Modest fashion is a growing, global multi-billion-dollar market that is appearing at high-profile fashion shows, on celebrities, and in the headlines of fashion publications and major news outlets around the world. SOAS alumnae Nour Saleh, founder of Art Breath, and Hafsa Lodi, writer, journalist and author of the book “Modesty – A Fashion Paradox” held a virtual discussion for the SOAS Alumni Book Club on 24 November to address crucial questions about the rise of the modest fashion industry, and what it means for the future of fashion, women and their role in society.
Lodi, who grew up in the United States before pursuing a BA in Journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada and an MA in Islamic law from SOAS, said it was tough as a young Muslim girl to find stylish clothing that was also modest.
“Modest fashion was clunky and matronly. It wasn’t the buzzword that it is today,” she said.
A journalist covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade, she wrote feature stories for major outlets including The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Vogue Arabia and GQ Middle East. When she was contacted to write a book on the topic of modest fashion, she described it as a “dream come true.”
Modest fashion is mostly defined as clothing that covers the shoulders and arms up to the wrists, the waist to the ankles, and often has high necklines, loose cuts and non-transparent fabrics. It is mostly a category of women’s clothing, but Lodi says that men’s modest fashion is gaining some momentum among faith-based Muslim communities, particularly in the UK.
“It’s not just about appearances and aesthetics – it’s about being humble and having faith-based values,” she said, adding that while it was mainly Hijabi bloggers that pioneered the movement, there was a rise of modest fashion bloggers in many Orthodox Jewish, Mormon and other faith-based communities beginning in the mid-2000s.
“At first, most designers were very happy with this – with this global spotlight, their designs became trendy on a mainstream level which opened [their brands] up to wider audiences,” said Lodi. “On the other hand, global brands like Nike are capitalizing on this modesty movement and are being applauded for being the first, when there are Arab brands that have been making sports hijabs and birkinis for decades. Some designers fear they will take away their clients.”
Modesty and consumerism
Saleh, who holds a BA from Central St Martins in Fashion Print and an MSc in International Politics from SOAS, asked Lodi about the paradox between inner-modesty and material consumerism – an important theme throughout the book.
“This is one of the longstanding debates,” said Lodi. “Speaking to influencers, models and bloggers, a lot of them will distance themselves from that faith-based element of modest fashion because they believe they are acting modestly and that their job as an influencer is to attract attention for their platforms. But is modesty about attracting attention or blending in?”
In asking these questions, Lodi says she has become disillusioned with the industry itself. But she and Saleh agreed that modest fashion doesn’t need to be labelled, and it is simply a retail category that shouldn’t determine a woman’s virtue.
Reclaiming the narrative
Another key part of the book club discussion was the role of modest fashion in countering Islamophobia in the media and its role in the overall body autonomy movement.
“Fifteen years ago, you would not have seen glamorous hijabi women at the Met Gala, or on red carpets or in H&M and Michael Kors ad campaigns,” said Lodi. “Modest fashion has opened the doors to the mainstream media to rethink how they portray Muslim women. But of course, there is tokenism,” said Lodi, referring to the hijabi model Halima Aden who quit the industry last year because she felt the industry clashed with her Muslim faith.
“When this book first came out, I was painted as this spokesperson for modest fashion and I was ok with that,” she said. “But I’m not advocating for it at the cost of other interpretations of fashion. I’d rather see myself as an advocate for body autonomy. The whole point is that we are not dressing for men, for male guidelines or for the male gaze. It’s women reclaiming the narratives around fashion and their bodies.”
“Modesty – A Fashion Paradox” was published in 2020 by Neem Tree Publishers. It is available for sale at bookstores and online across the UK.
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in South East Asia and West Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.