Muslim Fashion – On the Street and Online (Part 3)
Queen of Luna
This is the third in a three-part series examining independently created Muslim fashion social media projects that appeared online between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2016. You can read the first part here and the second part here.
Queen of Luna is the Instagram account of a Malaysian makeup artist named Saraswati (Sara) who engages in cosplay and extreme makeup transformations. She uses makeup and accessories, most notably her ḥijāb, to transform herself into a wide variety of fictional characters (as well as a few real people), of both genders. She also posts pictures of themed makeup looks she creates and personal pictures from her life.
Because it is her character transformations that make her appeal to a wide audience, as well as being most closely tied to her ḥijāb, I am focusing my analysis here only on these posts. I reviewed all the posts on the Queen of Luna Instagram from its founding on June 15, 2014 until February 2, 2016. During this period Sara posted 100 character transformations, including some that appeared multiple times and some that shared a post with other characters who were part of the same theme or group. Her characters included both women and men as well as ungendered beings and characters that blur the line between male and female. The 100 character posts I surveyed featured 74 that were clearly female; nine that were clearly male; thirteen in which a male character was given some female characteristics or was translated into a female character; and four in which the character was not identifiable as either male or female (these consisted of two ungendered alien creatures and two skulls).
I was able to contact Sara via email and asked her about the motivation behind her Instagram, her history of doing cosplay makeup transformations, and her personal style inspiration. She informed me that her friends suggested she start an Instagram account, so that she would get more recognition for her “makeup art.” Her first character transformation was eight years ago when she recreated the look of the Joker from the Dark Knight movie, which indicates that traversing the boundaries of gender has always been a part of her cosplay. She describes her style as “gothic chic” and says her biggest style inspiration is the singer Amy Lee from Evanescence.1 Notably, none of her answers to these or other questions I posed to her mentioned religion or Muslim fashion.
As would be expected from Sara’s answers regarding the motivation behind her Instagram account, religion also takes a low profile in her posts. Other than her meticulous maintenance of skin and hair coverage and a few posts mentioning Muslim holidays, there is little content in her Instagram posts that could be dubbed religious.
Sara’s ḥijāb is always visible, but not necessarily conspicuous. Instead of simply being a ḥijāb-wearing version of whatever character she is portraying, Sara’s clothing—and particularly her headscarf—are an integral part of her character transformation. Muslim fashion has transformed the ḥijāb from a covering with shape, color, and style determined by local custom or social status to another piece of clothing like shirts, pants, or dresses that can be any color or texture and can take on any shape or form as long as the hair remains covered. In the case of Sara’s cosplay, she takes this new flexibility in headscarf fashion to a new level, transforming a cloth headcovering into a psuedo-wig or another appropriate accessory for the look she is trying to achieve.
The lack of religious overtones in Sara’s work, her play with gender, and her manipulation of her ḥijāb come together in the first character transformation she posted on her Instagram account. The character in this case was a real person, the late Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana. On September 5, 2014, she posted a four-in-one picture, the first two showing her in the process, the third showing her completed look, and the fourth showing the picture of Cobain on which she based her transformation. Sara used makeup to create a goatee beard and a yellow scarf draped loosely across her head to simulate Cobain’s shoulder-length blond hair.
Sara’s ḥijābs are transformed into a multitude of hairstyles in the posts I surveyed, from the purple ponytail of Leela from the cartoon Futurama, to the long blond braid of Elsa from Frozen, to the pink buns of the Black Lady, a villain from the anime cartoon Sailor Moon, and even the dark brown hair of reality TV star and model Kylie Jenner. Sara’s ḥijāb blends effortlessly into one of the most frequent types of characters she imitates, that of superheroes and villains. The hoods, hats, and one-piece uniforms of heroes and villains are easily simulated with a ḥijāb.
The ḥijāb does not just make a good stand-in for a wig or a hood. In the realm of Sara’s cosplay, the ḥijāb, which is commonly interpreted as a marker of gender difference, is repurposed to obscure certain gendered features. A tightly wrapped ḥijāb obscures the head and neck, and particularly if it is black, it sets off the face as a blank canvas. Sara often uses a tight black ḥijāb when creating her ungendered or gender-bending looks. She wears a black ḥijāb under her Cobain “hair” and only a tight black ḥijāb when transforming into the bald villain Bane from the movie The Dark Knight Rises. A black ḥijāb sets off Sara’s frequent cosplay of ghosts, aliens, and other monsters, some gendered female like her take on Marceline the Vampire Queen from the cartoon Adventure Time, others gendered male like the skull emblem of the antihero the Punisher, and still others like her classic alien look having no discernible gender.
Some of Sara’s looks transgress gender boundaries in other ways. When she transforms herself into a character that is male in their original incarnation, more often than not she either plays up her feminine features or creates a feminine version of the character. Her Captain America has smoky eyes and bright red lips. She created a clearly female version of the male X-men character Gambit, complete with a long brown hijab “wig.” However, she does not shy away from doing a full gender transformation. Her Kurt Cobain reads as male and her cosplay of Jafar, the villain from the Disney movie Aladdin, looks uncannily like the original.
Sara transforms herself into a wide variety of characters from different genres of popular culture, including characters created by Disney, Marvel, DC, and various Japanese anime studios, as well as a few iconic real life figures. The popularity of and media interest in her blog is clearly directly tied to the popularity of many of the characters she imitates. The news stories discussing her Instagram tend to focus on the kinds of characters she imitates, with her Disney characters getting the most attention by far.2 Her comic book characters also receive significant attention.3
The media coverage of Sara’s Instagram praises her makeup artistry, and consistently mentions her innovative use and manipulation of the ḥijāb to simulate hair. Most articles do not define a hijab or comment on its connection to Islam. Those that do refer to the ḥijāb term it a “cultural custom,”4 or “traditional Muslim headwear.”5 Another article praises Sara for “shattering the notion that the Muslim headscarf can’t also be a totally fabulous accessory or statement piece,” then immediately adds the caveat “(for people who wear them for religious reasons, obviously).”6
Sara’s manipulation of her ḥijāb points to its being more than just a “fabulous accessory.” It is an integral part of her religious bodily praxis, so much so that it almost analogous to her physical body itself. This enmeshing of physical and psychological identity with the ḥijāb is articulated by many ḥijābī women, including a number of those interviewed by Hijabis of New York.7 Though Sara does not overtly inscribe her everyday fashion or cosplay with religious meaning, it is always present through a deeply absorbed bodily praxis.
As Banu Gokariksel and Anna Secor observe, “for veiled women, the clothed body is the site of a project to map an ideal of harmony that has both aesthetic and ethical registers.”8 In other words, in Muslim fashion, clothing—and not the body—is the site where women express themselves both aesthetically and spiritually. Elaborating on this point, I argue that in Muslim fashion, clothing does not function to highlight the best and hide the worst parts of the physical body. Instead, it achieves an aesthetically pleasing and cohesive combination of clothing and accessories; the body only acts as a frame on which to display an outfit. In this way, Muslim fashion is analogous to high fashion, with a focus on the clothing as an art form, rather than upon the bodies that display the clothes.
On the Hijarbie Instagram, Haneefah Adam talks about her choices of fabric, color, and detail, but does not mention once how the clothing affects the appearance of the body of the doll. The women of Hijabis of New York never mention insecurities about their physical appearance, outside of issues they have faced when wearing ḥijāb. Sara’s use of the ḥijāb in her cosplay for Queen of Luna is the most striking example of this phenomenon. As discussed above, her ḥijāb is not just a stand-in but becomes an extension of her physical body. She pays careful attention to both maintaining her modesty boundaries and creating an aesthetically cohesive and accurate depiction of the character she is portraying.
Makeup also plays an obvious and outsized role in Sara’s cosplay. Because the vast majority of women who wear Muslim fashion do not cover their faces, makeup becomes an integral part of the Muslim fashion aesthetic. The Hijarbie dolls wear the typical heavy makeup of their secular counterparts, and several of the women interviewed for Hijabis of New York mention their makeup.
Though the ḥijāb itself is a focal, and for some a defining, part of Muslim fashion, its importance varies among the examples discussed in this series. Hijarbie and Hijabis of New York put the garment in their names, indicating its centrality to their respective projects. For the creators of Hijabis of New York, however, the focus is not on the ḥijāb, but beyond it. Their goal is to highlight the humanity of Muslim women, who just happen to also wear ḥijāb. The case of Sara’s cosplay transformations on Queen of Luna are even more complex when it comes to the (in)visibility of her ḥijāb. On the one hand, her ḥijāb is highly visible as a pseudo-wig in the instances where she styles it as the character’s hair. On the other hand, this same styling actually makes the ḥijāb less visible by integrating it with the overall visual effect. As discussed above, her ḥijāb becomes particularly invisible when she uses it to obscure her features or bring visual focus to her face.
Gender presentation is inherently connected to any fashion or style subculture. As Judith Butler observes, gender is not static but “performatively produced” through the way the body is stylized, clothed, and presented in different contexts.9 The performativity of gender is very different across these three examples. Hijarbie’s modest outfits trouble certain markers of extreme femininity in secular fashion, using clothing to conceal instead of highlight gendered body parts such as hair and breasts. However, by adopting and adapting an icon that embodies the ideal of Western femininity, Hijarbie also implicitly accepts these gender conventions. On Queen of Luna, Sara embodies some of the icons of modern Western femininity, most notably a number of Disney princesses. However, she also undermines binary gendered conventions by feminizing masculine characters and performing full-on drag. The women of Hijabis of New York confront gender in more subtle ways, negotiating expectations of what constitutes properly feminine behavior as a member of their faith community. One of the page’s most “liked” posts features a lengthy discussion of the pressure Muslim women feel to wear ḥijāb and the fact that Muslim men feel they have the right to judge the modesty of their dress.
It irks me so much how men only see Muslim women in two shapes and forms—the covered (the prized possessions) and the uncovered (the ones who need some work)… I’m wearing pants. Okay. I’m sorry, does that offend all the Mohammads and Ahmeds out there?10
Even as the speaker in some ways embodies ideal Muslim female gender performativity, she claims her right, and the right of other women, to subtly, or not so subtly, subvert it.
Sara’s Queen of Luna Instagram account was created to show off her makeup talent, not necessarily to break stereotypes. However, through the extensive media coverage it received, her images ended up doing just that. In response to her account going viral, Sara wrote, “who would have thought my hijab and make up [sic] artistry would send such a powerful message to the world?!”11 The increased visibility of Muslim women in secular marketing and media broadens and questions current mainstream definitions of who and what is beautiful, fashionable, and stylish. As this series has shown, transnational Muslim fashion culture is increasingly diverse in terms of its aesthetics, cultural references, and the background of its practitioners.
Layla Shaikley observed that in the wake of the “Mipsterz” video, some Muslim women complained that the images she presented did not represent them. Shaikley countered this criticism by saying she never claimed to represent the broader Muslim female experience. The video was instead from a very specific point of view, a kind of mini-autobiography.12 Each of the three social media projects I have examined here are, like Shaikley’s video, very singular, personal representations of a larger subculture. Even the dozens of women featured on Hijabis of New York only represent a very narrow subsection of Muslim women. All these women and their social media pages share some broad commonalities, commonalities that define the parameters of transnational Muslim fashion subculture. However, their greater value lies in diversifying and expanding the boundaries of Muslim fashion and the voices of the Muslim female experience.
CLAIRE SADAR is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston. She holds an M.A. in Religious Studies from Boston University, where she focused on the intersections of religion and politics in Turkey. She is a co-editor for the online magazine Muftah.org, which strives to highlight a diverse array of voices from the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
- Saraswati, personal communication with the author, March 28, 2016. ↑
- E.g., “Makeup Artist Uses Her Hijab to Transform Herself into Popular Disney Characters,” 9News, February 29, 2016 [online story now removed]; Corinne Andersson, “Makeup Artist Uses Her Hijab to Turn Herself into Multiple Disney Characters,” InsidetheMagic.com, March 4, 2016; “Hijab Wearing Make-up Artist Shares Amazing Pictures on Instagram,” AsianImage.com, February 27, 2016; “Hijab Disney: Woman Uses Her Hijab To Turn Herself Into Disney Princesses,” BoredPanda.com, n.d.; Sam Escobar, “This Woman’s Transformations Into Disney Characters Are Amazing,” Good Housekeeping Magazine, February 26, 2016; Jenna Guillaume, “This Woman Uses Her Hijab And Makeup To Transform Into Disney Characters,” Buzzfeed.com, February 25, 2016; Laura House, “Malaysian Make Up Artist Uses Her Hijab as a Prop to Help Transform Herself into Stunning Disney Princesses and Villains,” The Daily Mail, February 26, 2016; eadem, “From Queen Elsa to the [sic] Ursula: Hijabi Make Up Sensation Queen of Luna Dazzles with More Incredible Transformations,” The Daily Mail, February 29, 2016; Alison Lynch, “Makeup Artist Transforms Herself into Disney Characters with the Help of Her Hijab,” Metro.co.uk, February 26, 2016; Madison Malone Kircher, “This Woman uses her Hijab to Transform into Her Favorite Disney Characters,” Tech Insider, February 26, 2016; Lydia Morrish, “Smashing Stereotypes, This Make-Up Artist Turns Her Hijab Into Disney Princesses,” Konbini.com, n.d.; Jessica Padykula, “Makeup Artist Morphs Into Famous Faces Using Her Hijab,” Slice.ca, March 1, 2016; Sian Ranscombe, “The Way this Make-up Artist Uses Her Hijab to Recreate Disney Characters is Incredible,” The Telegraph, February 26, 2016; Althea Serad, “Woman Cosplays as Disney Characters Using Her Hijab, and It’s Amazing,” EpicStream.com, March 1, 2016; Maggie Stamets, “This Instagram Queen Uses Her Hijab to Transform Herself into Any Disney Character,” Bust Magazine, n.d.; Suzy Strutner, “Makeup Artist Uses Her Hijab To Shatter Disney Princess Stereotypes,” The Huffington Post, February 26, 2016.↑
- E.g., “Hijab Wearing Make-up Artist,” AsianImage.com; “Queen of Luna Enters the DC Universe with Face Paint Pictures,” The Daily Mail, n.d.; Guillaume, “This Woman Uses Her Hijab”; Padykula, “Makeup Artist Morphs”; Stamets, “Instagram Queen.”↑
- Andersson, “Makeup Artist.”↑
- Morrish, “Smashing Stereotypes”; Strutner, “Makeup Artist.”↑
- Stamets, “Instagram Queen.”↑
- For example see the Hijabis of New York post dated January 12, 2016 (https://www.facebook.com/hijabisofny/posts/550303355133509:0); Kristina Rodulfo, “How ‘Hijabis of New York’ Is Shattering Stereotypes About Muslim Women,” Elle Magazine. December 29, 2016.↑
- Banu Gökarıksel and Anna Secor, “The Veil, Desire, and the Gaze: Turning the Inside Out,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40 (2014): 177-200. ↑
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2002). ↑
- Hijabis of New York post on Facebook, December 16, 2015 (“‘If you could be anything in this world what would you be?’”).↑
- Queen of Luna Instagram post, March 5, 2016.↑
- Layla Shaikley, personal communication with author, April 25, 2016. ↑