@JAKARTA: Allure of Muslim fashion is just my style

April 26, 2012

FUSAKO GO/ Jakarta Bureau Correspondent

It suddenly came to my mind. I had been posted here in Jakarta for several months, and one day on the busy street the sight of women caught my attention. Isn't the way I dress somehow similar to Muslim fashion?

I have in my wardrobe only one suit, and that is nothing to be proud of. I remember during my job hunts of more than 20 years ago, I always wore a brown, short-sleeve, one-piece dress amid the ocean of typically dark job-hunting suits.

Even at the first local bureau I was posted at as the new graduate, it was seldom I took a suit in the morning for work.

"Why don't you dress like that?" a senior colleague once told me as he pointed toward a female reporter working for a local TV station in a skirt and a jacket.

"That's not good for running at accident scenes," I tried to demur. "A pantsuit would do then," the colleague said.

That made my pledge to myself: I will never wear any sort of suit in my life. Partly because I didn't particularly like him.

It was, after all, not worth the fuss. I was young.

Ever since then, I have taken to wearing clothes that allow me the freedom to move, with a bit of consciousness for trends in color or design. My favorite style is pants and a slightly loose blouse, plus a jacket, as required.

A second look on the street in Jakarta made me realize that many working Muslim women here followed a similar style.

Certainly, I don't wear a scarf, and the Muslim women here do not expose much of their skin and their body shapes. But they are very sensitive to fashion trends, presumably because many women work here, unlike in the Middle East and other regions.

In my observation women in Jakarta take up the color and the design that are featured as the "trend of the season" in fashion magazines; not necessarily those dedicated to Muslim fashion. They deftly rearrange the trend in their original styles, such as by wearing turtlenecks beneath wide-necked T-shirts.

My newfound interest in Muslim fashion led me to research the scarf industry for a starter. I was surprised to learn that there was a wealth of what could be called "underwear for the head," which is worn beneath a scarf, to adjust the shape of the head.

And those "under-scarves" kept changing so rapidly that a sweeping trend in color, material and style only a year ago could appear now quite out of date.

Being a woman myself, I took advantage of by asking other women to take off their scarves to allow me to examine the structure of a layered style, without taking photos, of course. Some of the tying and overlapping methods really filled me with awe. I was inspired to wonder how I would wear things around my neck myself.

I also interviewed Muslim fashion designers.

"I want to change the way Islam is so readily associated with terrorists," said Dian Wahyu Utami, a 21-year-old designer for Dian Pelangi, a designer's brand much sought after by youth. To help with that effort from the fashion industry, she said she wanted to design stylish clothing that could be worn by both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.

"That would also help to expand the market in terms of business," Utami said.

I tended to have this stereotypical image of Muslim fashion with the baggy and lengthy clothes that I saw during my reporting trips to the Middle East and elsewhere. I wanted to know what she meant by "Muslim styles that could be worn by non-Muslims."

Eager to find the answer, I visited a Muslim boutique that is popular with women in their 20s and 30s.

Their jersey tops had more spacious armholes than regular clothes to curb the exposure of arm lines. In-trend vests and jumper skirts were longer. But otherwise, they looked just so "normal."

"Oh, I want to wear this too," I often told myself, checking in the shops.

Wondering why, I recalled the words of a female lecturer of fashion studies whom I interviewed in Milano, Italy, seven years ago. Back then, I was writing a story on Italy's local industries facing the danger of collapse in the face of cheap items pouring in from China.

"How do you think Italy's fashion industry will be able to survive?" I asked.

"Can you find the clothes you really want to wear?"

Instead of answering my question, the elegant and stylish lecturer asked me. "I am in my 40s and I love clothes. But those young women's clothes I like can't easily fit, because my shape is different from what it used to be during my 20s. I would like something of the same design with looser armholes and waist. But I just can't find them. What do you think?"

I found her words convincing as she continued: "The industry will be able to survive if it draws on the excellence in design, which is Italy's pride and joy, to make clothes that meet the delicate demand of a more focused clientele and to differentiate themselves from cheap products."

What I saw in the Muslim boutique in Jakarta was precisely the sort of clothes that middle-aged women with a passion for style would like to wear, irrespective of their religion. At first glance, they simply look like laid-back variants of anything you would find in a youth-oriented outlet. They are, in fact, designed to match the Muslim codes, as they allow for certain breadths in the silhouette to keep body lines from exposure.

Last year, I wrote a series of photo-illustrated articles on Muslim fashion.

"This dress is so cute," one Japanese reader said on Twitter. "It's full of inspirations for design," another said in a letter.

I felt gratified to find out that I was not the only person who appreciated Muslim fashion.

Now, so far, all my stories have been of the casual type. What, then, are you supposed to wear at formal occasions, such as international conferences, and parties?

That's where "batik" has a role to play, although not related to the Muslim fashion anywhere. Batik refers to a traditional Indonesian dyeing technique that uses wax, which has been inscribed on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list.

In Indonesia, a cotton batik blouse serves as a formal dress in its own right.

And fortunately for me, brown, black and dark blue--my favorite hues--are the mainstay colors of batik made in the famed production centers of Yogyakarta and Solo.

Batik last year even helped me get through an exclusive interview with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono without having to wear my nemesis suit.

Spacious Muslim styles and breezy batik. These are the secrets to living a comfortable life without having to be the maverick that I used to be. Speaking fashion-wise, Indonesia may well be my paradise.


Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.

FUSAKO GO/ Jakarta Bureau Correspondent
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  • PROFILE/ Fusako Go, correspondent in the Jakarta Bureau of The Asahi Shimbun: She joined The Asahi Shimbun Co. in 1989. She worked in Sendai, Yokohama, the City News Section in Tokyo and elsewhere before serving as a correspondent in the Manila and Rome bureaus. She has been in her current post since October 2010. This picture shows Go, 45, in a red silk batik shawl as she attended a "Buka Puasa" dinner party to celebrate the end of the fasting hours of the day, organized by the Office of the President of Indonesia.
  • An instructor demonstrates how to arrange a scarf around the neck during a teaching session at a Muslim boutique in Jakarta. (Fusako Go)
  • Irna Mutiara designs Muslim wedding dresses in southern Jakarta. (Fusako Go)
  • A Muslim fashion show was held in Jakarta in February as an event of Indonesia Fashion Week 2012. (Fusako Go)
  • Dian Wahyu Utami is a fashion designer for the Dian Pelangi brand (Fusako Go)
  • This Muslim wedding dress gets orders from as far as Europe and Turkey. (Provided by Irna Mutiara)
  • Company employees and students accounted for the bulk of participants of this pedagogical session on scarves.

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