The most arresting thing about Gucci's Fall 2018 show in Milan this season was almost inarguably the severed heads carried down the runway. But for some, a more crucial conversation bubbled up around Gucci's choice of headwear in the show — including a number of cobalt-blue turbans that resembled those worn by adherents of Sikhism. And Gucci wasn't alone in featuring religious headwear: It also cropped up in the form of the hijab, which was worn at Max Mara, Pyer Moss, Chromat, Maki Oh, Molly Goddard and Daniëlle Cathari x Adidas Originals, in addition to less explicit but still very hijab-like headwear at Marc Jacobs.
So how should fashion people respond to these nods to religious identity being made on the catwalk? Should they be pilloried as another form of tone-deaf cultural appropriation, or celebrated as a means of increasing visibility for underrepresented groups?
In the case of the turbans, plenty of viewers took to social media to express the opinion that Gucci's move was off. A large part of the frustration stemmed from the fact that the turbans, which are also known as dastar, pagg or pagri in Punjabi, were worn by white models that presumably had no connection to Sikhism, which is a religion most widely practiced in India.
"Could you not find a brown model?" tweeted model Avan Jogia.
Jogia and many others pointed out that turban-wearing Sikh men are frequently the targets of hate crimes in the West, which often result from perpetrators associating turbans with radical groups like the Taliban (which is a fundamentalist Islamic group, not a Sikh one).
"Sikh men are profiled and discriminated against every day for wearing a turban, yet when you put in [sic] on a white person, it's suddenly fashionable and cool?!?!" tweeted @gurpycolors.
Not all Sikhs took the same perspective on the issue, though. Hardayal Singh, executive director of the U.N.-affiliated humanitarian organization United Sikhs, thinks showcasing turbans on the runway could help normalize them in mainstream culture in a way that might help reduce the stigma attached to them.
"The turban is a symbol for people of many faiths," Singh told Fashionista on the phone, noting that some Hindus and Muslims also wear turbans, though they may differ significantly in style from what Sikhs wear. "The turban is a reminder of values. And fashion doing it, I think that's welcomed by many Sikhs. But if they were doing a runway walk with a cigar in hand or violating any of the basic values of Sikhism, that would be different."
Singh mentions smoking specifically because it, along with drinking, is explicitly prohibited for Sikhs. Thus, from Singh's point of view, Gucci casting white models to wear turbans wasn't that big of a deal, so long as they weren't portrayed smoking or drinking. In fact, Sikhs like Singh have voluntarily tied turbans on thousands of non-Sikhs through "turban day," an annual event in Times Square that seeks to educate Americans about the Sikh religion and demystify the oft-misunderstood headwear.
In the case of hijabs and hijab-like headwear, a similar complexity emerged. While designers like Marc Jacobs were denounced by some as appropriative and offensive for their usage of hijab or hijab-like garb in their shows, others were delighted to see styles they could actually wear being treated as something worth the mainstream fashion establishment's attention.
"I personally felt conflicted," said Melanie Elturk, a Muslim fashion thought leader and founder of retailer Haute Hijab, on the phone. "My initial gut response [to Marc Jacobs] was like, this is amazing! But then on the other hand, anytime you're talking about appropriation, the one thing that's so important is talking about credit. Is this being credited?"
In the case of Marc Jacobs, no explicit credit was given to hijabis (nor was the word "hijab" used in any of the show notes to describe the coverings models wore), though the inspiration Jacobs took from them seems clear to Elturk. Interestingly, a number of the other labels that featured hijabs in their collections this season seemed to do so less out of a desire to produce the hijabs or headscarves themselves, and more out of a desire to include specific models who wear the head covering both on and off the runway — think Halima Aden, who walked Max Mara, or newcomer Kadija Diawara, who walked Pyer Moss, Chromat, Maki Oh and Daniëlle Cathari.
"Kadija... came for our FW18 casting in her hijab," Maki Oh designer Amaka Osakwe told Fashionista via email. "During the casting, we had an engaging conversation about her culture, faith and the importance of not limiting herself or her dreams. I was inspired to create something for her and women just like her who didn't limit themselves."
For Elturk and other Muslim women with an eye on the runway, seeing the success that a model like Diawara had this season being cast in mainstream shows (as opposed to shows geared specifically at "modest fashion" consumers) is encouraging, especially since Diawara's faith connection is genuine.
"I think it's helping me in my own work of educating people about hijab and normalizing women who wear the headscarf in the mainstream," Elturk said. "To have all these huge designers helping in that effort is amazing."
So what's the best response to religious motifs and symbols being used in a fashion context? The short answer is: It's complicated. And as long as religious groups continue to be full of complex, highly diverse people with a range of widely differing opinions, there's unlikely to be an easy, cut-and-dry answer anytime soon.