Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hemlines: Fashion, Modesty, Abaya Wearing, and Cross-Cultural "Wars" (Conjugal and Other)

Hemlines are a topic of great importance, whether they be part of fashion, modesty, cultural adaptation, or conjugal harmony. They are more important when transitioning from one habit (in both senses of the term) to another.


As most women know, and most men notice, hemlines go up and down with fashion dictates. While the fluctuations are more dramatic in Western fashion, they are present in Muslim covering fashions as well (as are fit, style and design of cover, including the basic black ones). With any luck, there are usually a number of options that are possible without making one look so far out of style as to be considered "odd". This also allows one to choose a length that is most flattering to one's height, body shape, and leg shape (or the shape one's legs are in at the time), not to mention practicalities (micro-minis and winter boots that must be removed standing up at a locker in a public hallway are a challenge-though doable with practice).


The injunction to modesty is universal, but how modesty is understood is not. Modesty is relative to time and place--yes even in Islam. The interpretation of the Quranic verses regarding cover varies from one school to another, from one part of the Ummah to another, and over time in the same place. How a particular individual, couple, family, clan, tribe, social class, or profession interpret guidelines within that results in greater variance.

In Muslim and non-Muslim majority countries, degree of cover may be a question of personal safety or freedom from harassment. More, and "the blacker the better", may prevail in some places; whereas, "less is more" may apply in the West, ie foregoing the niqab, hijab, or strictly black may be a better strategy in certain communities. This may be for personal safety, for modesty by not drawing undue attention, or for other reasons. Social status and professional promotion may play a role in cover as much as piety does in Muslim non-Muslim majority cultures.

Of course, modesty in the public hammam and in the public square are quite different.

Hemlines are a part of modesty everywhere, even in places in the West where they bounce up and down from one fashion season to the next, whether that is because of genuine social trends, marketing strategies, or economic recession (shorter, ie less material necessary, was a feature of "The New Look" in the 1930's, and some argue of trends today).

Hemlines are both a part of modesty, and a religious signifier, for Islamic cover. While that applies to men's thobes as well as women's jilbabs, jellabahs, abayas, chadors, or caftans, the focus here is on the women's hemlines. Women's hemlines are of course not just the domain of women, but also of men who mandate them, encourage them (in one direction or another), or impose them on their relatives, biological and conjugal.

How to Hem (including an abaya)

Although one website advises that abaya length is relative to the person's height, and according to standard measures it is 7.8" / 20 cm shorter than person's height, in fact there are fashions and preferences in abaya hems as well: floor length, top of shoe, ankle length, and trailing, or train. Variations on these may also occur eg half way between, or in the length of train, or amount of "puddling" on the floor of the floor length style.

One must always do an initial hem (ie instead of just shortening or lengthening an already established one by whatever measurement) from the ground up.
-put the garment on, and the shoes you intend to wear with it, or ones of a similar height (needless to say your hemline once fixed will bounce up or down whether you are wearing flats or spike heels)
-if it is an over garment wear something underneath that would be similar to normal wear
-stand still with your arms relaxed at your sides
-have someone else (preferably with some notion of sewing, or good at measurement, and a mahrem as the case may be) mark the hem for you
-that person should use a marked stick or a wooden ruler, and mark the distance from the floor to the desired hem length
-that person should move around you, while you stand still, and accurately measure from the floor to the hem, marking it about every 3 inches or 10cm
-the marking may be with dress makers' chalk (above in pink) or pins (straight pins)
-put pins in vertically capturing the least amount of material possible (to spare the material and have a flatter result); vertically lest you be tempted to machine sew the pinning (thereby transgressing the basting first rule), and break your machine needle--possibly resulting in harm to self or others--which is more likely to happen if the pins are in horizontally
-if you want to spare that person crawling around on hands and knees, and enable them to get a better view of their handy work, you should stand on a firm table, and have them measure from the table top to the desired hem length.
-if you want a train, ie an unequal hem, or an asymmetrical hem, adjust the hemline markings as measured from the floor or from the table top

Why from the floor, or from the table top? Because you have "bumps" that would distort the measurement if is was done consistently from the top down or worse from the waist band down. These "bumps" are most commonly glutei maximi, but may include other bumps for stomach and thighs, temporary or permanent.

Any professional couturier/ couturière, dressmaker, or seamstress (male or female) who does otherwise is sacrificing quality for convenience.

How to walk in long garments

The length of your stride will be dependent on the width of the opening from your hips down. The ease with which you manage not to step on your own hem, have it stepped on by others, trip, or get your hem caught depends on the length you choose. If you want the least fuss possible choose an ankle length. If you are wanting a longer look, learn to glide better and learn to lift your hem (can be done graciously with one hand).

For all longer lengths, including ankle length, it is best to be more cautious and to lift the hem (back or front priority depending on direction) when on stairs, and particularly on escalators. Most places with an escalator also have an elevator which may be the wisest option, particularly if you are coping with other hands full of packages, luggage, children, carts, baby strollers, buggies, etc.

If you are regularly pushing a baby carriage or grocery cart, or trailing luggage on wheels it would be wiser to wear an ankle length non-billowing skirt, jilbab, abaya, garment of whatever type, so that nothing gets caught. If you are particularly concerned about modesty, pants and socks should cover the rest well.

Hemline Wars--Conjugal or Other--ie Why I am telling you this

Yes, indeed, hemlines are the topic of "wars", often between husband and wife, parent and child, even siblings, sometimes workplaces, and in certain countries, the "man on the street" or the religious police. These wars are more likely to break out in times of politico-religious restrictiveness, of fashion changes, of migration to another culture (even if as a tourist), and in bi-cultural families, or families living in a bi-cultural context. They may also be intrapsychic ("I don't want to wear this mandated length, it is making me depressed", "I see it as a sign of oppression") as well as interpersonal ("My life would be easier if family member X didn't make me wear this").

Hemline wars seem to be a regular feature of the transition for Westerners to life in an Islamic country and particularly among some Westerners moving to or living in Saudi (and perhaps Iran)--despite being forewarned. This may be due to the personality or previous style of the woman in question, the family members' attitudes (including all the family members who make it their business), the conservatism of the particular place, or other factors--like a displacement of other resentments on to the hemline debate.

Hemline wars are certainly part of blogospheric wars, for a variety of reasons reflecting factors mentioned above. They are more likely to break out when the blogger has offered an inflammatory post, the regular commentators are happy to be inflamed, and the commenting moderation is lax, or even inflammatory itself. This can result in women insulting each other's practices and even beliefs, men chiming in--whether in defense of their wives, or in praise/ vilification of the female "other", or just as often trying to be a voice of reason, in an irrational, because set up to be that way, "war".

My own hemlines, while "modest", bounce with fashion, weather, occasion, culture, and professionalism. I have had the occasional skirmish: "You are wearing THAT? Do you know how cold it is outside?"; "You wore THAT to work today?"; "We're going to an Eid celebration, you can't wear THAT"; "We are going to a traditional area, wear a jellabah"; "Those shorts are only for the beach, right?". I go along with local cultural norms, and, within those, my mood. ;)

All fashion shows end with the bride!

What hemline wars have you had?
What personal struggles?
What factors determine your hemlines?
If you are a man, what recommendations would you make?
If you are used to wearing an abaya, or other long garment, what advice would you give?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Related Posts:
Medical Cover: Abaya/Lab Coat/Scrubs


ellen557 said...

Abaya - make sure you wear jeans or a skirt underneath so that when you walk up the stairs, you can lift it as you would a gown or else you might take a little tumble ;)

Chiara said...

Ellen--thanks for reinforcing that advice! Hope you caught the previous post and Aman and Bassam's visit to a Shi'a Mosque in the USA! :)

Dentographer said...

though off topic,i would love to see a post by you discussing high heels,and its impact on health,sex appeal and practicality.

oby said...

These abayas are lovely. I would LOVE to see a fashion show showing so many colored and unique abayas as well as other south Asian clothing...Saris done with a longer blouse or salwar kameezes....I even like the way they drape their hijab.

Chiara said...

Dentographer--High heels would be related to hemlines, and I will look to do a post of them. I am aware of the health risks, but remain totally in favour of them, so I will try to be unbiased in either direction! :)
Thanks for your comment and suggestion!

Oby--they are beautiful abayas, aren't they! The headscarves in the related Medical cover post are striking too. I have been thinking of a fashion post for a while, thanks for the confirmation of interest and for your comment here! :D

Susanne said...

Nice, informative post with some lovely pictures. Thank you!

Majed said...

Does not Elsa Pataky just looks as gorgeous as Julia Roberts from backside in that beautiful white dress.
It is a very Nice post,I wonder how come you know so a lot about a alot of things,I think it is wonderful to be erudite and yet lusty to know more.
Yes you are right in some socities where people dont often see female parts, it is very difficult to walk around uncovered too modestly, because in some places I have been it would be considered just like invitation to an open buffet.
I noticed that daughters of Eve everywhere try to show off their beauty. and our arab females are no different, when in public they at least try to show off whatever possible like for example their hands with beautiful attractive movements,or show whatever possible of their feets legs, when of course not also covered in black as some are reqired to do, and if you are lucky you might be able to see someone showing off her face in peacock style, well let me tell you there really are so many undiscovered diamonds burried inside four walls of our homes.
But they more than offset for this extreme modesty in Bacchanalian wedding parties and other women restricted ceremonies in mean the way they dress but they really look fabulour in those western smi nude dresses.


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