Modest Fashion: Is the Term “Modest” Outdated?

By Charlotte Smallenbroek

© Tory Burch Spring 2020 show - Cindy Ord Getty Entertainment

Body-covering fashion is big business and currently the modest fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, born from the need of women to dress in a more concealing rather than revealing way. Some for religious reasons - others because of a feminist statement: they refuse to commit themselves to the traditional ideals of beauty – mostly dominated by men – and self-objectification. If you haven't heard of the term “modest fashion” yet and it’s still a bit unclear, let me explain it to you.

Modesty and body-covering clothing have a long history in international fashion, and modest fashion embraces many styles and has different meanings for different women. Reina Lewis, a British art historian and author, explains that women have all kinds of reasons to dress modestly but historically it is associated with religious commitment. It is especially, but not exclusively popular among (young) Muslim women wearing more loose-fitting and concealing clothes, including varieties of the hijab.

Along with religious desires to dress modestly, women may also dress modestly for more socially related reasons such as to avoid unwanted male attention, political statements, skin conditions, personal preference, or just because they feel more comfortable in it. Modest fashion is for those who choose to show less or who just prefer a “relaxed” or “oversized” look. This idea even dates back to the 1950s, when modest fashion was the norm and Coco Chanel the first true fashion influencer long before social media existed designed a new fashion silhouette that liberated women from the corset and long heavy skirt.

You might have thought you didn’t relate to modest fashion but the boyfriend shirts, high-waisted wide-leg pants and the oversized sweaters you wear? These are all modest fashion looks! There’s a fine line in what makes clothing modest; the differences can usually be found in looser fits, longer sleeves, higher necklines and opaque fabrics. Other examples include: the long and midi dresses/skirts, (long) cocoon coats, blouses with puffy sleeves and oversized blazers.

Over the past years, fashion designers and mainstream fashion brands started to recognize and acknowledge this niche market and began to create collections that cater to the needs of more body-covering clothing. Stores such as Mango, Zara, H&M and DKNY release modest-friendly collections with maxi-dresses, tunics, headscarves and kaftans. Last weekend, NA-KD released a modest collection in collaboration with modest fashion influencer Khaoula Boumeshouli (@khaoulaboumeshouli), and retailer ASOS even includes ‘modest’ as a shopping category within their clothing menu. Also, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen coined the modest look on the red carpet with their label The Row and more luxury brands are releasing their own modest collections, such as Dolce & Gabbana with their hijabs and abayas line, and Oscar de la Renta’s Ramadan collection. The demand and interest for modest fashion has become so big, that since 2016 every year a Modest Fashion Week takes place, where luxury and contemporary fashion labels get the opportunity to feature their brands.

© Khaoula Boumeshouli X NA-KD

Veiled women have played a pioneering role in the development of modest fashion, and after many years of not being visible in mainstream media, Muslim women are now receiving well-deserved recognition on social media and on the runway. When you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed you will most likely stumble across some hijabista’s/modest fashion influencers such as model Rawdah Mohamed (@rawdis) or the Dutch sisters Saara (@saarazai) and Ruba (@hijabhills) Zai. This rise and popularization of modest influencers showed that a.o. Muslim women – through styling and layering – can now take any piece of clothing and integrate it into a skin-covering outfit.

© the Modist

So, I couldn’t help but wonder (feeling like Carrie Bradshaw as I wrote this blogpost) why is there the need to separate “modest” clothing from “regular” fashion? Obviously “modesty” became a big buzzword within the fashion industry, but do we still need to use the term “modest” fashion? Is it really “modest”, because personally I think it’s rather the antonym of modest: brave and strong! Maybe it should rather be called “confident” or “conscious” fashion? Or is it time that we just drop the word “modest”, and just call it fashion? As various brands and modest fashion influencers already have showed, modesty can be smoothly integrated into the main seasonal collections of fashion labels, instead of separating it from mainstream fashion by labelling it as “modest”.

However, on the other hand, we should definitely celebrate the modest fashion movement because it is an empowering movement for women to not be afraid to cover themselves and still look fashionable and chic! That is why I think it really deserves a specific and unique title to distinguish itself from the “regular”. As Rajae el Mouhandiz creator and curator of the Modest Fashion Exhibition in het Stedelijk Museum Schiedam – explains; modest fashion is actually all about women’s freedom of choice and ensuring that women can celebrate their individuality in fashion, regardless of the amount of fabric.

So honestly, what’s not to love about this fashion phenomenon?!

Tip! If you got inspired by this article on modest fashion, I can recommend you the book “Modesty: A Fashion Paradox” by Hafsa Lodi. In addition, NFS is organizing an online masterclass on modest fashion on April 29 (19.30 GMT +1) with modest fashion expert Rajae el Mouhandiz – I hope to see you there!