If the fall catwalks were any indication, big hijab might be the Muslim girl’s answer to fashion’s current push toward ever bigger manes. On ’08 runways from Michael Kors to Thakoon and Dior to Derek Lam, the bouffant was back – and with a vengeance. Perhaps part of the allure of this highly structured silhouette lies in its participation in an international look du jour. But given that Kuwait University’s glam-abaya set began raising the bar for hijab nearly two years ago, my hunch is that the Gulf trend for big hijab goes deeper than the mere globalization of fashion. Either that, or the girls at KU have a better nose for fashion than the proverbial lovechild of Anna Wintour and Majed al-Sabah.Certainly the new silhouette is indicative of a growing desire among Kuwaiti girls for visible expressions of personal style consistent with global trends. But in the case of big hjiab, this style may be more local than global and more collective than individual. In contemporary Kuwait, truly the pearl of the Gulf, hundreds of ethnicities mingle and flow together in a cosmopolitan flux. But there’s a downside to this diversity, and the native population can feel submerged in a sea of difference. In this context, it’s not hard to understand the need for visible codes of identity that distinguish national from guest. More than anything else, big hijab may represent a reactionary need to assert the sovereignty, and by extention, the superiority, of national identity – abstracted, of course, into fashion’s unique language. But we can’t forget the purely functional either. At least some women who add shabbasas to their evening primping sessions are motivated by the desire to create an impression of fuller hair. History teaches us that in this they are not alone; thin hair was, after all, the raison d’etre of Marie Antoinette’s famous bouffants. Faced with the reality of thin hair, decidedly unregal, the young Austrian queen of France created a veritable rage for hair that was not only big, but larger than life. At parties and balls throughout Louis XVI’s France, the size and ornamentation of these flour-stiffened hairdos were playful – and powerful – embodiments of social status. In the midst of an aristocratic exuberance some say has never since been matched, bouffants became real conversation pieces: decked with extravagant baubles, even miniature ships, they went well beyond any question of function.
In the Islamic context, things are, of course, a bit different. Given a social atmosphere defined by a decorum of sexual modesty symbolized by the veil, whether worn or not, the Middle East has traditionally been a world where the imagination plays an even greater role in the game of seduction [not Islamic]. Evoking the contours of a resplendent mass of dark hair is a predictable technique of this game. But as in Marie Antoinette’s world, the increasingly dramatic proportions have taken on a life of their own, creating the impression not of fuller hair – no one would want that much hair – but of a zeitgeist of oil-fed fullness and abundance. Despite the gargantuan proportions that big hijab has achieved, the look had very humble beginnings. When the trend was still in its infancy and the market had yet to respond with the production of specialty accessories, pomp-quotients were raised using … yogurt cups. Yes, yogurt cups. If you think this sounds strange, keep in mind that smirking silently under Sarah Palin’s saucy ‘do is none other than a delicate scaffolding of plastic – a plastic cup in fact not unlike a container of Activia or al-Mara’i.
Many religious authorities have voiced their disapproval of the trend citing a hadith (saying of the Prophet Mohammed) about women in hell with camel humps on their heads. Declaring it an inappropriate innovation on the traditional veil and an affront to the very idea and intention of veiling, local shuyukh lent their voices to a growing movement of anti-pompadourism. Some went so far as to ban the new look, expressly forbidding the use of the shabbasa. Like the stiletto heel in Saudi Arabia, big hijab was painted as a dangerous agent of high-impact sexuality.One must not jump to conclusions about the true nature of this sensitivity, however, because big hijab is really nothing new. Two hundred years ago, during the Ottoman period, Kuwaiti women were wearing Turkish-style hats under their abayas and shaylas. These headdresses, cylindrical or cone-shaped, were visible markers of an elaborate class heirarchy. Composition, height and ornamentation were in proportion to the wealth of the wearer; the higher a woman’s rank, the bigger the cone she could sport. Even maids wore smaller cones to distinguish themselves – and by extension, their mistress – from the commonfolk. Interestingly, national identity was an integral component of the code, since these Turkish hat-hijabs were to be worn by Kuwaiti women alone.Nor was this sartorial means of indexing social identity limited to the Gulf. In the rapidly growing nineteenth-century cities of Iran and the Levant, female headdresses were complex communicators of religious affiliation, ethnic background, and social level. One of the most well-known is the Lebanese tantour, a silver or gold cone worn by married noblewomen and the wives of rich merchants. Most splendid were the tall gold tantours that rose as high as 30 inches and were encrusted with diamonds, pearls and precious stones. To hold it in place, a silk scarf was wound around the base, with a white veil floating from its peak. Obsolete now, it was noted by European travelers to Lebanon from the end of the 18th century. Indeed, it may be one and the same with the “tartour” described in The Thousand and One Nights, many of whose tales date back to the height of the Abbasid period (ca. 800 AD), with roots in even earlier Persian, Indian and Mesopotamian literature.
But more than any trend or tradition that’s come before, the Khaleeji silhouette pushes the envelope of hijab’s very purpose as an instrument of veiling. In figuring as one of a number of vamping techniques like tight clothing, dramatic makeup and, yes, cheap stilettos, it tests the limits of acceptable public display in a Muslim environment, renewing for the twenty-first century the dialogue between the social and religious functions of the veil. The Islamic bouffant reveals a contemporary Gulf where conspicuous displays of wealth compete with a genuine desire for continuity with core cultural values. Poised as we are at the start of a new century in an old land, the paradox of ostentatious modesty is alive and well, even as women unconsciously tap into the pre-Islamic origins of veiling as a complex communicator of prestige.
Pixie here again: for myself, since the context of the big headdress was always to express prestige (not necessarily seduction cuz I personally know men don't find it sexy) and define classes, I am not a fan of the clips, but I have seen them worn in a manner that isn't vulgar or too noticeable.
Oh and Sheikha, here is another completely seperate article, that confirms the use of yogurt cups. http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=2436