The problem with ‘Modest Fashion’ by Rumana @thelittlepomegranate
I know. That’s probably not something you were expecting me to say. But I have a real problem with ‘modest fashion’.
Don’t get me wrong, as a Muslim woman who wears full coverage clothes, I appreciate the rise of maxi length dresses and long-sleeved clothing. Gone are the days of clumsily layering cardigans over tops, long sleeve T-shirts under dresses and dresses over trousers. Eleven years ago, when I first started observing hijab (something that goes beyond just the head scarf), there really wasn’t that much in the shops that I could wear. I remember going to Oxford Street trying to find a dress for my first graduation: weaving in and out of shop after shop, trying and failing to find anything that suited my needs. It was a frustrating trip but one I was very much used to. But was a completely new experience for the friends I had dragged along with me. They would excitedly reach for a dress thinking they nailed the brief (long sleeves, long length and higher neckline) before turning it around to find it was backless. By the end of the day, we were all fed up and I think I settled for a top and smart trousers. It was actually this frustration and the feeling of having my natural style stifled by the High Street that got me sewing my own clothes (and eventually making my own final graduation dress!)
Photo of my hacked Elisalex dress. These days having a special event doesn’t fill me with dread because I know I can make something for myself.
But these days, not only is the fuller coverage style ‘on trend’, but many brands have also recognised, and tapped into, the lucrative market of ‘modest fashion’. So, if this rise of ‘modest fashion’ has made mine, and so many others, lives easier- what is the problem?
The issue is not with the actual fashion but all to do with the terminology: ‘modest wear’, ‘modest fashion’ and all its variations.
Firstly, what is ‘modest fashion’? Dressing ‘modestly’ means so many different things to so many people. Some have definitions based on religious thinking (beyond just the Abrahamic faiths) and some prefer it stylistically. Then there are those who society has unfairly tried to shame into feeling that they need to dress ‘modestly’ based on their body type, to hide ‘flaws’ that the beauty industry has created.
Flatlay of a wrap jumpsuit- most patterns still need a bit of hacking to make them work for me. This neckline was raised so I didn’t need to layer underneath.
Even within religious groups the definition varies- some faiths subscribe to sleeves, whereas others require full coverage up to the wrists and ankles. So, when someone describes something as ‘modest wear’ what does that even mean?
Layering up used to be my foe, but I actually love the look of a midi skirt with leggings underneath.
Apart from the fact that it’s actually a poor descriptive term, the crux of the issue for me is the virtue-based description. In my opinion, ‘Modest wear’ implies that other wear is ‘not modest’ and creates a false binary.
It gives the impression that those who wear ‘modest wear’ are inherently modest by virtue of what they wear. And on the other hand, suggests that those who don’t dress ‘modestly’ are immodest? Which, if you’re asking me; all feels a little judgemental.
From a religious perspective it boils down a complex and important part of faith: to be modest in all that we do i.e. the way we live, the way we act, the way we move across this Earth. It takes all that deep and meaningful action and shifts the focus onto the shallow- to the superficial clothes that adorn our bodies. Which again, doesn’t really sit right with me.
Being a visibly Muslim woman I’m no stranger to the judgement of others and sadly this comes from both outside the Muslim community and from within. One of the problems with being someone who observes Hijab is that you are automatically judged to be a certain type of person.
From the outside we’re seen as oppressed, submissive and needing to be saved from something that could never be a free choice (ehem). And from within the Muslim community, we’re often placed on a pedestal: as role models of piety. We’re expected to behave a certain way, be in control of our faith, have it all figured out. When in reality, we’re just the same as anyone else- struggling with the same issues as everyone else- but with the added heavy burden of other people’s expectations of who we’re meant to be. Asmaa of @ruqayas.bookshelf beautifully expressed the feelings so many of us have in her viral post.
Creating my own full coverage swimwear was a turning point in my sewing journey and gave me such a sense of empowerment. Even if I still get lots of strange looks on the beach or even if I’m technically not allowed to wear this in some countries, it makes me so proud to have made it.
So aside from the religious perspective, how can we possibly have this conversation without addressing the obvious gender issue? This is my biggest concern of all about the terminology.
Sadly ‘modesty’ is too often used to pass judgement on women. I mean, how often do we talk about modest fashion for men? The fact that there is an entire sector of fashion just for women makes me very uncomfortable. We already suffer from policing of our bodies and clothing, but the label of ‘modest wear’ further places the onus on women to dress a certain way. How many times have we heard victim-blaming tropes about women dressing ‘inappropriately’? How many times have you heard the old ‘short skirt’ chestnut? As though the length of a woman’s skirt justifies her being harassed, or that a longer more ‘modest’ length magically protects her. Anyone who has dared to walk down the streets- whether in a maxi or mini skirt, will know how untrue that is. Quite simply, we get harassed whatever we wear.
So, what do we do? To be honest, I’m not sure. The terminology is out there now and has gone mainstream. It’s used to describe runway trends and has birthed an entire new side to the fashion industry. The last 10 years has seen a boom in the ‘modest wear’ businesses. There are now exclusively ‘modest’ designers, ‘modest’ shops, ‘modest bloggers’ and influencers gracing the cover of your favourite mainstream magazines. There are even entire fashion weeks dedicated to ‘modest’ fashion. It’s a multibillion-pound industry that is growing and is not going anywhere. It’s also given a lot of women who do wear full coverage a space that they can enjoy and feel validated in. And from a selfish point of view, it’s made it much easier for me to find clothes to wear on the high street (as well as inspiration for my sewing!)
But maybe there’s still time to rename it? In this day and age, we are really starting to understand the power and meaning of words- all it takes is a little bit of reflection. Personally, I would love if we could strip away the virtue of ‘modesty’ and use simple descriptive terms like ‘full coverage’ instead? They say ‘clothes make the man’ but perhaps in this case we can agree that modesty is a little deeper than that.
Even as a blogger I have to get creative with the way I share photos. I made these pyjamas with a cropped leg but wanted to share the whole look on my Instagram. Luckily I was able to get away with a bit of imaginative positioning. But I love that it pushes me to think outside of the box.
Thank you Rumana for this brilliantly thought provoking piece, echoing some of the much needed language reform happening in the fashion industry at the moment. I absolutely agree with you that straightforward, descriptive terms are ultimately best, and that it is vitally important that we unpack and analyse the deeper connotations of a lot of existing (often problematic when you get down to it!) terminology in order to understand its impact and collectively come up with something better.