This week’s States of Undress looks at the way France is banning the public wearing of the burka while raking in millions from wealthy Muslim women drawn to the world’s fashion capital.
Tony Morris

5 Sep 2017 - 10:44 AM  UPDATED 12 Dec 2017 - 12:07 PM

Fashion and society; it’s a potent combination, and Viceland’s States of Undress is all about looking at the ways that one influences the other. Hosted by former model, actor, and advisory editor at The Paris Review Hailey Gates, each episode takes in a corner of the globe where fashion and society rub up against each other and sees what sparks they create. 

In the first season Gates interviewed an extremist imam in Pakistan and took in Karachi Fashion Week, had her hair done in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was stunned by the lengths Venezuelan women will go for their idea of physical perfection, and checked out the ways that China is moving from simply manufacturing the world’s clothing to designing it. It’s not simply a matter of fashion tourism here, though a big part of the show’s appeal is the chance to examine parts of the world that we don’t usually think of as fashion-forward; rather, States of Undress shows how the political and social climate around the world is reflected in what people want to (and often, are allowed to) wear.

Taking a bath in reindeer blood, as Gates did in Russia the first season, might seem like your typical eye-catching documentary moment. But it’s the way the show looks at how Western sanctions are affecting the clothing people are wearing in Russia, whether it’s knock offs or smuggling, that digs deeper. Politics isn’t just something that happens far away in capital cities: it affects real people in real ways, and what’s more real than the clothes on your back?

The second season continues to circumnavigate the globe exploring the fault lines between fashion and society, including a look at the uniquely United States world of concealed-carry fashion (AKA how to look your best while packing heat), the urban tribes of Mexico, how transgender models are reshaping fashion in Thailand, and the way Syrian refugees in Lebanon are impacting on Beruit’s high fashion culture. But it’s this week’s episode that is one of the series’ most cutting: a look at how politics are dictating the dress choices of Muslim women in France.

“Why has clothing sparked such controversy in a country that prides itself on freedom?” Gates asks, after driving around standing through the sunroof of a car next to a woman in a Burka. “Aside from not wearing seatbeats, only one of us is breaking the law.” States of Undress posits that in France, the Hijab is forbidden in schools and government buildings, purportedly as an extension of France’s separation or church and state, but is actually an attempt to repress France’s growing Muslim population.

Gates joins teenagers Amina and Wissam as they visit the Muslin fashion stores of Paris, where they try on outfits like women do all over the world (“I’m princess for a day” says one). Both girls express dismay that their inability to dress according to their religion means that they will be kept out of high-powered jobs – lawyers, doctors, and the like – because they can’t wear a scarf on their head.

“We want them to be French on the street”, says a student member of one of France’s growing right-wing fringe. This is shown to be taken literally: when Amina and Wissam return to school after summer, Gates reports that their school installed a cheap, distorting mirror on a pole on the street outside the front gate for students to check their hair after they remove their Hijab, “It’s like a funhouse mirror,” Gates says as she looks into it. “I have six eyes”.

The episode goes on to state that while France might not be comfortable with their own Muslim population, they’re more than happy to take the money of wealthy Muslim women from the Middle East who come to Paris looking for high-end fashion. “Let’s be glamorous – no politics” says a personal shopper who specialises in wealthy middle eastern clients, which is hardly a surprise considering she deals with people spending thousands upon thousands of Euros in a country that won’t let them dress the way they do at home.

One rule for poor locals, another rule for rich foreigners; it’s a familiar story across the globe, and simply by observing it, Gates shows us how deeply what we wear reflects the culture around us. We usually think of clothing at the cutting edge of fashion; States of Undress shows us how it’s also at the pointy edge of politics.

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