I’ve spent many years helping dozens of friends shop to achieve a new look, dress for a new job, or find an outfit for a special occasion. And though they represent all ages, tastes, and degrees of bravery, the most common request is that whatever we find is cute and trendy, but has sleeves and “isn’t too short.” Basically: Most of them want something modest.
The thing is: I can’t say it that way. If I tell these women that “modest fashion” is what they are actually looking for, most would recoil, as if I’m also telling them that they’re old-fashioned or uptight.
Despite the fact that the modest aesthetic is one of the most prevalent retail and runway trends today via designers like Vetements and Céline, the modest fashion movement is not mainstream. This has a lot to do with the inadequacies of the word itself, as well as the prejudices people harbour against many of the communities that drive the movement — most of them religious — especially Muslim women.
“[Some] women do not like the ‘moral’ implications [of modesty] that there is one way women should dress,” says Sonia Trehan from RŪH Collective, a modest-based fashion brand that’s quickly gained a cult following online. The brand is known for its minimalist takes on flowing robes, palazzo pants, and tunics, and the secular language and imagery it employs.
Although there are many reasons why a woman might choose to keep herself relatively covered up (age, professionalism, geographic location), to anybody who doesn’t prescribe to a conservative religious ideology, “modesty” evokes images of Muslim women cloaked in head-to-toe burkas, Mormon sister-wives in prairie gowns, or Orthodox Jews in long skirts and wigs. For many liberal, Western women, it’s hard to get away from an idea that they see covering up as tied to religious ideologies, and antiquated notions of women’s traditional (and oftentimes, subjugated) roles within those groups.
But perhaps they are missing the point. As a practical matter, all the term really means is longer hemlines, long sleeves, looser shapes, and higher necklines. "Modesty" is diverse. But even women who are comfortable defining themselves as modest don't all define modesty the same way — even when they are ostensibly in the same group.
Take the modest movement’s largest demographic for example: Muslim women. “Most do not cover their hair,” says Asmah Uddin, the director of strategy for the Center of Islam and Religious Freedom. “[Modest] requirements are interpreted and expressed in widely different ways, even if the media insists on showcasing only one.”
Look at Qatar-based Instagrammer Anum Bashir, who mixes Western designers like Ellery and Rosie Assoulin with contemporary Middle Eastern brands like Bouguessa and chooses to eschew a headscarf. Then compare that to Egyptian Instagrammer Dina Tokio who matches her hijabs with her hoodies. Saying they’re the same, just because they both like longer hems, would be like saying Tory Burch and Nike are the same just because they’re both American labels. And yet both Bashir and Tokio consider themselves modest dressers.
On top of that, if you take away the clues that identify them as Middle Eastern (the Arabic captions, headscarves, geotags) these women could easily pass as Western style influencers in Los Angeles or London.
The modest fashion set may be a niche fashion subculture but their silhouettes and aesthetics dovetail exactly with what’s happening within the bigger fashion industry. Many of the most relevant looks from the past few years could be considered modest: Vetements' long-sleeved floral maxi-dresses, Céline’s oversized suiting, The Row’s dresses-over-pants layering, Miu Miu’s Victorian-style blouses, and Gucci’s nerdy pussybow separates. Walk into any fast-fashion shop, and you’ll be sure to see riffs on these shapes, with long cardigans, roomy pants, high-necked tops, and maxi-dresses. And yes, while some of these clothes are “modest” in hue as well as length and cut, there may be pieces that would look at home on an exhibitionist. Covered in embellishments and constructed in bold, look-at-me colours and prints, these are clothes for women who want to dress up, not down. You could argue that, in a way, there’s nothing modest about them.
Fashion brands don’t brand any of these offerings as modest. But if so many women want modest cuts, it seems illogical then that retailers and brands should want to minimise labelling it as such, especially when there’s a huge profit potential in doing so. The fact is, modest fashion is big business.
According to a report put out by Thomson Reuters, Muslims spent £213 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013, and that number is expected to nearly double to £387 billion in 2019. And that’s just Muslims. The modest clothing industry spans more faiths and non-faiths and, it stands to reason, have an even higher market potential.
It’s no wonder why many retailers, including brands as diverse as Uniqlo, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, and Mango, have dipped their toes in the marketplace, creating modest-branded capsule collections. The problem is that these are often timed to Muslim holidays, like Ramadan. But modesty isn’t an occasion — it’s a 24/7 lifestyle.
“Many retailers think they can capture the modest demographic by making a dress and marketing it during Ramadan,” says Trehan. “It can create a false sense of inclusion. Creating separate mini industries is a convenient way to reap the financial benefits of a consumer group without working them into the larger fabric of fashion and society.”
What’s more likely at play here is the idea that marketing toward modest consumers, and Muslims in particular, will alienate other shoppers. “How do you talk about modest clothing without making it sound niche or get away from the connotations that perhaps it’s all about wearing long, black cloaks?” questions Shelina Janmohamed, VP of Islamic branding consultancy Ogilvy Noor and the author of the book, Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World. “That’s one of the biggest challenges. I haven’t seen anyone come up with a good answer for it yet, and that’s particularly important because it can appeal to wider audience."
The answer might be to completely divorce the idea that modest clothing has to be tied to religious clothing. Even though many among the community are faith-based, the key to mainstreaming the movement is to remove the moral associations with the word. Maybe we need a new word. (I’m looking forward to hearing your suggestions on Twitter!)
If you think that is a crazy idea, consider the fact that destigmatisation is already happening on the other end of the spectrum: short skirts and crop tops may seem to be the complete opposite of hijabs, but both have been criticised as being “bad for women.” Campaigns like SlutWalk, high school dress code protests, and Still Not Asking For It have attempted to divorce the idea that the amount of skin a woman shows correlates to how keen she is on receiving sexual advances. But because of our complex relationship to women’s place in these traditional ideologies, the same hasn’t happened regarding women who wear more clothing.
But, a growing community of modest dressers is toying around with this idea online. The same Reuters report confirmed that social media, especially Instagram, is vital to the growth of the modest fashion movement, which might seem surprising to those who assume modesty implies that a woman wants to hide in the background.
“There’s a pervasive assumption that a conservative woman who covers her body wouldn’t want to be publicly noticed,” says Trehan. “Image-heavy mediums like Instagram and Youtube show the diversity and multidimensionality of modest dressing, and I think a lot of women saw the opportunity to reject a stereotype.” Janmohamed agrees: “They’re rebelling against the ideas of hiding; they’re openly expressing who they are, and that they’re proud of it. There, assertiveness is a form of rebellion.”
Online, faith-based style bloggers connect with independent modest designers who swap tips, share resources, and support one another in establishing and relishing in their personal style choices.
There are diverse views on what modesty looks like even among these women. And sometimes that can lead to tension in the form of Modest-splaining. “There’s always somebody in the comments section saying ‘This is not hijab,’” says modest model Jaharrah Ali, referring to the concept of hijab which is a series of Islamic codes relating to dress. Ali is a model for the modest modeling agency Underwraps. “It’s men, women, Muslims, non-Muslims. They’re saying ‘Bright eye makeup, leggings, those heels… Oh, you’re in front of a whole bunch of people doing a photo shoot? That’s not hijab.’ But for me, I feel modest when I wear makeup and heels and have my nose pierced.”
Fellow Underwraps model Ayana Wildgoose grew up Christian, and is also a modest dresser. For her, the annoyances stem from those who conflate the word “modest” with “boring”: “[People] think we’re not fly. They don’t get that we can be fly and dope and cool and even sexy without showing everything.”
In the United States and Western Europe, where much of the dominant fashion industry operates, faith-based consumers constitute a small minority of the population. And, within today’s political climate that highlights the most inflammatory differences between groups, modest fashion has become one battleground where contradicting opinions clash. The answer seems to be understanding that the modest fashion movement is more similar to the mainstream fashion movement than it is not, in that clothing can help a woman express and connect with what she believes in, no matter if it’s her god, her ambitions, or just her taste. If modern feminism means that women can choose to be moms, professionals, feminine, or any combination or rejection thereof, then women who prefer to cover up should be free to indulge in that, harassment-free.
And there’s nothing modest about that demand at all.