Zahra Khosroshahi is a fun and fashionable 22-year-old. She has a glowing olive skin complexion paired with gorgeous brown almond shaped eyes. Her lips are nice and plump and reveal her warming smile. Her sense of style is simple yet up-to-date with today’s changing trends. Like most students at the University of Toronto, she keeps her wardrobe simple and casual when on campus. Black tights with trendy leather boots and a long top covered by a black double-breasted jacket is an average school day outfit for Khosroshahi. However, outside of her studies, she changes in her comfortable wardrobe for something more fashionable. Her Facebook profile feature several pictures of her out with friends in heels and her make-up done with accessories to match. But Khosroshahi has one particular accessory that follows her at all times regardless of her surroundings: her hijab.
“It’s important to me because first and foremost it symbolizes my faith. It’s not all that I am and my scarf does not define me. Instead I define it. I give it its meaning and position in my life,” she said.
At first glance, most people would probably assume that Khosroshahi has just immigrated to Canada or that she’s forced by strict Muslim parents to wear the head scarf. However, she has grown up in Canada for the majority of her life. Khosroshahi moved to Canada with her family from Iran when she was 8-years-old. She says when it comes to the hijab, the decision is all hers.
She notes that girls are expected to cover their hair once they reach the age of maturity. In Iran, girls are expected to start wearing the hijab at age 9. However, she left Iran before reaching the age of majority and when she came to Canada, the choice was hers. Like most little girls, Khosroshahi says she initially wore the hijab as a child to mirror her mother’s actions. Now, as a young adult, she says the choice is a conscious effort.
“I decide everyday and every morning before I go out to wear the hijab. It hasn’t become a habit and I wouldn’t want it to. It’s a daily decision and like many other ones we make, I have days when I doubt it,” she said.
But unlike most traditional Muslim women who cover their hair entirely, Khosroshahi wears her hijab in a unique way. She reveals a bit of her hair, mainly at the front, and has the hijab loosely covering the middle to back parts of her hair and neck. With over 70 head scarves in her wardrobe, she has a wide array of coloured veils to match any outfit. She has vibrant and bright ones that add a splash of colour to her outfit when going out, beautifully patterned ones for special occasions and of course, simplistic ones for serious-toned events. She notes this blend of traditional and modern fashion is her way of incorporating her Iranian roots with her Canadian identity.
“I don’t really wear the hijab in a conventional or traditional way. I have given it my own sense of style and fashion. I live in Canada and I do to a large extent follow the fashion that I’m exposed to. However, it doesn’t stop me from also following my religious beliefs of modesty,” she said with a violet floral hijab on.
Khosroshahi says that because of her attempts to conform to mainstream Canadian fashion, she has received some flak from Muslim men and women for not wearing the hijab in a traditional way. However, she believes that there isn’t a right or wrong way for women to wear it. Like any piece of clothing, the hijab can be used to represent one’s religion, but more importantly, one’s individuality.
“Some people wonder why I wear it at all and some people feel disrespected that I don’t wear it the ‘proper’ way. The way I wear it kind of places me in middle of both worlds and I have no problem with that,” she said.
“[...] A Muslim woman is an individual and I believe every woman adds her own individuality, culture and experiences to her hijab. It’s not fair to categorize all women under the same broad category. “
Luckily for Khosroshahi, she says it hasn’t been hard for her to incorporate her religious beliefs into her love of fashion, mainly because of Toronto’s diversity. With fashion rearing towards diverse cultures, many girls, like Khosroshahi have access to head scarves at affordable prices at several mainstream stores throughout Toronto.
“My head wraps are basically basic shawls. Fortunately, they’re really in and really easy to find. I do get some of mine from back home because I find really pretty ones there. But a lot of my scarves are from H&M, ZARA or any other Western culture stores that sell them.”
Similarly, Audrey Chow, a second year international student at the Ontario Academy of Art and Design (OCAD) says the transition from Hong Kong’s fashion to Toronto’s has been quite easy. However, one thing Chow had to get used to was Toronto’s laid back fashion sense.
“I did find it a little bit awkward to adapt to the fashion here. I wasn’t sure whether I was too dressed up just to go to class or not.”
“At first, I felt a little uneasy just because of my inner Chinese mindset. [In China] the way a person dresses not only shows how the person carries and takes care of themselves, but it also reflects their family and how they were brought up,” she said.
Chow notes that she did change her style to more casual clothing once coming to Toronto. She says she never felt pressure to fit in, but instead, did it for safety reasons as she didn’t want to attract negative attention. She also says that finding clothes in Toronto hasn’t been a problem for her. Because she never had a defined style back home, she’s able to shop at mainstream stores in the city while incorporating her clothing from back home.
It seems Canadian fashion is taking a turn towards incorporating diversity both on and off the runway. Many mainstream women’s apparel stores are now housing an eclectic range of clothing for women with conservative styles to apparel for more daring and creative fashionistas.
In Fashion’s Glen Baxter has worked in the fashion industry for over ten years now and when it comes to female fashion, he’s seen it all. Having covered almost every major fashion event across the globe, he notes that there is a new changing trend in the fashion world when it comes to diversity.
“I think emerging markets like India and China play an important role. As their middle class grows and their buying power increases, their culture and fashions will be reflected more and more in the collections produced by well-known established fashion houses and designers,” he said.
[...]Last June during menswear Milan fashion week, I covered the Canali Spring/Summer collection, which was heavily influenced by India. Their front row guest of honour was one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Anil Kapoor. [...] This is just one recent example that comes to mind, but every season we see collections influenced by cultures around the world. [It’s] always a source of inspiration for designers,” he added.
Fashion designer, Jamil Juma agrees with Baxter thoughts. Juma and his sister, Alia, started their fashion line in Toronto in 2003. Their line,Juma, is directly inspired by art and travel. It specializes in contemporary ready-to-wear visual prints and directional sportswear. Now, it’s grown beyond Toronto and the two are currently based in New York City and China. Having spent half of their lives in Asia and Africa, Juma says these diverse cultures can be seen throughout their line.
“I think we take more global approach to design but there’s definitely a lot of influence from there. We have a lot of tribal influence and that’s essentially from us living in those places,” he said.
From animal print scarves to tribal print dresses, it’s evident that diversity plays a large role in the Juma fashion line.
“[...] I think we have the advantage because we’ve lived in various places so we take bits and pieces from everywhere,” he added.
Juma can be found in specialty retailers like Holt Renfrew. Although it’s a bit on the pricier side, there are a growing number of stores across the GTA that are adopting diverse designs that won’t break the bank.
Michelle Tiangco, floor manager at one of Canada’s leading female retailers, Aritzia, says the growing amount of diversity in North America is responsible for eclectic trends like turbans, floor length skirts, head scarves and tribal prints.
“In North America, it’s so diverse and we’re exposed to so many different cultures. If we see something we like, like turbans or tribal prints, we’re able to re-create it with a modern day twist,” she said outside of the store’s busy Eaton Centre location.
Tiangco also says that there are a growing number of immigrants and international students shopping at Aritzia. She says one of the main attractions for them is that the store symbolizes Canadian fashion and is popular amongst many young Torontonian women.
“They like that the store is trendy, but more importantly I think for them, it’s identifiable with being in Canada. The clothes we sell offer a sense of familiarity to them and they feel more at ease fitting in,” she explained.
However, Aasha Alam, a 26 year-old female from Bangladesh, feels these mainstream stores aren’t enough. She moved to Canada in 1997 from Bangladesh but has also lived in Iraq, Africa and the United States. Having attended strict Islamic private schools all her life, Alam was expected to wear the hijab and abaya from the ages of 10 to 25. The abaya or burkha are long and loose fitting floor length gowns which sometimes cover the face leaving only the hands and feet unveiled.
Alam has since abandoned both the hijab and abaya. Once she entered university, she stopped wearing the abaya because it was no longer expected as part of her uniform. She recently stopped wearing the hijab because she felt it was an expectation forced upon her against her will.
She and a friend had plans to create a clothing line geared towards women who aim to dress modestly. Alam says while there are some clothing stores geared strictly towards Muslim female fashion in Canada, they can be quite costly and inaccessible. The prospective line would seek to provide Muslim women with fashionable clothing outside of the burkha, hijab and abaya at affordable rates.
“I feel that as women, we should be able to wear clothes comfortably instead of always worrying or thinking of buying extra clothing to cover up. [...] It isn’t as easy as saying ‘I need to buy a dress,’ it’s more like, ‘I need to buy a dress and a cardigan and tights to cover myself up,’” she added.
Alam notes that in recent years, there has been some Montreal based fashion lines that cater towards Muslim women who practice wearing the hijab or abaya. However, there aren’t any fashion lines that cater to moderately dressed hijabi woman who are up-to-date with trending fashion.
“Most Muslim women wear layers upon layers of clothing year round because they want to dress modestly and cover their arms and legs. In doing so, their outfits are ruined and all you see are layers of clothing. I feel sometimes a lot of Muslim women are frustrated but they go on with it because they have no other choice.”
Like Alam, Khosroshahi says finding clothes that balance her religious beliefs along with her love of fashion can be quite timely and frustrating.
“There are times when shopping gets really hard, especially in summer. I care that what I wear looks presentable and fashionable but it’s hard to do that when it’s 30 degrees outside and you have to cover up,” she said.
Alam says the line wouldn’t only be geared towards Muslim women, but would appeal to all women who dress both conservatively and fashionably. Unfortunately for now, she and her partner’s plans are on the back burner due to the uncertainty of financial risks involved. However, she remains hopeful that her ambitious plans for the fashion world will someday become a reality.
“I hope that one day someone will do this if I can’t. Everyone deserves to dress in comfort,” she said.