Is it time to change the conversation around modesty?

Hafsa Lodi asks does the future of modest fashion lie in normalising it, instead of highlighting it?
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Is it time to change the conversation around modesty?

Is it time to do away with the applause every time a brand such as Etro sticks a headscarf into their campaign, asks Hafsa Lodi

London Fashion Week came to a close last month with a few notable triumphs that slipped under the radar of international news outlets. Sabirah, a luxury modest wear label by stylist and convert to Islam, Deborah Latouche, debuted with a stunning capsule collection at LFW, and British-Somali, hijab-wearing model Ikram Abdi Omar, walked the runways for Tommy Hilfiger, Roland Mouret and Richard Quinn.

Had these modest fashion moments taken place a year or two ago, news headlines across the globe would be making click-bait claims about British retail becoming more inclusive, and hijabs infiltrating mainstream fashion. But that’s all old news, now.

Modest fashion has come a long way, transforming from being synonymous with “drab” and “matronly,” to becoming a buzzing trend that international luxury and high street designers are experimenting with. The movement has made headway across the globe, with covered-up styles and head coverings not only featured on the mainstream, Big Four fashion weeks, but also at dedicated “Modest Fashion Weeks” taking place everywhere from Miami, London and Amsterdam to Istanbul, Accra, Dubai and Jakarta.

Its wide-reaching popularity has proved that modest fashion isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Designers have woken up to the fact that many women who seek modest attire for faith-based reasons are willing to splurge on clothing that combines coverage with style. The State of the Global Islamic Economy Report from Reuters and DinarStandard estimates that by 2021, Muslim consumer spending worldwide will reach US $368 billion – a 51 per cent increase from 2015. Plus, Muslims are expected to account for one third of the global population by 2050, with more than half of the Muslim population aged under 25, with spending power.

 

What may have started off as a scramble to attract this consumer market, has turned into the celebration of an entire sartorial lifestyle, and it has become overwhelmingly clear that modesty is far more than a trend. Hijabs are making fashion-forward statements from the runways of Gucci to the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Now, that hijabi models are no longer a novelty, and modest fashion has pretty much cemented itself as an important retail sector, is it time to do away with the flashy buzzwords, the hype and the applause given to every brand that sticks a headscarf into their campaign?​

While a great deal of women within the industry continue to celebrate modesty’s foray into the mainstream, and feel positively gleeful anytime they see the words “modest” and “fashion” paired together in the media, there are others who would prefer modesty be integrated into the wider industry, rather than being pigeonholed as a standalone fashion category that's constantly sparking conversation – after all, many of them have dressing modestly without much difficulty, for years.

Though a number of websites and boutiques specialising in modest attire have launched over the past decade, along with dedicated “modest” collections in stores like Mango and H&M, they haven’t necessarily transformed the shopping habits of all modest wear consumers. Toronto-based fashion and travel blogger Saira Arshad says that modesty-dedicated outlets are often overpriced, and that the high street has always had an abundance of clothing options that can easily suit modesty-conscious shoppers. Throughout the recent modest fashion “boom” the way in which she shops has remained unchanged. “I shop like everyone else and I’ll pick up pieces and try and put them together in my mind, and that’s what fashion is, isn’t it? It’s just an expression of your own style,” Saira told me when I interviewed her for my book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox.

Modest fashion bloggers have even shown that there are plenty of ways to wear clothing that may not be typically categorised as modest. Some layer leather corsets over crisp white blouses, and others style slinky slip dresses with turtlenecks. “I don’t believe an item of clothing is inherently modest, it is more about how you style it,” stated Nafisa Bakkar, CEO of Amaliah.com, a UK-based website that amplifies the voices and stories of Muslim women.

If modest fashion is a matter of personal styling techniques, and its appeal has proven longevity,perhaps it's time for the industry to move onto the next chapter of this conversation. All of the buzz surrounding modesty has been instrumental in shining a light on this retail sector, and its importance to Muslim women. But it’s time to think about how we want modesty to be portrayed in fashion, for future generations of both religious, and non-religious women.

“Initially when I first started, I was excited about the fact that we had our own thing, but later on I realised no, it doesn’t really help the situation to constantly single ourselves out, because that’s proving the point that we are different,” hijabi model Mariah Idrissi told Grazia Middle East last year. “So when modesty becomes a lifestyle choice for all women, and a type of dress that every woman can adhere to, that’s when I’ll feel the modesty mission is accomplished.”

The retail landscape is changing, and within this shift, modesty is flourishing – just look at the journey of US-based modest wear brand Verona: after launching in 2015, serving a niche community of clients, the brand landed at Macy’s in the US, and in 2019, dropped online at ASOS in the UK – the height of “mainstream” retail in both countries. “I think sometime in the near future modest fashion in Western countries will no longer be ‘newsworthy’,” says Verona’s Co-Founder, Lisa Vogl. “I believe it will become more and more the norm.”

Read more about the rise of the modest fashion movement and where it’s headed next, in Modesty: A Fashion Paradox by Hafsa Lodi (Neem Tree Press) out on 19 March 2020