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The Creators' Collaborative: Rumana Lasker Dawood

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.

You can find Rumana on Instagram @thelittlepomegranate and at her website www.thelittlepomegranate.co.uk

***

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.

  • Post author
    Elisalex de Castro Peake

Comments on this post (16)

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you for your post. I too have personal preference and religious reasons why I wear the type of clothing i choose. I think I will start using the term “full coverage” for now …but so glad I never felt the need to use the descriptive term “modest” even though I understand why it is used. Upon reflection….it was probably my mother who chose not to use term modest when I was growing up….and now I am so glad. Words do matter.

    — Joanna

  • Mar 17, 2022

    I really appreciate this article, especially your comment that “modesty” is about a lot more than clothes, it is a way of moving across the earth.

    — Deb Mattson

  • Mar 17, 2022

    This is beautifully written! Your clothes are lovely and I couldn’t agree that “modesty” is really such a personal definition. I’m so happy you were featured and I’ve found a new to me sewist blog to follow!

    — Mrs Mike

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Dear Rumania, I am a 76 year old woman who is an anthropologist. I studied women, children and biological anthropology. I was raised by a mother who taught us to dress modestly and only learned in midlife from her that she has been sexually abused as a young girl, which helped explain to me her desire to teach her daughters to be wary.

    As we learn more these days about rampant sexual oppression of females I think it would help to recognize some basic biological differences between females and males. If it is true that males are designed to be sexually stimulated by visual cues and females by touch, this should be taken into consideration and taught to girls and boys, so they are more fully aware of the potential pitfalls of their perhaps unwitting behavior.

    I am fully aware that choosing clothing that bared skin and revealed erogenous zones was a way to encourage male sexual attention. Sometimes that’s behavior we want to encourage, and it is a biological imperative that we do so,

    — Lynn Hathaway

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Lovely post. Well written and thoughtfully approached. I loved it.
    As someone who was taught discretion in my dress from a young age, I’m fully behind you.
    Lead on, Sister.

    — Vera Ewing

  • Mar 17, 2022

    I agree that “modest” has different meanings to different cultural groups, and and in addition let me point out that none of the alternatives in the thesaurus is acceptable either. I hope someone comes up with a good substitute.

    — Jean Marshall

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you for sharing. I also look for modest clothing and enjoy making my own clothing to fit my style. Will be checking out your blog

    — Fran

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Really helpful article – I completely agree but it is great to hear the point put clearly and graciously.

    — Miranda Dixon

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Absolutely beautifully fashionable!. Modest but made that lovely smile to boot.

    — bubbieone

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you for sharing your views. I love your style!

    — Maureen

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you for your thoughtful description Rumana, couldn’t agree more.

    — Helen

  • Mar 17, 2022

    The term has always bothered me and it’s so hard to tease out the “why” of that, but this article has done so brilliantly.

    Every now and then I get reminded how much weighted language is rattling around in my brain, and have to unpick some some of those false dichotomies that have crept in. Modest and the implied immodest is such a good example.

    I think sometimes we react to the choices of others, by feeling that they are somehow a judgement on our own choices. It’s something I’m trying to train myself out of, and reading articulate and incisive writing like this really helps with that.

    Great article!

    — Louise

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Rumana! So beautifully written and eloquently expressed. You bring up so many excellent points, and I completely agree- there is so much more to practicing modesty as a person of faith than just clothes.

    Let’s revel in the popularity of midi length skirts and higher neckline options while they last, and keep our sewing skills sharp for when they inevitably go out of style again 😂

    — Carly

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you Rumana for this interesting article. Words are powerful and we should think how we use them.
    Greetings from Germany, Muriel

    — Muriel

  • Mar 17, 2022

    Thank you!
    For me ‘modest’ clothing has covered the eczema that has always been with me. It means I don’t have people staring or moving away from me & can almost forget about it. Not really modest at all, more of a disguise in fact!
    Surely, I cannot be the only one?

    — Gillian Emmett

  • Mar 17, 2022

    I love this post! I’ve been thinking about this issue for awhile. I love that you address how modest dressing is mostly a women’s issue. I’ve been fighting a dress code at my children’s school(ages 11-14). Not because of the coverage(we are also part of a religion that ascribes to dressing modestly), but because it only penalizes the girls. My daughter got in trouble because her bra strap slipped and was showing in a boat neck tee shirt. She was mortified to have been called out for it. And with such a minor infraction for a girl who is learning how to wear a bra. Ugh.

    I also run a summer camp and have children from many different cultures and religions attend. It has been an interesting discussion to have with our counselors to help them understand that people from other cultures and religions may not feel comfortable with the clothing that you are wearing around their children. We also discuss how to bridge the gap between what one is comfortable wearing personally and what will make others comfortable with what you’re wearing. It’s an interesting and hard discussion to have. But one that I feel can hopefully bring more compassion to the table when discussing modest dressing and how to think of those who dress differently from yourself. We all need to be better and more kind toward those who are different than us.

    — Linda

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