Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Review)

Book cover for "Visibly Muslim" by Emma Tarlo.Title: Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith

Author: Emma Tarlo

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 256

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased from Chapters

From the cover:

Muslims in Britain and cosmopolitan cities throughout the West are increasingly choosing to express their identity and faith through dress, whether by wearing colourful headscarves, austere black garments or creative new forms of Islamic fashion. Why is dress such an important issue for Muslims? Why is it such a major topic of media interest and international concern?
This timely and important book cuts through media stereotypes of Muslim appearances, providing intimate insights into what clothes really mean to the people who design and wear them. It examines how different ideas of fashion, politics, faith, freedom, beauty, modesty and cultural diversity are articulated by young British Muslims as they seek out clothes which best express their identities, perspectives and concerns. It also explores the wider social and political effects of their clothing choices on the development of transnational cultural formations and multicultural urban spaces.

Based on contemporary ethnographic research, the book is an essential read for students and scholars of religion, sociology, cultural studies, anthropology and fashion as well as anyone interested in cultural diversity and the changing face of cosmopolitan cities throughout the world.

In this book, Emma Tarlo – a non-Muslim – takes a detailed look at the dress practices of Muslims, and how these practices intersect with their ideas of faith, politics, and individual fashion sense and self-image. She states early on that most of the book is focused on women, simply because she was more interested in women’s dress, and also because as a woman, it was far easier for her to gain access to Muslim women’s opinions than those of men.

I absolutely adored Visibly Muslim. Honestly. It was one of the best books I have read so far this year. Here’s a small section from the introduction that gives a better idea of the focus of Tarlo’s research and the scope of the book:

The aim of this book is not to devalue the significance of the headscarf. […] It is, however, to argue, that if we want to understand the significance of hijab today we need to move beyond well-worn debates about whether or not it is liberating or oppressive towards a focus both on its form and on the diversity of meanings attributed to it and activities generated around it. […]

Second, there is a need to resituate the hijab within the wider context of other clothing worn by visibly Muslim women and those with whom they interact in their daily lives. Too often debates about Muslim dress are so focussed on the presence or absence of the headscarf that the rest of a woman’s appearance is somehow invisible, irrelevant and ignored. But scarves are never worn in isolation. They form part of covered outfits which may be loose or fitted, muted or bold, self-consciously fashionable or unfashionable. […] Many will have wardrobes containing a variety of options. Attention to such details offers the possibility of moving beyond the veiled/unveiled dichotomy to create more variegated and complex understandings of contemporary Muslim dress practices.

Tarlo didn’t simply research “the veil”, or even just other types of distinct and traditional Muslim dress like jilbabs and the niqab, but went further to explore basically any style of dress that would make a Muslim identifiable in the West. She took close looks at a multitude of women and varying personal styles and group trends, including a section on the niqab (face veil) and another on the emergence of Islamic fashion stores and online retailers.

I really can’t give you a more detailed version than that without oversimplifying the content of Visibly Muslim. All I can really say is that I loved every minute of it and devoured it basically in one sitting. If you’re at all interested or intrigued by Muslim dress, particularly that of women, or even just of fashion trends in general, this is definitely a book for you! It goes below the surface into the faith and politics behind Muslim dress, offering a detailed look into the diverse attitudes and responses to outward projections of modesty.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

8 thoughts on “Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Review)”

  1. Did she talk at all about women who choose not to wear traditional Muslim dress? Do they tend to be less religious? Yes, this is completely my ignorance talking on the subject! I feel like I’m learning through your posts so please forgive me if I ask stupid questions.

    The book sounds really interesting. I’ve never really thought much about how Muslim women dress. I figure it’s just a part of them, but I do wonder if they feel like they will be discriminated against because they are dressed noticeably different in Western nations.

    When I get my TBR list down, I will definitely be looking through your Ramadan posts to look for some books. I’ve really enjoyed your reviews this month!

    1. She doesn’t really talk much about women who don’t wear Muslim dress in some fashion, largely because her interest lies in looking at the fashion choices of women and how they intersect with faith. Also, there really isn’t one kind of “traditional” Muslim dress – most styles that people assume are traditional, are really some form of a cultural dress, usually Arab or South Asian. The book also explained really well how Muslim dress differs between women in the Middle East, women in Europe, and even women in North America.

      She does also make reference to the fact that different Muslim women interpret the dress code differently, even among those who choose forms of dress that are more obvious. Not all the women she talks to wear “the veil”, but might dress modestly in other ways, such as wearing long sleeves and long dresses/pants. I really found the book interesting for the psychology behind the ways people dress, from my perspective as a Muslim convert who no one would ever guess was a Muslim from coming across me in the street.

      Also, no question is stupid!

  2. What a great topic! Westerners especially like to think that every muslim woman who wears a head scarf is oppressed. It sounds like the author of this book shows that it is often personal choice and that there are wide variances on what muslim women wear. There are currently huge debates going on in European countries about what to religious items to allow students to wear in school, the head scarf being one of the most hotly debated items.

    1. Indeed, she does give lots of options, and explains things in great depth! There are some debates about it here, too – particularly a niqab case in Quebec – but in general, we don’t have as much problem with it as, say, France does.

    1. Yes, it can! I’m not a scarfy, so it can get really frustrating sometimes, being told both from within and outside of the community that only scarfies are Muslim.

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