Hailey Gates has returned with another season of political fashion or fashionable politics in States of Undress, which continues to be a surprisingly evocative way of bringing social issues to light through the things people wear. In season two, she addresses one of couture’s thorniest issues: the policing of what women wear. Specifically, French legislation against burqas, chadors, burkinis and other Muslim coverings.
As with so many of these social issues, it’s easy to have a strong political opinion when we’re speaking in abstracts. Fashion designers refer to Muslim headwear as a prison and Le Pen supporters claim it separates French people in a visible affront to the nation’s secular values. The underlying thread here, spoken and unspoken, is that Islam is responsible for the recent spate of terror attacks in France, and these women are (a) the most visible symbol of that religion and (b) victims of that religion.
But for all that talk, what we actually see in States of Undress is two smart girls who want to be surgeons, forced to remove a piece of cloth before they can attend school. Then, an outgoing, single cat owner paying a fine for wearing a different piece of material. And, in the episode’s most confrontational sequence, a mother of two who just wants to go for a swim. In a burkini.
It makes sense that the burkini is an Australian invention. Created by Lebanese-born Aussie designer Aheda Zanetti (who also pioneered the hijood, so Muslim girls could play sport), it’s the perfect solution to maintaining spiritually mandated modesty while also enjoying the beach. Plus, religious concerns aside, it’s a sensible skin coverage option if you want to avoid sunburn and skin cancer. The burkini is an inclusive item of clothing that helps women and girls participate in a leisure activity that might otherwise be denied them.
But in France, where the burkini was banned in some regional areas late last year for disrupting public order, it’s more than that. The bans were reversed by a higher court, but nevertheless remain a symbol of the cultural clash happening across that nation – as well as actual clashes courtesy of aggressive police officers and fired-up sunbathers. Hailey joins a local woman, Nathalie, who is keen (and nervous) to see what will happen when she goes for a swim in her burkini.
What actually does happen is kinda surprising, and kinda not. A heated discussion breaks out on the sand, with heavily tanned debaters on both sides getting whipped up about the issue of what a woman is wearing – and this discussion doesn’t even seem to include Nathalie or Hailey, who watch the argument from their towels. Separately, men and women sidle up to the pair to give their on-camera opinion on the topic.
In the end, once you get past the symbolism to see the humans sporting this headwear, one line seems to sum up the three-word motto of France: “Everyone can wear what they want.”
You can stream every episode of States of Undress now at SBS On Demand. Hailey Gates explores the issues surrounding wearing the burka in France in this episode: