Interview with Reina Lewis

We speak to the London College of Fashion professor and author of a new book on Muslim fashion

November 5, 2015
Reina Lewis, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London

Reina Lewis is professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. Her research interests include fashion and faith, Middle Eastern and Ottoman women’s history and queer fashion. Her most recent book, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, which is out now, focuses on fashion and Islam.

Where and when were you born?
London in 1963.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up as a third-generation Jewish immigrant in suburban northeast London, I benefited from seeing many different ways of being Jewish. Growing up in the 1970s with the National Front [being] a real threat reinforced my parents’ lessons that minority communities of all sorts could be vulnerable and needed defending.

Why do you think the fashion world is only now waking up to “the significance of the Muslim fashion consumer”? Is it merely an oversight, or does it suggest more invidious reasons?
Both. The fashion industry – like the rest of the world – often presumes that religion is incompatible with fashion. And, since 9/11, the civilisational discourse that pictures Islam, and Muslims, as outside and threatening to “Western” modernity has produced an aversive response from some fashion brands about being associated with Muslims.

Does using fashion to help express religious beliefs help dispel the – often quite ignorant – associations of the hijab?
Yes, it can do, and some of the hijabis [hijab-wearing women] that I spoke to consciously use style to challenge stigma: they hope that being visibly fashionable will help non-Muslims recognise them as part of the modern world, and challenge prejudice that British Muslims are “foreign” and “primitive”.

What inspired your interest in fashion and faith research? Does it represent a large part of your research portfolio?
Horrified by the securitising discourse facing Muslims, I was sensitised by my historical studies on orientalism, gender and imperialism to the over-representation of covered women in the news media and the under-representation of hijabi style in the fashion media. My cross-faith perspective on religiously related fashion de-exceptionalises Muslims.

What is the future of fashion education in the sector? Will it only ever be viewed as a vocational subject area?
Fashion education has a strong future: we are vocational in the best and widest way, offering training for designers, retailers, photographers and journalists and developing the best of the next generation of researchers. The subject as pedagogy and research crosses from humanities to social science to science.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The massification of higher education has succeeded in bringing a more diverse community into universities. This demands different skills from academic and support staff in ensuring that all our students achieve fully. I wish that the government would recognise participation in higher education as a social good as well as a skills generator.

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you apply or get a job?
Although education-minded like many migrant families, my parents were also firmly risk-averse. They helped me financially to the extent that they could and I worked through the holidays. Although universities, including the London College of Fashion, have done some great work to increase wider participation in higher education since the introduction of £9,000 fees, I think the cost and fear of debt would have ended my education just as it had theirs.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I applied to study fine art at the University of Leeds because I specifically wanted to study feminist art history with Griselda Pollock. As a studious child who became a conscientious, if mouthy, student, the openness to politics as part of cultural and educational discussion at Leeds really allowed me to flourish.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Telling a notoriously lecherous tutor that he couldn’t come into our studio building because we, the female students, didn’t want him to teach us. Astonishingly, he went away, and there was no comeback. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he would be marking my degree!

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Be a go-go dancer. Failing that, a costume designer for go-go dancers. Failing that, a writer.

What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing; I sleep like a log. Unfortunately, I also snore. My partner Áine is a catastrophically light sleeper and I imagine there is nothing worse than being awake while the person next to you slumbers happily and snores: I am surprised that she hasn’t strangled me in my sleep.

What do you do for fun?
It used to be dancing, now it’s gardening: I’m not sure if that’s sad or fab!

What’s your biggest regret?
Not being able to sing: in my head I sound like Aretha Franklin, but in reality I am only allowed to sing in the car, on my own, with the windows closed.

Tell us about someone you admire
Joan Nestle: an outstanding polemicist and social historian and lesbian femme anti-racist warrior. Her writings deal acutely with the intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality, providing an account of lesbian lives that is moving and motivating. Check out the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

What policy would you implement if you were higher education minister for the day?
I would refocus STEM to STEAM: a) because without the arts, science and technology go nowhere; and b) because the arts and humanities are valuable in their own right. A society that imagines them to be separate, or that sees the arts as disposable, only results in a poorer world.


Gordon Masterton has been appointed by the University of Edinburgh to a new post that aims to help policymakers address large-scale challenges in transport and utilities. As chair of future infrastructure in the School of Engineering, Professor Masterton will pursue research to inform decisions on projects such as high-speed rail, low-carbon energy and sustainable water supplies. He was until recently vice-president of Jacobs Engineering. He is also a past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and was the government’s project representative on London’s £15 billion Crossrail development. Professor Masterton will oversee a new Future Infrastructure Research Centre at Edinburgh.

The University of Portsmouth has named a former head of marketing for Monash University its new director of marketing and communications. Dorothy Albrecht has more than 20 years’ senior-level marketing and communications experience in Australia, having worked at Monash from 2010 to 2014 and having held posts at the Swinburne University of Technology and Curtin University. She will join Portsmouth this month, succeeding Peter Reader, who will retire after seven years in post.

Academics are among seven senior research fellows who have been announced by Shakespeare’s Globe in recognition of their “extraordinary contribution to knowledge of Shakespearean theatre through their work at and for the Globe over two decades or more”. The fellows are: Andrew Gurr, professor emeritus at the University of Reading and former director of research at the Globe; Martin White, professor emeritus at the University of Bristol; Franklin J. Hildy, professor of theatre at the University of Maryland; Mark Rylance, founding artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe; Claire van Kampen, founding director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe; Jon Greenfield, project architect during the reconstruction of the Globe; and Peter McCurdy, Shakespeare’s Globe master craftsman.

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