n a blustery March day, Carter Lupton, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s curator of ancient history, leads me up a flight of stairs to see the early stages of “Beyond the Veil,” an exhibit about the cultural clothing worn by Middle Eastern women in Milwaukee. Considering the weather, it’s only fitting that we pass a taxidermied […]

On a blustery March day, Carter Lupton, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s curator of ancient history, leads me up a flight of stairs to see the early stages of “Beyond the Veil,” an exhibit about the cultural clothing worn by Middle Eastern women in Milwaukee. Considering the weather, it’s only fitting that we pass a taxidermied polar bear as we head into an intake area where the dresses, jewelry and head scarves are being cleaned and preserved.

In the first room of the divided intake area, a lightweight cobalt tunic lies taut on a table, its wide T-shape exposed and its gold stitching muted in the florescent light. As we head into the next room, I try my best to be casual, but glance wide-eyed at what looks like a sarcophagus under a white sheet. Surely that can’t be related to the clothing, I think.

Lupton then says the exhibit will showcase the clothing along with the cultural, regional and generational contexts that distinguish them. I won’t be seeing a sarcophagus today.

For Elizabeth Gaston, curator of Mount Mary University’s historic costume collection, “Beyond the Veil” echoes a growing trend in museums across the country. Clothing exhibits, the assistant professor says, are becoming “huge” in the museum world. “We can relate to them more than paintings.”

Clothing, especially women’s clothing, is a complex thing. And if you have any doubt, look to the news. From a recent Massachusetts law concerning photos of what’s under a woman’s skirt, to the relatively recent right to wear pants, and the rainbow of opinions about head coverings, a woman’s outfit can earn her ridicule, expulsion, tabloid covers or worse. It’s no wonder we study it at length.

Clothing can empower, increase confidence and be used as a tool of self-expression. Fashion magazines would like us to believe clothing is transformative, and just looking at it can be a form of escape. In a recent cover story in The New York Times’ T Magazine, Whitney Vargas describes women’s wear designer Phoebe Philo’s Celine collection as “quiet and not meant to make a statement. And so you look invisible. Able to be viewed for more than your surface appearance.” This invisibility, she declares, “is power dressing.”

Consider the contents of your home or apartment; can a lamp do as much?

For both women and men, clothing is also an “important signifier of identity,” Gaston says. From clothing we can glean information about a person’s gender, environment and economic status. Clothing, of course, also can be a link to ancestral countries, religious and familial traditions. That is true for immigrants, and head coverings – both Western and Middle Eastern – are an excellent example of the complex relationship between a garment and its sociological context.

RELATED  The Home Issue: Local Home Makeovers, Furniture Design & More

Head coverings like Muslim hijabs, head scarves and even hats have, of course, existed before the days of ancient Rome, and have served as a pan-cultural form of modesty for a number of religions. Contemporary wedding veils, Catholic mantillas, Jewish yarmulkes and Hindu pallus all come from the same basic idea of modesty and respect before a deity. And, of course, before electricity and central heating, head coverings also protected their wearers from the elements, and were worn by men and women alike.

In fact, it was only half a century ago that Western women, especially American and British, wore hats nearly every time they left the house. According to Gaston, hats were signifiers of marital status, economic status and even age. Pillbox hats – the structured, round brimless hat favored by Jackie Kennedy Onassis – were the last trace of that tradition. Until the 1970s, Western married women typically wore different hats than single women, and older women wore more dramatic hats than younger women.

“Beyond the Veil” is the creation of Enaya Othman, a Marquette University visiting assistant professor and president of the Arab and Muslim Women’s Research and Resource Institute, and her colleagues. Since 2010, students and volunteers have interviewed more than 80 local Middle Eastern and Arab women who were either first-generation immigrants or second-generation Americans born to immigrant parents. The study hopes to catalog the histories of these women. But the group also wanted to learn how these cultural clothes can be intertwined with identity.

One of the study’s most revealing conclusions was that clothing, especially head coverings, took on different meanings for each generation. In recent times, Othman says, the first wave of Middle Eastern – mostly Muslim – immigrants witnessed a period known as the “unveiling” in their home countries. Strong currents of nationalism washed through the region, and religious identity temporarily took a back seat. This occurred after World War II, when, Othman says, this first Muslim generation was “very proud” of its origins in a time period that coincided with the decolonization of the Arab world.

RELATED  Milwaukee Film at 10 Years: Here's the Festival's Origin Story

But beginning in roughly the 1980s, the trend toward secularism reversed. For some, economic instability in regions like Iraq, Kuwait and Palestine, instilled a sense of betrayal by government leaders, says Othman, which led women from those countries to look to religion for solutions.

“Most activities, instead of being outside the mosque, increased in mosques,” she says.

For instance, despite the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which the patriarchal influence on veiling was denounced, nationalism ebbed in the war that followed. And strong associations with religious identity became popular again. After Sept. 11, 2001, and France’s 2011 ban on head scarves in public, the conversation about head coverings and oppression returned again.

Still, Othman says, a contemporary woman’s relationship with her head scarf is more complex than that. In fact, most of the women she interviewed wore a hijab: “It’s part of their identity, [they] feel very comfortable [in it] and want to explain why they’re wearing it.”

The point of the MPM exhibit is to give them that chance. By wearing hijabs today, she says, these women are saying, “‘We’re veiling because we want to.’”

The exhibit is much more robust than head scarves. Also on display will be some 30 beautifully designed dresses, or thobes, worn for cultural events like weddings, ethnic conferences and more. Like the veils, the thobes remain a part of their cultural identities because of a mix of associations encompassing religious, nationalistic and familial traditions.

For many of the dresses, ornately designed patterns make a square shape around the torso and chest. Those squares – one of the most intricate portions – can be cut out and preserved, repurposed as home décor, or passed on to the next generation.

In early March, I sit in Othman’s office on MU’s campus. She explains the design and customs of the dresses while pointing at pictures of her own thobes that she’s contributed to the exhibit. In one picture, Othman’s daughter, a Marquette student, models a velvet thobe the color of red wine. Its fitted waist and bell-shaped sleeves modernize its traditional T-shape, and shimmering gold cross-stitching emphasizes the multicolor floral pattern emblazoned on the chest area and along its hem.

Holding the picture of her daughter in her hands, Othman can’t help but smile.

‘Worn Identity’ appears in the May, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Click here to subscribe.