures should “converse” through their clothing, they may develop negative view of each other’s ways. However, since both placed values, the basic fabric of all societies, as the central position of their traditional way of dressing, they may find common ground.
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- El Guindi, F. (1999). Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg.
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- Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (1999). Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural, Identities. Ethnology, 38(4), 351-371.
- Hijab Poster. (2006, January 19). World Islamic Network. Retrieved June 16, 2006, from http://www.ezsoftech.com/akram/hijab.asp
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