Women are wearing more clothes lately, longer skirts, bigger coats, wider trousers and sweaters with higher necks. It’s not just because of autumn and the chilly weather, but because of a trend called ‘modest fashion’.
Look around and you will see many looks consisting of more clothes and less skinbaring. Silhouettes in the last year have become boxier, looser, fluid and layered. The reasons for this mainstream shift in dressing are many. Sure, it’s a runway trend. It’s also comfortable, and a welcome change after wearing skinny jeans for ten years, letting your flesh loose, liberating it in airy clothing. It feels nicer and kinder to the body to let swaying, layered fabrics warm the body when temperatures drop and the wind catches you.
But the shift is not only a shallow one. Cultural, political and economic factors have contributed to modest dressing too. Gender neutrality pervades fashion today, and an increasing customer base are interested in clothes that put gender out of focus. Stepping away from feminine and masculine traits allows an outfit to reveal identity beyond a male or female body. A clothed and modest look conceals the feminine waist, hips and bum, while it also reduces the masculine wide shoulders and straight silhouette.
Eastern influence on Western fashion is also vital for understanding modesty. Women’s dress from Middle Eastern cultures inspire Western fashion, because of its finesse. Modest fashion, letting clothes cover large parts of the body, is a growing trend deriving from Muslim women who have religious standards when it comes to dressing.
Women from Muslim countries and cultures are part of a major fashion and luxury market. They live in the world’s great capitals, and their style is international. Brands aware of the power of modest fashion see huge economic potential. Others wear the trend for its comfort and convenience, regardless of religious beliefs.
Fashion functions like a pendulum, where trends swing back and forth. After the skimpy Britney-themed fashions of the 2000s, a sexiness determined by the male gaze instructed women to wear skimpy clothes exposing tummy, legs and breasts. The clothes sexualised women in a time when the mainstream didn’t yet care about feminism, and ‘sex sells’ was the motivation behind campaign images.
Swedish radio program Stil reported on the modest fashion trend last week. In the program Philip Warkander, professor in fashion at Lund University, called modest fashion a ‘phenomenon’. “Now we look for inspiration in other places where sexualisation simply isn’t in focus,” said Warkander. He continued, “Fashion has for a long time been a thing of the West, but as a result of globalisation, other cultures are defining fashion too.”
Arguably, dressing and fashion is more important elsewhere than in the West. Here, people are deteriorating to a generic and sloppy look, with a decrease in dress codes at work and pride in appearance, there is little demand on people’s dress. We attend fewer formal social occasions, spend time alone in front of screens and there is no such thing as ‘Sunday best’ for church anymore.
The fashion professor Warkander’s diagnosis for listeners was that modest fashion can be understood in three ways. First, aesthetically – in terms of what is fashionable and what is seen on the runway. For example, Western designers Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen at The Row full-coverage silhouettes. Second, culturally – having to cover parts of the body for cultural and religious reasons. Designers like Iman Aldebe designs turbans with the intention of covering the hair, but there is large degree of fashion in her collections. Finally, economically – the market for modest fashion is vast which means money for brands and companies.
Only a slim demographic, pun intended, enjoys wearing body-con tight, cut-out, low-cut, short-hemmed, transparent clothes. That demographic is a skinny crowd of fashion people. Looking at mainstream fashion, people are loving looser clothes. Look at the popularity of over-size knits, long coats, wide-leg trousers and mom-jeans. This category of modest fashion has no Islamic connotations.
Looking at the trend’s popularity in Sweden in particular, there are two further explanations. We are seen as a fashion country, especially Stockholm is seen as a fashion city, but the reason few of our brands are cutting-edge is because we seldom experiment and go outside the box. To sell, clothes have to be relatively – you guessed it – modest. We love comfort and practicality. But hey, we need it, considering our wet, dark, cold, windy winters that last for a good half of the calendar year.
More and more Western designers cater to the Muslim market. Lasts season, F/W17, MaxMara showed a celebrated collection featuring gorgeous all-red looks of loose, bulky trousers, high-neck knits and luscious, big coats. One look in particular caught everyone’s eyes: a young model in sophisticated camel coat and trousers, wearing a matching hijab. Designer Ian Griffiths explained to Vogue after the show that many of their customers style MaxMara clothes that way in big cities around the world. The brand must reflect that on the runway.
Halima Aden, the hijab-wearing model at MaxMara, shot to fame since she walked the Yeezy autumn 17 show earlier this year. Before the fashion week season she had recently competed in Miss USA Minnesota, dressed in a hijab and burkini. IMG signed her, and since, she was walked Alberta Ferretti and covered Allure. Aden proves that you can be a beautiful model while holding true to your beliefs.
In the modest loop we also find Dolce & Gabbana’s abayas, Nike’s hijab and Valentino’s full-length, sweeping dresses. The latter mentioned Italian brand is owned by Mayhoola for Investments, the royal family of Quatar’s investment fund, according to The Guardian. The Modist is an online luxury fashion destination for modest dressers. The site carries brands like Ganni, Mary Katrantzou and Roland Mouret.
London Modest Fashion Week occurred for the first time in February this year, with over 3000 visitors and 40 designers participating. Aside from jilbabs, hijabs and abayas, designers showed jumpsuits, dresses, skirts and accessories.
Iman Aldebe is a Swedish Muslim designer, known for her haute hijabs. Happy Turbans, her brand, is thriving in Europe and the Middle East, with outlets in Dubai and Paris. Just a few days ago, her designs for Sweden’s official military and police service hijabs were released. Aldebe is an inspiring advocate of modest fashion.
Faduma Aden, also interviewed on Stil, is the founder of Swedish modest fashion brand Jemmila. It’s based on the idea of joining Scandinavian minimalism and Muslim fashion. Aden saw a gap in the market for refined, minimalist fashion that met her Muslim standards. She wanted to create a brand with the aesthetics of Filippa K, for a British version, think Joseph but less expensive.
“I met other women, working in business for example, in need of the same design,” she told Stil. Her collections are small, but some pieces are versatile and can be made loose or tight, to fit under or over other garments.
“Women bought clothes from markets and traders before, even in wealthy places like the Gulf countries. The materials were cheap and decorations glitzy. There was no thought of design, packaging and shopping experience,” she explained.
Aden also saw a need for female Muslim role models, and wrote a post featuring seven powerful Muslim women on her website before last Christmas. The post received attention, mentions and shares. Hoping young Muslim women will read the article, and providing them with a professional modest wardrobe, she wants to help them see career possibilities. What is that if not female empowerment?
According to Aden, London is the best city in the world for modest fashion. “Customers exist, it’s a fashion capital, there is a big Muslim population, international tourists visit, the department stores have good buyers, and there is money.”
A heritage European brand doing modesty is Céline, experiencing wild success with Phoebe Philo at the helm. Her signature is big clothes, comfy shapes and loose fits. The recent S/S18 show contained only two looks with tight fits, and they were still long sleeve turtle necks.
Lastly, Victoria Beckham is a symbol of how Western fashion has taken to the modest trend. Long gone are the days of Posh Spice’s ‘little black Gucci dress’. Now she favours a demure look of loose-fit shirts and elegant trousers. The designer herself told The Guardian, that a looser silhouette “puts power back into the hands of the wearer rather than the observer”.
Originally published on http://www.shiftlondon.org. The article has been modified.
Feature image: Halima Aden on the cover of CR Fashion Book