This article was made possible in part through a media partnership with Sacred Writes: Public Scholarship on Religion.
By Kayla Renée Wheeler, Ph.D.
The story of Black Islam in the United States often centers on the East Coast and Midwest. At face value, this makes sense, since Islam largely reemerged in the 20th century in major northern cities, including New York City, Newark, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. Yet, as André 3000 declared at the 1995 Source Awards, “The South got something to say.” Black Muslim women in the South have played an integral role in building and maintaining the modern Islamic fashion industry in the United States. Central to this story is “The Sealed Nectar Fashion Show” in Atlanta, Ga., which is the longest continually running Muslim fashion show in the United States.
Black Muslim women in the South have played an integral role in building and maintaining the modern Islamic fashion industry in the United States.
The fashion show, which was originally known as the “Celebration Fashion Show,” was founded in 1986 by Amira Wazeer of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam. Wazeer was inspired by her experiences in 1984 during hajj, where she observed the sartorial diversity of Muslim women from across the world. Using her fundraising and organizing skills that she developed while working at Curtis Fashions in Cleveland, OH, Wazeer founded the Celebration Fashion Show. The event serves as a fundraiser for the local Mohammed Schools of Atlanta.
Wazeer organized her last show in 2011, handing the reins over to the next generation of muslimahs, including N’aimah Abdullah who now serves as the show’s coordinator. Abdullah recognized that the show was a “social entity at the masjid” because it provided an important space for Muslim women to build community. Therefore, the team changed the show’s name to The Sealed Nectar with the tagline, “Creating Virtue, Value, and Vogue.” Abdullah explains the show title reflects “the sweetness of we who were as beautiful women, whether people can see it or not.” Since 2015, the show has had a different theme each year, pushing designers to expand their perspective and aesthetics, including “World Traveler” and “Notable Women.”
The fashion show highlights how Black American Muslim women can retain a unique aesthetic that reflect their multiple intersecting identities. At the heart of Atlantan Black Muslim fashion is a commitment to dressing up, no matter what the occasion. As Abdullah states, “You know someone is from Atlanta, if they’re extremely stylish at all times.” This often includes incorporating bright colors and bold designs, which are staples of Southern dress practices. As the show’s co-host Azizah Kahera notes, the distinct Atlanta style is exemplified in the models’ choreography, particularly the cadence of their strut paired with high-paced music.
Amira Wazeer and her successors have built on the long history of Black Muslim women’s engagement with fashion dating back to the 1930s, as a way to express their Black Muslim identities and challenge both white supremacy’s beauty politics and Arab Muslim cultural hegemony.
Amira Wazeer and her successors have built on the long history of Black Muslim women’s engagement with fashion dating back to the 1930s, as a way to express their Black Muslim identities and challenge both white supremacy’s beauty politics and Arab Muslim cultural hegemony. For example, the official uniform for the Nation of Islam Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class (MGT-GCC) was originally designed by Clara Muhammad, who served as the de facto leader of the Nation and helped found the University of Islam school system. Her daughter, Ethel Muhammed Sharrieff, who served as the Supreme Captain of the MGT-GCC, ran the organization’s clothing factory and two clothing stores in Chicago, Ill. Members of the Nation, many drawing on the sewing and tailoring skills developed in MGT-GCC, created their own clothing lines that they sold from their homes and in brick-and-mortar stores. These stores and the Nation’s embrace of them, through providing advertising space in Muhammad Speaks and establishing bazaars where fashion designers could showcase their work, reflect the organization’s commitment to Black economic empowerment, Black entrepreneurship, and “buying Black.”
Black women have a long history of celebrating their creativity through public strolls. As fashion studies scholar Tanisha C. Ford notes, fashion parades were popular among enslaved women, who strolled to Sunday services, and continued post-Emancipation through department store style shows. In 1976, Aliyah Abdul-Karim and Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, two of the earliest Muslim fashion show innovators, hosted a showcase of “covered girl” looks in New York City. The following year, fashion designer, Lubna Muhammad joined them. Fashion shows also emerged in Oakland, Philadelphia and Cleveland thereafter. The rise of Black Muslim fashion shows in the 1970s and 1980s reflect a larger trend among Black American communities who used fashion shows as fundraisers for Black charities, the most notable being the Ebony Fashion Fair, which began in 1958. However, the key difference between the Ebony Fashion Fair and the Black Muslim-led fashion shows is that the latter focus on Muslim designers and see their role as both fundraising for Black Muslim organizations and highlighting Muslim-owned businesses.
According to Kahera, one of the keys to the show’s long-lasting success has been the organizers’ ability to build community both within the Atlanta ummah, as well as the larger southern ummah. Kahera notes that the fashion show fills an important gap for Southern Black Muslims, especially those who live in smaller communities whose activities are limited to jum’ah and Islamic classes. When I attended the show in 2019, I met women from Houston and Nashville. Before social media, the fashion show was one of the few spaces for Black Muslim women to build community beyond their local communities. The South and Mid-Atlantic continue to develop its own place in the Islamic fashion scene, continuing the dual commitment to celebrating Black beauty and Black businesses. The Muslimat Collective in Houston, TX, was founded in 2017 and Howard University’s Hijabfest was founded in 2018. These shows draw on founder Amira Wazeer’s legacy, and are examples of the South’s lasting influence on Black Muslim fashion.
It is not surprising that the longest continually running Muslim fashion show in the United States is in the South. As sociologist Zandria F. Robinson notes, “Any instantiation of blackness, from punk to goth to Afro-futurist to backpacker, can be culturally rooted in these originary soundscapes, bodily expressions, and spaces/places.” The South provides the blueprint for Black American cultural expression and “stands in for a cognitively and geographically distant African homeland.” The Sealed Nectar Fashion Show continues to be a space for creativity and intra-racial dialogue about what it means to be a Black Muslim woman.
Featured Image: The Sealed Nectar Fashion Show, 2019. Photo credit: Kayla Renée Wheeler.
Kayla Renée Wheeler is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Diversity Studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently writing a book on Black Muslim fashion in the United States beginning in the 1930s. Dr. Wheeler is also the curator of the #BlackIslamSyllabus.