Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Fashion, Symbols, Consumption and Piety

In a recent article in the American Ethnologist (2010:617-637), Materializing piety: Gendered anxieties about faithful consumption in contemporary urban Indonesia, author Carla Jones writes about piety among Muslim women and the wearing of the jibab (scarf and floor length dress). Jones describes the tension within a devout Muslim society and modernization, fashion and piety.

Since the events of 9/11/2001 Muslims throughout the world have been more aware of the symbols of their religion, not only within their own culture but also to the non-Muslim world. There was a time when young women considered wearing the jibab as something that was a necessary devotion to piety, sometimes forced upon them, most of the time merely an expectation by the norms of religious practice. Today the jibab and other symbols of Islamic religion is giving way to the market as entrepreneurs capitalize on the yield toward fashion and consumption while at the same time promoting fashion symbols as a means for piety.

“The Islamic lifestyle and the Islamic market segment encompass an almost limitless variety of goods and services. From CD’s and MP3 recordings of sermons, halal fast food and the Islamic finance to hajj packages, hajj gold, religious ringtones, themed weddings, gated Islamic housing communities, and even fesyen Islami (Islamic fashion, including socks, gloves and makeup), what one might generally gloss as religiously identified commercial offerings cover the spectrum from high to low consumer culture” (617).

One advertising company estimates that the halal (permissible/lawful) consumer market is at 1.8 billion people in 57 countries and worth $2.1 trillion in annual sales, $560 million of which is spent on cosmetics.

Piety consumption is certainly not only an Islamic market phenomenon. Hindus, Buddhist and most certainly Christians integrate commerce and faith as well. Go to the average Bible book store and you will see nearly as many trinkets (pictures, plagues, CD’s, DVD’s, wrist bands and bumper stickers) as there are books. Christians are more verbal with their faith than outward attire, but where there is faith there will be someone who can manipulate devotion into profit.

Manufacturing is the engine for economic growth, but so, too, are goods and services. If there were no religion, the world would still build and produce products. But, thanks to faith, there is, as Marx suggested, a link to religion, materialism, capitalism and consumption. The jibab, the plastic idol of Ganesh, yoga books and classes, the gold crucifix or the porcelain image of Mary; the edifices of the giant Mosques, Golden Temples and Cathedrals, all point to a capitalist transubstantiation to the Divine. Perhaps Jesus had no place to lay His head; Buddha may have renounced all human impulses and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, may have rejected all creature comforts, including clothing. Nevertheless, the faithful still pay big bucks, yen, rupees and pesos to be fashionably pious.