Deep in the midst of our third lockdown of the pandemic, fashion and beauty are just about the last thing on my mind. I feel accomplished if I have managed to brush my hair in the three minutes between waking up and my first Zoom call. Bonus points if I manage to change out of my pyjamas at any point in the day.

It seems that those who have emerged victorious from this peculiar moment in time are the manufacturers of loungewear, as retailers and style guides cater towards our adjusted lifestyles at home that prioritises comfort over luxury, with little motivation to dress up. Unless, of course, you are an influencer who failed to escape to Dubai at the start of the year and have instead been serving looks in the living room for daily content.

While spending each day at home still feels unnatural and burdensome for some, perhaps we forget that this is the norm for many women in cultures across the globe. The home holds a special significance for those who spend the majority of their time there due to cultural traditions, social structures or religious reasons – or the intersections of these complex systems.

Home environments may provide a welcome sanctuary for some women away from the dangers posed outside, and a prison to others who have certain norms and duties imposed upon them, depending on their circumstances. But the widespread significance of the home as a space for children’s education, social gathering, spiritual participation and family life cannot be understated, especially as we see societies shift to adopt some of these customs under lockdowns.

Various faith communities attach a special significance to the home as many religious teachings present a dichotomy between how one should appear in public versus in private. The concept of ‘haya’ in Islam or ‘tznius’ in Judaism loosely translates to ‘modesty’, relating to humble appearances as well as humility in speech and character, applicable to both men and women.

There are religious rulings on concealing private parts, which can include women’s hair and beauty. As such, many women of faith reserve their most glamorous selves for their home life and in private gatherings.

We are often inundated with images of ‘modest’ women of faith – Muslim women in hijabs and abayas, orthodox Jewish women in wigs and long skirts, or Catholic nuns in habits and loose tunics. This perhaps paints an inaccurate picture, as secular perceptions of women of faith seem permanently attached to their public persona in religious outer-garments – merely one layer of their identity.

These are often juxtaposed against ‘liberated’ women who enter the public sphere in more revealing clothing, unconfined by traditional conceptions of modesty. Ironically, it is the modest outer-garments worn publicly, so often berated as a symbol of oppression, that demonstrate the public participation of women of faith.

In reality, many women who dress modestly in public have an entirely different aesthetic in the home and in the company of close family and friends. Luxury fashion worn by many wealthy Muslim women in the Gulf region, for example, may not be seen by strangers on the street but instead appreciated by other women in private gatherings.

In 2018, MAC cosmetics were ridiculed online for releasing a make-up tutorial aimed at Muslim women for their ‘suhoor’ morning meal during Ramadan. Social media users in Europe and the US were quick to denounce the campaign, unable to see the need for a make-up look while eating a bowl of Weetabix at 3am, reflecting the way Ramadan is often observed in Western societies. But in some Muslim-majority countries, the breakfast meal is a huge social event, celebrated with friends and family during the holy month.

These strained cultural perceptions are perhaps no better demonstrated than in one memorable scene in the Sex and the City 2 film, whereby the girls visit Abu Dhabi and appear distressed by the culture shock in a conservative, religious society. They are led into a private room by some local women, who relieve their anxieties by taking off their black abayas to reveal luxury gowns underneath. “Louis Vuitton!” Carrie exhales in shock and excitement, as her Western-biased assumptions around religion and femininity are shattered.

There is a dual identity whereby many women indulge in their fashion and beauty in the relative comfort and safety of the home, for trusted people that know them, and are granted access to see them at their best. Whereas the outside clothing serves a more functional purpose, standing in contrast to what is normative in our secular societies, where dressing up often revolves around going out to socialise in the company of friends, acquaintances and strangers.

As we look ahead into potentially spending a lot of time at home in the foreseeable future, I wonder if this will reflect a social shift that sees us challenge our ideas about what we wear, and whom we wear it for. Our home environment may continue to be the centre of our worlds, even as the vaccine is rolled out, as it will surely be a long time until the world can embrace large gatherings we were once accustomed to. Secular societies may continue to embrace some of the cultural practices found in religious societies, including how we navigate and use our secluded spaces. 

Perhaps a family birthday party at home is worthy of the same carefully planned outfit and blow-dry as a night out in a bar or club. Or perhaps we will find ourselves dressing in a way that makes us feel beautiful no matter the occasion or how many people get to see it.

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