Walls and distance separate. They can hide a person from other people. So, in a way, can clothing. Clothing can conceal the precise look and contours of a person’s body. Clothing can render age, sex, or race invisible. Clothing can be a shelter, a cocoon, an emblem of reserve. But clothing can as easily work like a flag, announcing who one is and what one believes. The style, color, and fit of clothing can make a person more visible to others, disclosing social status, membership in an ethnic group, and conformity or nonconformity to cultural norms.
Dressing oneself is an act of concealment, like stepping inside a closet. Dressing cannot be reduced to the act of self-concealment, though, because clothing furthers aims of exhibition and adornment as well as self-concealment. How a person covers up will determine whether he attracts or deflects attention. A person who does not wish to be noticed as she moves about the world will have to dress so as to blend in, donning the “uniform” worn by other women in her milieu, whether that is a burqa or pair of blue jeans. Not blending in can prove fatal. Wearing out-of-season clothing was dangerous for a man in Britain. In July 2005, hyper-vigilant police shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes, a twenty-seven-year-old Brazilian native who was on his way to work in London wearing a winter coat. Police said they feared Menezes was a terrorist concealing explosives. Where on earth is anyone legally free to wear what he or she chooses? Ample such freedom exists in Britain, Canada, and the United States, which explains why the Menezes case was so shocking.
Suppose you live in a free society and have a choice. Why choose to conceal? Why hide personalities and identities underneath cloak and veil? Why do some women feel compelled by family, faith, or government to conceal their bodies? In the West such questions are often a prelude to a critique of “extreme” bodily concealment practiced by “other” cultures. In Europe and the United States, a woman whose hair and neck are covered by the hijab, whose face is covered by the niqab, or whose full body is covered by the burqa, is a troubling figure. She is “veiled.” Some Westerners readily conceptualize and problematize clothing worn by Muslim women as repressive “veiling.”1 Many Western observers are uneasy about the covering up practiced in Islamic countries and even more uneasy when a preference for covering up accompanies immigrants abroad to westerners’ home turfs, or springs up among western-born minorities, as it has in