Academic style

Google ‘academic style’ and chances are you’ll get academic writing style and not academic sartorial style. How is a woman to know how to dress like an academic?

Deciding what to wear for work as an academic is supposed to be exciting. The academic identity exudes authority and expertise, and so it should seem obvious that sartorially, we should choose clothing that reflect, and whenever necessary, amplify those qualities.

But being a female academic is more complicated. Because as women, we are judged by how we look so much despite being in a job that trades on our intellectual faculties. It is so easy to make a misstep: we can be too dressy, too matronly, too frivolous, too decorative. Yes, we as women can be our own worst critic. I am also guilty for thinking that my female colleague looks like a Carmelite monk.

Pantsuits are quite unusual in academia. There is a deliberate emphasis on looking casual but smart. Chunky, exotic jewellery may be necessary for female anthropologists. Whatever female academics choose to wear at work, the balance between authority and approachability can be challenging to achieve. It’s mainly because the feminine image of authority is quite rare and lacking in diversity.

I turn to the British historian Lucy Worsley for inspiration. Her chic hairstyle and ever so smart dresses enhances my perception of her enthusiasm and expertise. She is the embodiment of the ‘nice work’ that academia is thought to represent. But hers is a style I can only aspire. After all, she wears bright and flattering coats and dresses because they’re good for television (well, she says so herself) and she is a self-professed lover of fashion. I can only dream to wear cute dresses and sexy shoes to work everyday.

The historian Lucy Worsley. I would like to think that academics can dress like this on a normal day at work.

The place where I work values modesty as an organising principle. There are signs to remind that the campus space is a morally conservative space. Bodies that pass through this space must conform to a regime that goes beyond sartorial control. If anything, the dress code is part of a bigger disciplinary programme to manufacture a certain type of citizen. The characteristics of the citizen in question is well rehearsed in the long-running lamentations about the multiple failures of the Malaysian educational system.

It is worth remembering that the university is not a hermetically-sealed bubble however much you may argue it is. Considering the campus’s relation to the wider cultural context and general attitude to style in Kuala Lumpur, we are not known to be particularly stylish people or a nation celebrated for its sophistication and style. My campus is not in London or Paris and it shows.

All this pondering and writing about ‘academic attire’ belies my rather diffident attitude about style. And here’s a confession: I have yet to update my wardrobe which currently consists of graduate student clothes and tatty blouses from my teenage years. I am hugely reluctant to shop and prefer spending my money on food and drink. My reluctance stems from a stubborn frugality and the flawed conviction that the mind is enough to create an impression.

Dear Reader, I will eventually make that leap into the mysterious world of clothes that befits the new academic once I have figured out the right kind of blouse, skirt, shirt, and trousers I am allowed to wear at work.

Aquila: A new kind of Muslim woman?

First published in Muslimah Media Watch

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

For those familiar with women’s “lifestyle” magazines, the call to be “sexy” in some way or another is not new. We women need to have “sexy” everything: attitude, legs, skin, armpits, you name it. So pervasive is this message that I’m surprised that no one has spontaneously combusted from sexual arousal at the sight of a women’s magazine devotee.

And then we have the new Aquila magazine, whose key buzzwords are modesty and fabulousness.

As the “world’s first English fashion and lifestyle magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women in Asia” that is based in Singapore, Aquila serves up the standard menu of any glossy: tips on make-up, shopping, book and film reviews, and some lightweight advice on career-building.

Aimed at readers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, modesty and fabulousness are far from alien concepts: Muslim women of all ages, hijabis in particular, in Southeast Asia are intensely responsive to new faith-based sartorial trends, perhaps more so than women who do not cover their hair.

That said, Islamic consumerism, as cynical as it sounds, is a fairly new phenomenon in which women in the region form an active role. Aquila is an obvious byproduct of the purchasing power of Muslim women in Southeast Asia, but whether or not it aims to be representative of its target audience is quite another matter. So let us explore this issue by breaking it down to three parts, based on how well it’s doing for its intended readers thus far:

The good: The one thing I can generously say about Aquila is that there seems to be an intention that it offers something for everybody: from articles on face creams to an as yet developed page on “science,” which I hope will be a more informative take on scientific breakthroughs, instead of the science of eye creams and hair serum.

The bad: The beating heart of any self-respecting popular publication is the opinion piece. Often brief and pseudo-philosophical, the op-ed is, for me, what makes fashion magazines human and less banal. But that was what I thought before I came across the first opinion piece on Aquila. Entitled “Leap of Faith,” it reveals the thoughts of a Muslim man whose moral dilemma about his daughter dating a non-Muslim seems to completely eclipse his social drinking habits, at his favorite drinking hole no less! The piece ended on a cryptic note that suggested a sense hypocrisy that plagues the urban, middle-class and the selectively liberal Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, but lacked any insight or depth in what is a serious issue that very much concerns the intended reader.

The could-be-better: Though brand-spanking-new with the impressive accolade of being a kind of landmark magazine for Southeast Asian Muslim women, Aquila looks more like a half-built project with little pizzazz.  The graphics leave plenty to be desired, but then that wouldn’t be such an issue if it had more substantial content. I get the feeling that Aquila isn’t really targeted at parents, as it lists “kids” as a “lifestyle” issue that sits at the bottom of the drop down list. But I shouldn’t really be asking for the moon here, as most fashion and beauty magazines rarely figure parenthood as a particularly “trendy” subject.

In sum, Aquila is far from divinely inspired. It is a bland derivative of many beaten dead horses called women’s fashion magazines, except with less exposed flesh. It reminds me why I’ve stopped reading such things for good. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is trying hard to be representative of the young, upwardly mobile Muslim women who are taking Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia by storm. If the magazine’s not so modest vision of being “the world’s most trusted authority on the intelligence of affluent Muslims” is anything to go by, I would suggest Asian Muslim women to read elsewhere for fabulous inspiration.



Book review: The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie – Intimacy and Design by Malu Halasa and Rana Salam

Image via Amazon.co.uk
Image via Amazon.co.uk

Syria’s unlikely notoriety for racy underwear collides head on with the stereotyped image of the veiled and prudish Muslim woman. In a way, ‘The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie‘ (2008, Chronicle Books) had come at an opportune time to dispel these fossilised images, but at the same time will feed to a ‘Western’ obsession with what lies under the veil.

Some of the raciest, most imaginative articles of ladies undergarments can be found in Syria: from G-strings attached with toy mobile phones, angel outfits complete with a pair of wings, to ‘curtain’ bras that draw open at a naughty touch of a remote control. It is perhaps a surprise then that these are manufactured by conservative Sunni families for an equally conservative clientele. Suffice to say, there is no hiding the fact that a fulfilling sex life for married couples is crucial for Muslims, and the expectations of a new bride to be at her most erotic on her wedding night is paramount.

The history of Syrian-made lingerie became interlinked with the country’s economic success story following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Before the days of outrageous underwear, Syrian women wore imported bras and cheap ill-fitting cotton vests and elasticised bands. Today, home-grown lingerie competes with transnational brand names as a coveted commodity found everywhere in the shopping complexes, hairdressing salons and in the souks across the country and its neighbouring regions.

Read More »

Lipstick feminism is not feminism

There are a couple of reasons why feminism has a difficult time taking root in many places; first, it’s because there is widespread suspicion of its origins. Historically and currently (by the Bush Admin), it has been abused to spread imperialism. It has strong associations with the privileged and ironically, paternalistic women who like to tell Muslim women what not to wear. Also, because it is home to lipstick feminism. Renee at Feministe has posted a good argument against women who claim empowerment from fashion and make-up but often forget the many other women who are tragically disempowered to keep lipstick feminism alive:

When women who are middle/upper class engage in a debate as to whether an article of clothing, or makeup is suitably feminist what they are ignoring is that they are  in a position to engage in this particular conversation, because they exist with class privilege.

A woman who is making less than 1USD per day does not have time to concern herself with whether or not patriarchy is informing her clothing choices.  This woman must deal with trying to provide subsistence for herself and her family under brutal economic slave labour.  Her class location informs her position, as the realities of her daily lived experience extinguish the angst that lipstick/utility feminists engage in.

Regardless of your position regarding performing femininity through make up and or  clothing, what cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women.  The cult of I blinds us from the reality that in  our debate about agency and autonomy, we are completely obscuring the degree to which we personally are responsible for the impoverishment of others.  Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer?  Though feminism is a movement to end oppression against women, often times the failure to acknowledge privilege leads to the marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable within our society.  Class division is not a  flight of fancy, and to ignore the ways in which the Cult of I, turns us into oppressors is to decide unilaterally that only certain women matter.

You can read her full article here.

Update: Here’s an article posted at The F-Word that got me questioning about how I identify myself as a feminist and here’s a bit of defending the post’s title (Lipstick feminism is not feminism): I like lipstick and I do believe that to some extent it boosts my self-confidence, it assures me that I look pretty. There I said it, I need make-up for self-esteem sometimes. But then again, without make-up and new clothes I’m still me, the same self-assured woman-Muslim-feminist-daughter-lover-cook-pianist-artist who does not need to put everything I enjoy into boxes labeled feminist or not, ‘cos that’s just silly.

The tackiness and insensitivity that is Vogue India

This was originally posted on The New York Times website:

NEW DELHI — An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).

A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.

Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).

Welcome to the new India — at least as Vogue sees it.

Vogue India’s August issue presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejeweled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modeled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused.

Read More »