Chiara Sebastiani is Alma Mater Professor of Bologna University where she has held courses in the fields of Public Communication, Local Government and Urban Studies. She is currently an independent researcher contributing as freelance to several magazines. Her research focuses on Tunisia - where she has done intensive field work before and after the Jasmine Revolution – and on gender issues.

She is also a Jungian psychoanalyst with a focus on the relationship between Islam and psychoanalysis.

She lives and works in Milan.

Politics between dress code and fashion

Though Richard Thompson Ford's 2022 book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History equates the term 'dress code' with fashion itself, it is useful to make a distinction between the two.[1] A dress code is compulsory, it imposes an attire and is sanctioned by an authority; as such, dress codes exist in the domain of politics. Fashion, on the other hand, is merely normative: it creates a set of shared values which are sanctioned merely by social approval or disapproval.

Fashion is a modern concept. It emerged with the end of the Ancien Régime together with the collapse of the systems of court life and birth ranks and the rise of a society of individuals. [2] Like dress codes, fashion links people’s appearance in the public space to the social order, but its authority is based on shared rules and values which impose themselves through images, narratives, and symbols. Dress codes may both impose uniformity (as in Maoist China) or status-based differences (as in the case of medieval guilds); incidentally, similar effects can be obtained, by fashion, through the display of wealth or status.

When public authorities step in to rule on garments – by sumptuary laws or the like – they set a limit on fashion through dress codes thus bringing it into the domain of politics. Since the rise of fashion, the resurgence of dress codes has always served a political agenda. In the 19th-century Ottoman empire, laws were passed to ban European female fashion, especially French fashion which was also simply known as “fashion” (la mode). Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, after Ataturk’s revolution, laws were passed to impose European male fashion, especially the hat and costume (male suit), which reminds us that fashion, in spite of all the efforts in the production chain, is still perceived as a prevailingly feminine matter, whereas dress codes concern men and women alike. [3]

The rise of “modest fashion”

Though the processes of liberalizing dress codes and politicizing fashion have been the subject of extensive historical and scholarly research, there is a widespread perception in the Western world that an increasingly modest dress-style, referring specifically to Muslim modest attire, is “political” – perhaps even more political than other contemporary styles and fashions, as proven not only by media discourse but also by laws and public regulations enforced in the past three decades in various countries. [4]

Muslim modest fashion is inspired by the Islamic shariah-compliant dress code, that is to say the dress code that can be drawn from the religious sources of the Quran or the Sunna (prophetic tradition). Despite some marginal differences in opinion, there is a general agreement that for women the shariah-compliant dress code implies fully covering the body with the sole exception of face, hands and – for some — feet, in the presence of any man they could potentially marry. Though modesty is prescribed to both men and women, and there is a dress code for both sexes, modest fashion has generally been regarded as exclusively feminine. When men seek to conform to the masculine Muslim dress code, they simply call it “dressing in conformity to the Sunna” or something like that, and, while feminine modest fashion is currently well represented in the fashion industry, masculine modest attire is, as far as I know, still a pioneering, albeit promising, enterprise.

In modern times, women have gradually abandoned the headwear which – in different shapes and styles, ranging from traditional church veils to bonnets and to the more contemporary hats – has up until recently been a distinctive, widespread, almost archetypal feminine feature across cultures. For this reason, nowadays, a woman covering her hair identifies her almost immediately as a Muslim, more than any other feature in her outfit. Currently, the most common way for Muslim women to cover their hair is the headscarf, which allows for infinite variations of fabrics, colors, and style, and is referred to by the word hijab (of Quranic origin.). Because of its characteristics, the hijab can be worn with almost any kind of outfit that respects shariah rules, including several garments which are also worn by non-Muslims. This has allowed a Modest Fashion to develop through grafting shariah-compliant features onto Western outfits. In recent years, the fashion industry has shown an increasing interest in modest feminine clothing, eventually translating modest attire into fashionable items.

Modest fashion is subject to a variety of interpretations; according to some it accommodates religious revivalism, for others it expresses the commodification of religion, for others still it is inspired by identitarian vindication. Discourses almost always focus on the feminine headscarf, despite the fact that modest fashion encompasses much more than the hijab. Though both economics and sociology increasingly consider modest fashion – like any other fashion – as something included in their domains, nevertheless it is systematically the object of political claims. In other words, modest fashion is politicized through dress code restrictions, to which it reacts by elaborating new fashions, as shown by the two cases of France and Tunisia that are hereby discussed. In the third case, that of Italy, the process is not sequential: here we see fashion competing with dress code, gradually nibbling at its domain. [5]

 Celebrating Aid al Iddha in Milan. Photo by Chiara Sebastiani.

France: From Affaire du Voile to Mode Pudique

The French affaire has quite a different meaning than the English affair: both words are to some extent euphemisms, but whereas the latter is a polite allusion to a more or less licit sexual relationship, the former encompasses a thorny political issue. Just like the 19th century affaire Dreyfus drew attention to antisemitism in France, the story recorded as l’affaire du voile de Creil drew attention on the issue of islamophobia.

On September 18th 1989 – the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and just nine days after the fall of the Berlin Wall – in a collège (high school) in Creil, a banlieue (suburb) of Paris, three teenage girls of North African origin and Muslim religion, Leila, Fatima, and Samira, were expelled for refusing to take off their hijab in school. Over a few days, a piece of fabric became the topic of heated debates across the media. Since then, in France, the foulard issue has never quite been overcome. On the contrary, the anti-hijab crusade expanded and reached its peak in 2004 following a new affaire, that of the Lévy sisters Alma and Lila (of a non-religious Jewish family) who refused to compromise on the wearing of the hijab — for instance, as proposed by the school principals, by leaving their ear lobes and some hair in sight — and were thus expelled. That year, an overwhelming parliamentary majority voted in a law that prohibited the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” in public schools, on the grounds of the necessity to protect educational and republican secularism. The fact that the law also prohibited “large crosses” (which are not really worn by anyone, except perhaps by nuns?) and yarmulkes, graciously allowing small, discrete pendants depicting crosses or hands of Fatma (which are considered a charm and as such haram – forbidden — by most Muslims) wasn’t enough to fool anyone regarding its neutrality.

Apparently, lawmakers knew little — or cared little — about the difference between religious dress code and culture-inspired fashion. One may wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser, or at least easier, for the principals of the high schools involved in the affaire to simply state that the hijab, being an extensively used garment, could not unequivocally be ascribed to religion: as a marker of culture and fashion, just like knitted skull caps or cross-shaped jewellery, it might as well have been equated to other (teenage) fashion items, and therefore allowed. All the more so considering that the popularity of the foulard in the first half of the 20th century — when many women still wore a headdress in public spaces – paradoxically originates from French fashion, as proven by the widespread use of the French term in other languages. A foulard by Hermès used to be a typical upper-class 18th-birthday gift, and Brigitte Bardot’s way of donning a headscarf was, and still is, copied by countless young women. In spite of all this, instead of stressing the cultural contents of the Muslim hijab and welcoming its fashionization, policy makers in France did exactly the contrary, thus proceeding to an awkward codification of what is allowed and what is prohibited in terms of accessories in schools and public institutions.

This had a boomerang effect; almost 20 years after the banning of religious symbols in school attire, a new mode pudique is spreading in France, gaining a popularity that neither the Creil schoolgirls nor the Lévy lycéennes had ever known, or indeed desired. [6] Ten years after the headscarf ban, Muslim schoolgirls have started wearing abayas, djilbabs, ankle-length skirts, Turkish fashion sarwels, and various curve-concealing tunics. [7] They come to school donning their headscarf and diligently remove before entering the classroom, but the rest of their modest attire actually distinguishes them way more than an hijab would do. As a consequence, 30 years after the affaire du foulard de Creil, we now have an affaire de la jupe longue (long skirt affaire) de Charleville-Mézières [8], which could sound like a joke were it not for the fact that since the 2004 law on “ostentatious religious signs,” teenagers have been excluded from school for wearing long boho-style skirts, headbands, or whatever item a teacher or principal happens to find “too Islamic.”

It is fashion’s job to innovate on dress codes, and it is the job of  politics to set acceptable boundaries (which indeed exist everywhere), but when politics attempts to pursue fashion it often proves futile. In an interview for the progressive French newspaper Le Monde, philosopher and feminist Elisabeth Badinter suggests boycotting all brands offering modest fashion collections. [9] In an interview for its conservative counterpart, Le Figaro, political science scholar and Sorbonne professor Renée Fregosi demands a revision of the 2004 law, making it stricter for Muslims and more tolerant for other religions. Fregosi bewails that nowadays “pretty and educated young women ‘modestly’ wearing a flowery hijab” are invited on TV talk shows. [10] Considering that for decades left-wing feminists and right-wing republicans have agreed on the fact that the hijab is a symbol of women’s submission, such a complaint is rather paradoxical.

Tunisia: From safsari to hijab

In Tunisia – where 99% of the population are Muslim – one would expect matters to go differently, but the dynamics are strikingly similar to those of the West: while fashion proposes new dress codes, politics opposes fashion(s) by imposing its own dress codes.

For centuries, the traditional Tunisian garment worn by women in public space has been the safsari, a large piece of white cotton or silk fabric that women wore over the head and draped so as to conceal the body. It used to be one of the most characteristic expressions of Tunisian culture and the slim silhouette of a safsari-clad woman inspired painters, sculptors, poets and filmmakers, until it was opposed by French colonial powers, ostensibly as a symbol of women’s submission but in truth as an anti-colonial marker of local culture and values. After national independence, the anti-safsari campaign was taken over by Habib Bourguiba, the first president of the new Tunisian Republic: though a hero of the anti-colonial struggle, he also was an admirer of French culture, modernity, and secularism and, to him, the safsari represented quite the opposite set of values. A famous photo from the fifties shows him taking the safsari off an old woman; other photos show him surrounded by ladies dressed in the ceremonial attire that was in vogue in Europe in those years, featuring plunging necklines and bare arms and shoulders.

Nevertheless, the Western fashion promoted by Bourguiba remained a prerogative of the urban elites. In the rising middle classes it was only partially adopted, while, at the same time, the traditional safsari was gradually replaced by the hijab. Although the hijab can in many ways be considered more compliant with modern expressions of femininity than the safsari (it gives more freedom of movement and adapts better to the requirements of work, sports, and physical activity in general,) it was equally ostracized. Hind Shalaby, a Tunisian scholar and professor, was the first student to attend university courses wearing a hijab. She became famous in 1975 for delivering a speech on the status of women in Islam wearing a hijab and traditional Tunisian attire, in the presence of Bourguiba, other government officials, and several foreign diplomats. When, in 1981, the hijab was officially banned in public institutions, she reverted to the safsari, which by that point was used solely by elderly women from the poorer or rural milieu. The hijab ban continued after the 1987 coup that brought president Ben Ali to power. Following the regime’s directions, policemen started ripping off women’s veils in the streets, and taking them to the police station with the purpose of intimidating them.

Just as colonial powers had seen in the traditional safsari an anti-colonial symbol, the new secularist regimes saw in the hijab an unwelcomed symbol of Islamic revival. In truth though, just as the safsari had been a part of the tradition, the hijab was actually a sign of innovation. Indeed, according to many of the women that I interviewed during my post-Revolution fieldwork, it was connected to a new local feminine fashion that rose to prominence inspired by the Arab TV series (known as mosalsalat) produced in the Gulf countries. As such, it displeased the bourgeois and francophone sectors of feminist movements, who saw in it a shift from European culture and values to social norms and aesthetics imported from the Middle East, including the puritan Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. But this ideological lens totally missed the TV-inspired glamour, as well as the simple fact that, as one of my young female interviewees remarked, “the hijab is far more practical than the safsari!”

Research done by Tunisian sociologist Mohamed Kerrou confirms the non-ideological factors behind the hijab. [11] One year before the 2011 revolution that liberalized the hijab, he described three types of Islamic veils which could back then be found in Tunisia, defining them as “traditional veils,” “Islamist,” or “political veils,” and “new veils.” His work focuses on the latter, which he describes as “less political than religious and less religious than cultural, symbolic, identitarian.” What he is in fact describing, although without explicitly naming it, is the development of a “modest fashion.” The “new veils” he observes are part of a variety of “cool” outfits designed to make women visible, rather than invisible. What Kerrou may have missed is the fact that what he calls “new veils” – a burgeoning modest fashion – overlap his underlying typology of “traditional,” “islamist,” and “modern” women. The trendy young student sitting with her friends in a cafe wearing a fashionable silk veil may be either a politically engaged member of the Islamic revival Ennahda party, or the pious daughter of a traditional rural family who has arranged her marriage with her full consent.

Fashion, as opposed to dress code, does not allow simplistic labelling of individuals or attempts at pigeonhole meanings. Thus, ironically, Tunisian secular feminists, who had bemoaned the safsari as a symbol of women’s submission, are now regretting it. “At least it was part of our national heritage!” is a complaint I often hear.

Domestic fashion atelier in the house of a Muslim immigrant in Milan. Photo by Chiara Sebastiani.

“Discourses almost always focus on the feminine headscarf, despite the fact that modest fashion encompasses much more than the hijab.”

Italy between “Hijab Paradise” and “Hijab Queen”

Italy differs from the two previous cases in the fact that the widespread presence of the hijab in public spaces is a recent phenomenon. As such, it is -still- perceived as something exotic, despite the fact centuries of painting masterpieces portraying gentile women with veils, and that “taking the veil” is the traditional Italian metaphor for “becoming a nun.” In Italy, the hijab was specifically identified as a shariah-compliant garment only in the Eighties when, after decades of emigration,  the country became a destination for immigration. Among the immigrants in Italy, the Romanians form by far the largest community, followed by the Albanians; the first ones are mainly Orthodox Christians, while the second ones have been thoroughly secularized by the former communist regime. The largest Muslim community, the Moroccans, ranks only third in size, distantly followed by the Bangladeshi, Egyptian, and Tunisian communities; however, although Muslim women are actually not that many, their attire makes them very visible and more easily identifiable. And since, initially, the labor-related immigration from Muslim countries was almost exclusively masculine, it was only when the market developed a demand for feminine labor and migration policies allowed for family reuniting (with a law passed in 1998) that Italians started to see larger numbers of women wearing the Muslim headscarf.

The sight was unwelcome; not on the grounds of secularism – Italy is not a secular country — but on those of labor, welfare, and identity competition between natives and foreigners. No state law was ever passed against the hijab, but there has been a scattered spread of restrictions in access to public services and institutions to women wearing a headscarf, implemented by local governments and public administration officials. Access to the labor market for women wearing the hijab also met restrictions in the private sector: European jurisprudence generally favors the employers’ right to establish a dress code, and many tend to exclude the hijab. These restrictions, coupled with the Italians’ scarce familiarity with Muslim religion and culture, as well as their confusion regarding the entire matter, have produced an environment which almost hysterically focuses on The Veil as a conspicuous sign both of Islamic creed and foreign origin, despite the fact that the two are far from overlapping nowadays; not to mention its identification with “terrorism.”

This environment serves as a backdrop for young cartoonist Takoua Ben Mohammed’s delightful animation, Sotto il velo (“Under the veil"). [12] Autobiographically inspired, the cartoon describes the adventures of a young “second generation” girl of Tunisian origins, who wears her hijab in a large Italian city, paring it with a rather casual leggings and tunic ensemble. On hot summer days, the girl meets a few elderly women who, to her uncommitted remark about the heat, invariably answer “Well, why don’t you just take off that veil?” (to which she retorts to herself: “If I take it off is it going to snow?”). And when entering a café, greeted by unwelcoming whispers such as “terrorist”, she walks up to the counter and asks loudly for a “bomb”, which is also the Italian name for a cream pastry. Generally self-confident and ironic, Takoua Ben Mohamed’s young protagonist is far less so when it comes to looks, and her beauty ideal is very much not the average Western supermodel. It is the beautiful models featured in a Muslim fashion magazine sporting glamorous shariah-compliant outfits that leave her speechless, and her attempts to imitate them are a source of never-ending frustration.

Given this context, it was great news for local Muslim women when a shop dedicated exclusively to “modest fashion” opened for the first time in Italy in 2018 in the city of Bologna, more renowned for its ancient university and its robust cuisine than for fashion and chic. It was named after the Turkish brand “Hijab Paradise,” and has by now also developed a thriving online business, accommodating increasing requests from middle and working-class Muslim women. Earlier still, in 2016, Dolce & Gabbana’s “Abaya Collection” had also placed a spotlight on modest fashion, perhaps making the hijab more acceptable - though still far from trendy - for the fashion-savvy Italians. Incidentally, that same year, an unusual event called “Hair under the veil” took place in a famous hairdressers’ salon in Rome, hosting an academic, Renata Pepicelli, who has authored a book on the Islamic veil [13] a journalist, Francesca Caferri, who investigated second generation Italian Muslim girls,[14] cartoonist Takoua Ben Mohamed, and a young Italian-Moroccan fashion designer, Hind Lafram. In this unconventional setting, involving hairdressers’ habituées as well as experts in media and culture, a lively panel discussion on the meaning of hijab in religion, culture and daily experience took place, followed by a luscious Oriental buffet. Lafram had the opportunity to present her personal experience and the professional work she was just starting with a big firm, and spoke about “the need to feel both Italian and Muslim.” [15] This is no small issue in a country where a woman is still identified as either Italian or Muslim. Fashion, Lafram feels, can contribute to this. Eminent scholars and public space experts [16] would probably concur.

A somewhat different purpose has inspired the recent “Hijab Queen” event, the first beauty pageant in Europe directed at Muslim women wearing the hijab, which took place in Milan in 2021. Officially meant to “support young girls wearing the hijab in the challenges they meet in European societies” (as stated on the flyer), it proved highly controversial, raising both enthusiasm and criticism mostly within the Muslim community (mainstream media being generally benign, social media less). The reason for this, we may speculate, is that the “Hijab Queen” event, as opposed to “Hair under the veil,” was not focused on fashion (or style) but on - shariah-compliant - dress codes, which somehow places it into the realm of political debate.
Promotional flyer for Hijab Day in Italy.

From “modest fashion” to fashion

This last case challenges further speculation. If one moves from the working-class Milan suburb of Cinisello Balsamo, where the Hijab Queen event took place and which is home to a large migrant Muslim community, to the luxury fashion district in the heart of Milan, a favourite shopping destination for the wealthy cosmopolitan Muslim clientele, one wonders if the shariah-compliant attires that one can admire there can really be called “modest fashion.” Not because their luxurious twist makes them immodest, rather because the elite’s array, however you frame it, is not “modest fashion” but simply “fashion.” It may be adopted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for a whole set of reasons (aesthetical, identitarian, practical) which do not necessarily refer to shariah.

This is exactly what Hijab Paradises and emerging designers such as Hind Lafram are trying to do: turning modest fashion into a fashion trend that, while accommodating the requests of a Muslim community that cannot afford to shop in Via Montenapoleone, might also attract non-Muslims who choose to dress modestly merely for aesthetic reasons..

We may thus argue that fashion gains importance when dress codes lose it, and vice versa. Reina Lewis presented her seminal book on Muslim fashion as a contribution to “the political project of de-exceptionalizing Muslim youth,” [17] disembedding its distinctive practices and symbols from the current discourses. At that time, shifting the hijab – arguably the most discussed of such practices – from the discursive themes of religion, submission of women, and security to the semantic area of fashion, was in itself a challenge to mainstream analyses and narratives. Today we probably need a political project of de-exceptionalizing modest fashion. There’s nothing political about modest fashion — it is dress codes themselves that are political, be they modest or not.

Notes: Modest Fashion

[1] See for instance Richard Thompson Ford, Dress Codes. How the Laws of Fashion made History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022)

[2] Frédéric Monneyron, Sociologie de la mode (Paris: PUF, 2021)

[3] Alberto Fabio Ambrosio, “Les habits de la révolution: la Turquie entre Oriente et Occident”, Histoire, Europe et Relations Internationales, n. 1, 2022.

[4] For a wide review of cases see Djurdja Bartlett (ed.), (2019), Fashion and Politics (Yale: Yale University Press,2019).

[5] The first case is based mainly on media analysis, the second and third on ethnographic research.

[6] The title of their autobiography stresses their being “just ordinary girls”. See Lévy, Alma and Lévy, Lila, Des filles comme les autres (Paris: La Découverte, 2022).

[7] Vincent Mongaillard, “C’est pout la ‘pudeur’”, Le Parisien, 11 March 2015,

[8] Marie Magasse-Konaté, Marie, “Virée du collège pour une jupe: les dérives de la loi 2004“, Saphir News, 15 May 2013.

[9] Nicolas Trong, “Elisabeth Badinter appelle au boycott des marques qui se lancent dans la mode islamique“, Le Monde, 1 April 2016

[10] Fregosi, Renée (2018), “RenéeFregosi: ‘La loi de 2004 sur les signes réligieux ostentatoires a manqué son cible”, Le Figaro, June 4.

[11] Mohamed Kerrou, Hijab. Nouveaux voiles et espace public (Tunis: Cérès Editions, 2010).

[12]Takoua Ben Mohamed, Sotto il velo (Padova: BeccoGiallo, 2016).

[13]See Renata Pepicelli, Il velo nell’islam (Roma: Carocci, 2012)

[14]See Francesca Caferri, Le nuove italiane (Milano:Mondadori XS, 2013)

[15]Domenico Guarino, “Hind Lafram, la prima stilista italiana per donne musulmane”, La Nazione, 3 giugno 2022,

[16]See for instance Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Knopf, 1977)

[17]Reina Lewis, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015)

Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience
Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016