Discourse in clothing

the social semiotics of modesty and chic in hijab fashion


  • Gwen Bouvier Örebro University




multimodality, clothing, texture, gender, hijab, islamic


While there have been debates within gender studies on the gendering of the body and of the gendered nature of clothing, this paper shows that multimodality, with its attention to the finer details of communication, can provide a way to help us to think more carefully about how fashion communicates ideas and identities through textile affordances such as form, texture, weight, durability, colour, etc. Taking Hijab fashion in Egypt as a case in point, a multimodal approach is able to reveal how Muslim women use clothing to communicate a number of different discourses simultaneously. These include modesty, religious identity and tradition, on the one hand, and freedom, confidence and modernity, on the other. This analysis allows us both to problematize the monolithic representations of Islamic clothing usually found in Western media, and also to think more carefully about the ways in which clothing both constrains and enables women’s agency.

Author Biography

  • Gwen Bouvier, Örebro University
    Gwen Bouvier is an associate professor at Örebro University. Her main areas of research interest are social media, fashion as discourse and news representation. Dr Bouvier’s publications have focused on multimodal and discourse analysis, social media, and the visual representation of crises in news. Her latest publications include Discourse and Social Media (Routledge, 2015) and ‘What is a discourse approach to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media: connecting with other academic fields’ (Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 2015).


Abaza, M. (2008) Shifting landscapes of fashion in contemporary Egypt. Fashion Theory 11: 281–98. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270407X202817

Al-Qasimi, N. (2007) The codes of modesty: reconfiguring the Muslim female subject. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.

Barthes, R. (1983) The Fashion System. New York: Hill & Wang.

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, I. (2012) Tarten, tartenry and hybridity. In I. Brown (ed.) From Tartan to Tartenry: Scottish Culture History and Myth 1–12. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bucholtz, M. and Hall, K. (2016) Embodied sociolinguistics. In N. Coupland (ed.) Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates 173–200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107449787.009

Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226924830.001.0001

Crane, D. and Bovone, L. (2006) Approaches to material culture: the sociology of fashion and clothing. Poetics 34: 319–33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2006.10.002

Crawley, L., Foley, L. J. and Shehan, C. L. (2008) Gendering Bodies. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Djonov, E. and van Leeuwen, T. (2011) The semiotics of texture: from tactile to visual. Visual Communication 10: 541–64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1470357211415786

Gilroy, P. (1991) ‘There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1984) Cultural studies and the centre: some problematics. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis (eds) Culture, Media, Language 117–21. London: Hutchinson.

Halliday, F. (2003) Islam and the Myth of Confrontation. London: I. B. Taurus.

Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

Kress, G. (1989) Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2002) Colour as a semiotic mode: notes for a grammar of colour. Visual Communication 1: 343–68. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/147035720200100306

Lewis, R. (2015) Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822375340

Lockyer, S. (2010) Dynamics of social class contempt in contemporary British Television comedy. Social Semiotics 20: 121–38. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10350330903565758

Lurie, A. (1981) The Language of Clothes. London: Random House.

Lyle, S. (2008) (Mis)recognition and the middle-class/bourgeois gaze: a case study of wife swap. Critical Discourse Studies 5: 319–30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17405900802405239

Machin, D. and Abousnnouga, G. (2013) The Language of War Monuments. London: Continuum.

Mason, J. (2006) Mixing methods in a qualitatively driven way. Qualitative Research 6: 9–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1468794106058866

McCoy, E. (1995) Celtic Myth and Magick: Harness the Power of the Gods and Goddesses. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide.

Miller, J. (2011) Fashion and Music. London: Berg.

Moore, A. (2007) Fashionable Muslims, notions of self, religion and society in San’a. Fashion Theory 11: 319–46.

Morey, P. and Armina, Y. (2011) Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representa­tion after 9/11. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674061149

Osella, C. and Osella, F. (2007) Muslim style in South India. Fashion Theory 11: 233–52. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270407X202790

Petley, J. and Richardson, R. (2011) Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media. London: One World Publications.

Said, E. (1997) Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine how We See the Rest of the World. London: Vintage Books.

Tarlo, E. (2010) Visibly Muslim. Oxford: Berg. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/9781847888624

Twigg, J. (2007) Clothing, age and the body: a critical review. Aging and Society 27: 295–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X06005794

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005) Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2011) The Language of Colour. London: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. and Caldas-Coulthard, C. R. (2004) The semiotics of kinetic design. In D. Banks (ed.) Text and Texture: Systemic Functional Viewpoints on the Nature and Structure of Text 356–81. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Wolf, N. (2013) Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It. New York: Columbine Fawcett.

Yaqin, A. (2007) Islamic Barbie: the politics of gender and performativity. Fashion Theory 11: 173–88. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270407X202736



How to Cite

Bouvier, G. (2016). Discourse in clothing: the social semiotics of modesty and chic in hijab fashion. Gender and Language, 10(3), 364-385. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v10i3.32034