Fashion + Diversity

Demystifying the term “modest fashion”

When you think about the term “modest fashion” what comes to mind? You’re most likely thinking along the lines of big, baggy, unattractive clothing that basically excludes any sense of style or is even remotely fashionable. The stigma regarding modest fashion has often been considered as oppressive and restrictive and only applicable to Muslim women, as suggested by Azadeh Valanejad in Vanity Fair.

These types of stigmas are created and moulded by society so that different ways of dressing are culturally appropriated. The purpose behind this is to initially create a stigma surrounding a particular way of dressing so it is perceived by others as only applicable to a certain group or “type” of people. The truth is, if society put a label on the way people dress and the way people style their clothes, then they have the power to assert control and determine that this is what it is and this is what it should be. It gives them an opportunity to present to everyone else that this is what you should expect, essentially enabling preconceived social expectations.

Society is responsible for creating and maintaining these social and cultural stereotypes that are continuing to have an effect on how we perceive others. People are so quick to come to conclusions and make judgements about subjects such as modest fashion, drag dressing, cultural dress – the list is endless. We should think about these labels and stereotypes that have been created and we should be more open minded when thinking about the culture behind fashion and the way people dress. Embracing difference is the first big step to changing our perceptions on fashion.

Talking about the “modest” in modest fashion

So, what really does modest fashion mean? BBC journalist Megan Lawton defines it as “it’s all about covering up in a way that is still on trend […] it’s not exclusive to people of any one religion or belief.” Certainly, in terms of dress, modest or modesty means to cover up the body without or limiting the emphasis on the figure. Of course, this differs from person to person. Modest to me may mean something different to you and vice versa. We all have different approaches and views on what modest means and how we embrace it and that’s the uniqueness of it. If we were all to view it in the same way there would be no individuality or disparity and let’s face it, that would be pretty boring.

More often than not, trends in fashion present the ideal clothing to be revealing, tight-fitted and accentuating one’s figure – but we need to address how this type of style is not for everyone. Not everyone is body-confident and want to emphasise their figure, some prefer to keep this more private. What’s really noticeable is that people enjoy having an option and variety when it comes to dressing fashionably and this doesn’t have to be limiting in any way. Modest fashion is an option for those that want to look stylish and fashionable but be covered up at the same time and this way of dressing has recently become exceedingly popular.

Is modest fashion becoming mainstream?

Starting with its first emergence in the West, the modest fashion industry saw its appeal to young Muslim women in Asia, the Middle East and the UAE. Today, modest fashion has made its appearance on the high street with well known brands such as ASOS, H&M, Zara and established designers DKNY and Dolce and Gabbana. To accompany the introduction of modest fashion into the global fashion market, influencers of modest fashion have been recognised by the media for the way they style their clothing.

Last year, Halima Aden, a Somali-American model was recognised for being the first Muslim model to wear the burkini, a modest form of swimwear in The Sports Illustrated Magazine. One of her most prominent acknowledgements was for being the first female model to wear hijab on the cover of Vogue. Aden is well recognised for her diversity and modesty and this has been noted by the fashion industry, who have started to consider how the global market for modest fashion is expanding.

Social media influencer Leena Al Ghouti has also been one of the many influencers renowned for her street style, which consists of pantsuits and oversized clothing. In an interview with Vogue, she commented that ‘there really are no restrictions if you are someone who is covered’, once again disintegrating the stigma of modest fashion. Al Ghouti’s perception on modest fashion just goes to show that you don’t have to be restricted to any particular style or clothing, you can play around with colour and accessories but still express your personality and individuality at the same time.

Breaking the mould of modest fashion

It is not only Muslim influencers who have had an impact on the modest fashion surge. American designers and actresses Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are notorious for wearing oversized and baggy clothing which has been deemed to be their signature look. Their unique way of styling clothing is certainly significant in their everyday lifestyle and they used this as a basis to develop their own fashion brand. Together they co-founded the fashion label The Row, which incorporates minimalist and elegant designs that are conservative in style and shape, appealing to celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie and Gigi Hadid.

In 2019, 18 year-old American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish gained attention in the media for her style of clothing, which often consists of big, baggy androgynous clothing. In a Calvin Klein campaign video, she spoke about how the female body is always subject to the male gaze, stating that ‘I never want the world to know everything about me […] nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.’ Although she does not explicitly label her clothing as “modest”, Eilish is regarded as an inspiration for many individuals because of her unconventional approach to fashion, and that’s something we certainly need to see more of. Her outlook on the female body and wearing oversized and baggy clothing emphasise how it’s time that we start breaking the mould on what is deemed “socially acceptable” and that’s an important message we all need to convey.

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