The motivations driving women across the globe to design, deconstruct, and dress in modest fashion today are as diverse as the fashion they wear.
High necklines, low hemlines – these quintessential modest fashion aesthetics are no longer the headline-making phrases they once were. Since modesty’s buzzy foray in fashion five years ago, the retail category has not only been widely accepted and embraced, it has also evolved tremendously. Hijabi models are no longer novelties, and modest fashion is no longer limited to annual Ramadan capsules – or to Muslim consumers, for that matter. Modest fashion aggregators and marketplaces are popping up across the globe, like New York-based platform The Reflective, whose founder, Liza Sakhai, is Jewish. Nonetheless, modest fashion is projected to be a US $402 billion industry by 2024, according to the 2020/21 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, with Muslim spending power helping propel modesty to the mainstream. The movement is a truly global one and was further spotlighted last month at Expo 2020 Dubai.
In March, Arab dress history archive and digital library The Zay Initiative hosted a talk at the Cartier Women’s Pavilion in collaboration with London College of Fashion professor Reina Lewis, exploring the relationships between culture, heritage, and modesty. Lewis, who has extensively researched modest fashion, explains that it is thriving in Muslim-minority countries in the western world thanks to Muslim designers aiming to change the mainstream narratives around women in a post-9/11 environment. “This is one of the reasons why many Muslim modest dressers I spoke to in the UK and North America specially, used fashion to communicate that they were part of contemporary life,” she shares.
It was one of the inspirations for US-bred, UAE-based designer Safiya Abdallah, who refers to her label Dulcé as “modest-inclusive.” Along with designing glamorous ready-to-wear, Abdallah initially created hoods and beanies that could be worn as hybrid hijabs, in an effort to make head coverings that were stylish yet also “inconspicuous” for Muslim women in the west. Also in March, Abdallah participated in the Indonesia Pavilion’s Modest Fashion Day at Expo 2020 Dubai, incorporating Indonesian textiles into a six-look collection for the event’s fashion show spearheaded by Franka Soeria, the co-founder of the Council of Modest Fashion and Southeast Asian fashion aggregator Markamarie. “Modest fashion is rooted heavily in culture, and countries translate modest fashion differently – some like it bright, some like it neutral, some like it merry, and some like it minimal,” says Soeria, vocalising the spirit of diversity that’s at the heart of this movement. “With hijab, for example, some say it is OK to show the neck and a bit of hair, while some want it all perfectly covered – and that’s OK,” she adds.
Thanks to the countless designers and influencers driving this style revolution, there are no universal black-and-white rules when it comes to contemporary modesty. Different hair-covering styles and scarf tying techniques have achieved cross-cultural appeal, and at the same time, the movement has shed light on the fact that hair-covering is not always a component of modesty. Parameters of coverage depend on a number of factors, including one’s religiosity, affiliation with cultural identity, region of residence, and social norms surrounding women. “I think one of the key differentials is whether the location is one in which codes of modesty and shame are a prevailing part of the local or national culture,” believes Lewis, who points out that in many Arab countries, the abaya is often worn as a cultural, rather than religious garment, whereas when a woman in the US or Europe wears an abaya, it is more likely to be “an expression of religious identity.”
With modest fashion being primarily made by women, for women, these patriarchal attitudes regarding women’s bodies are being replaced with female-led visions and creative depictions of what womenswear can look like, while remaining chic and relatively conservative. The timing is no coincidence – this is taking place as women’s societal roles evolve in countries like Saudi Arabia, where females are increasingly entering the workforce, and are no longer legally bound to wear abayas in public. While this traditional garment may stereotypically be central to Muslim modest fashion, designers in the region are deconstructing and modernizing abayas, creating a unique space to explore what modern modest fashion can look like for Arab women. Among a plethora of brands, labels like Riyadh-based Chador, which offers tailored, trench-inspired abayas in non-traditional hues, are successfully filling this void. “The abaya is an essential piece of our daily lives, and it’s constantly evolving with the modernization of the Kingdom,” explains Chador’s designer, Nora Aldamer. “Although abayas are no longer enforced, I see them as a form of expression reflecting our roots.”
Meanwhile in the west, modest fashion enthusiasts continue to fight Islamophobic sentiments to prove that they can merge their faith with fashion and fit into society seamlessly – and it’s clear that their efforts are paying off. Besides influencing luxury designers on major runways, modesty has inspired prestigious museum exhibitions such as Contemporary Muslim Fashions, which traveled from San Francisco’s de Young Museum to the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York – and for which Lewis was recruited as consulting curator. “The fact that the globalized fashion industry now sees modest fashion as a viable aesthetic and is wooing Muslim consumers is a sea-change of enormous magnitude,” she says. As designers and consumers continue to push creative boundaries, the future of this fashion niche shows infinite promise, driven by a style conscious demographic, deeply invested in appearances. Of course, it’s key to keep in mind that modesty is a personal and ever-evolving journey. So while sartorial preferences may take new shape and form, this spirit of growth and innovation will continue to underline modest fashion, which, despite cultural differences, is a profoundly unifying force for women who choose to cover their bodies.
Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia