In her new book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, Hafsa Lodi explores the many forces behind the modest fashion movement. In this exclusive extract, she looks at questions around using fashion to stand out rather than blend in
Attacks from social media stalkers who surf modest fashion bloggers’ Instagram posts and point out their apparent lack of modesty are just one type of critical voice amid the swirl of controversies surrounding the concept of modest fashion. Others challenge the colors and cuts of garments, the wearers’ intentions, whether expensive luxury labels are compatible with the humble ideals of modesty and whether taking selfies can ever be classified as an act of modesty.
There have even been fatwas deeming designer abayas to be un-Islamic entirely, or worse, sinful. However, it isn’t only religious Muslim voices who have been critical. Gucci’s lavish gowns, for example, ushered in a new era of fashion on the runways that was heralded as modest, but some question how bright colors, metallic textiles and elaborate brooches can fit into this category.
“Modest fashion might come across as a humblebrag: you have to be a pretty stylish, pretty good-looking woman to claim ownership of such radical dowdiness,” writes Naomi Fry for the New York Times. She adds that, ironically, it’s a younger age group of women in their twenties and thirties who are buying into this way of dressing, despite the conventional societal belief that these are the times when women are of childbearing age and should thus show off their bodies before they grow old and unattractive. But the modest designs trending worldwide are not for wallflowers – they’re for women who may not want to flaunt their bodies, but are flaunting fashion just the same.
Fashion historian Daniel James Cole, who organized a symposium on Meeting Through Modesty at New York University in 2016, believes that while the overall tradition of modesty is similar across the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the customary guidelines for covering Muslim women’s bodies are stricter than those followed by Jews, who have long been appropriating Western attire to cover to the knees. Glamorous, floor-length designs, Daniel believes, are directed at Muslim consumers who are often expected to cover to their feet. But even then, this type of clothing can be at odds with the Muslim ideal of modesty. “Many people argue that the idea of ‘fashionability,’ or clothing that is beautiful, goes against Islamic ideas of modesty,” he tells me over the phone. “So, if you’re wearing something pretty or fabulous, it might be haram.”
But many Muslim women argue that regardless of what fabrics are used, as long as garments cover their skin, modesty is kept intact. “When we first started Abaya Addict, we got a lot of heat from within the global Muslim community for being too colorful or using prints that drew attention,” says Deanna Khalil. “But we believe that it’s OK so long as women are covering what needs to be covered.” Color is one detail that critics of mainstream modest fashion often focus on, as some colors are seen to be more controversial than others. A 2010 focus group study showed that some Turkish women consider the color red to be incompatible with tesettür. “Ideally a woman who is covered should not draw attention, but the color red clearly attracts the eye,” noted researchers. This echoes the beliefs of some Orthodox Jews.
Modest fashion photographer Nicole Najmah Abraham explains that these beliefs differ depending on a person’s background and heritage. “Color and pattern are associated with regions and cultures,” she says. “You go to West Africa, for example, and modest women have on bold prints and colors. The whole area consists of women dressed modestly in this way. So if a woman wore all black in this region, she would be bold, standing out more than a woman in bright African prints.” Furthermore, many Arab women who do dress in black abayas still appear striking and glamorous, depending on how they’ve accessorized the garment and styled their makeup, and, sometimes, their hair. “I can point you to many gorgeous women who can stand out in all-black abayas,” says modest fashion model Wafeeqa Azeem. “I would not associate wearing bright colors with being non-discreet versus wearing muted colors with being discreet. I can guarantee you it is possible to wear bright colors and not stand out – many of us in America stand out when we wear muted colors.”
Fashion designer Safiya Abdallah, on the other hand, sees no conflict between dressing conservatively and standing out. Fashion, for her, is a creative outlet through which you can express yourself, while at the same time covering your skin: “I believe that expressing yourself shows your character, and it’s really important because it’s a part of your identity. I feel like if you take that away from somebody they almost become anonymous, you know, like forgotten. Nobody wants to be labeled or put in a box and be considered the same as everybody else. So some people started tying their hijabs differently, trying to set themselves apart from other Muslim women – accepted by Westerners, but still staying strong in their belief of God and what they’re covering for.”
Originally published in the February 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia