Professor Reina Lewis
Centenary Professor of Cultural Studies
London College of Fashion
BiographyReina has been Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion since 2006, joining from her previous post at University of East London where she was also Professor of Cultural Studies. Her research focuses on gender, sexuality, race, and religion in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, taking an inter- and multi-disciplinary approach informed by cultural studies and feminist postcolonial theory. Her early research on western women orientalist artists and writers marked a new development in understandings of gender and imperial cultures, focusing particularly on women’s representations of and from the middle east. More recently her studies on contemporary religious cultures as expressed through fashion and the dressed body have connected critical fashion studies with approaches and methods from the sociology of religion.
A prolific author, Reina has also acted as consultant curator on the exhibition Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums (September 2018-January 2019, Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt Main, Germany 2019, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 2020-21). The exhibition was 2020 winner of Richard Martin Award, from the Costume Society of America and 2018 Enhancing Understanding Award, from Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Reina is Series Editor of two books series: Dress Cultures (Bloomsbury), with Elizabeth Wilson; and Cultures in Dialogue (Giorgias Press), with Teresa Heffernan. She sits on the Editorial/Advisory Boards for several journals and book series, including Fashion Theory, International Journal of Fashion Studies, Lambda Nordica, and Oxford British Muslim Studies.
Reina’s writings and opinion frequently appear across the global media, most recently in the New York Times, le Monde, BBC World, BBC Radio, Vogue Arabia, CBC radio, The Guardian, The Times, Women’s Wear Daily, The National (UAE), Businessoffashion.com, Fortune.com, and Huffington Post.
Reina convenes the public talk series Faith & Fashion at the London College of Fashion, see http://www.arts.ac.uk/research/research-projects/current-projects/faith-and-fashion/
For the last several years, I have been using fashion and faith as a lens to explore the articulation of contemporary religious and ethnic gendered identities in Euro-America and the Middle East. This began with a study of how the figure of the Muslim woman, veiled or unveiled, continues to be central to changing debates about the relations between Islam and the west and about community and belonging. My research and collaborations have expanded to focus on the modest fashion industry and media as a cross-faith phenomenon that includes also Christian and Jewish women, ‘secular’ women, and those from other religious traditions. I have become especially interested in the how modest fashion cultural politics have played a role in women’s cross-faith social activism in defence of women’s rights to freedom of religious expression through dress, and the opportunities and tensions this produces. My current research on the intersection between religious cultures and fashion cultures has investigated women’s experience of religious dress codes as a workplace requirement – regardless of women’s own religious or spiritual or secular beliefs and practices.
My first book, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Representation, Femininity (1996), brought to light the contribution to imperial cultures of nineteenth-century western women artists and writers in order to demonstrate the heterogeneity and contested nature of orientalist discourse. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem (2004) turned to the early twentieth century, revealing how women codified as oriental (and stereotyped as silenced and oppressed) were able to manipulate western cultural codes. I explored how the genre of harem literature created publishing opportunities for eastern and western women whilst relying for market share on the orientalist stereotypes that some sought to critique. The intellectual scaffolding that underpinned these studies was demonstrated in two collaborative projects: Gender, Modernity and Liberty: Middle Eastern and Western Women’s Writings: A Critical Reader, edited with Nancy Micklewright (2006); and Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited with Sara Mills (2003).
My research then moved more overtly into critical fashion studies to examine the continued and contemporary commodification of Muslim femininities, situating historical and current veiling debates in relation to Muslim women’s experiences as fashion industry professionals and consumers. Using the hyper-visibility of the veiled body as a lens through which to view contemporary postcolonial cultural crises, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures (2006) drew attention to alternative modes of fashion innovation and mediation such as the new Muslim lifestyle print and social media. At the same time, in collaboration with Prof. Emma Tarlo (Goldsmiths, London) my Modest Dressing project widened the frame to explore how newly developing online retail and digital media were being utilised in a niche modest fashion market by Muslims and people of other faiths. My edited volume, Modest Fashion: Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith (2013) discussed how religious convictions and cultures factor into the professional lives of designers, fashion journalists and digital content producers, photographers, and those working in fashion retail from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious backgrounds. Reversing the lens away from women’s own religion and belief as the motivator for religiously-related dress, my recent work with Prof. Kristin Aune (Coventry University) has examined the impact on women of workplace religious dress codes. We compared the experiences of women working in UK faith-based organisations with women employed by secular global organisations who visited Saudi Arabia for work (where they had to wear an abaya, and sometimes a headscarf). Our reading of these contexts revealed organisational religious dress codes to be a new component of gender specific aesthetic labour, which could be analysed as a form of lived religion.
My research in sexualities studies uses an interdisciplinary methodology to think about circuits of production, distribution, and reception and particularly how forms of cultural consumption create a sense of who we are. A concern with audience informed the compilation of my co-edited collection Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Culture with Peter Horne which in 1996 helped establish the field for queer visual studies, accompanied by a series of articles and polemics. My subsequent contributions in this area were primarily interested in matters of dress and identity, looking at lesbians as consumers of mainstream fashion magazines, and as producers and consumers of queer lifestyle publications.
More recently, I have brought my studies on sexuality and culture into the frame of middle-east gender histories. In ‘Sapphism in the Seraglio’ (2016) I reconsider theories of performativity by analysing the historicised cultural competencies needed to enact and decode the dressed performance of ethnicised, sexual, and gender identities. The role of fashion consumption in the making of modern genders and sexualities for enslaved and free bodies in late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican societies forms the basis my chapter in a co-edited volume on fashion and middle-eastern modernities with Yasmine Nachabe Taan, Fashioning the Modern Middle East: Gender, Body, and Nation (2021).