Modest Fashion: the good, the bad and the unfair
Relentlessly scouring through the internet and retail shops for the ideal clothes for Muslim women, Yaseen Farha had just begun wearing the hijab when she almost gave up all hope. Farha, like any other hijab-wearing woman, battled with modern-day fashion trends not being able to cater to her needs.
Farha launched her online Modest Fashion business in the first quarter of 2020. Without foreseeing the consequences of the COVID-19, she began selling clothing through Instagram, Facebook, and her website.
The entrepreneur had a personal reason for selling modest clothing once she began wearing a headscarf and started dressing more modestly. She says: “When I used to go shopping in mainstream brands, I didn’t find clothing that appealed to people like me.”
According to countless Muslim women around the world, including Farha, renowned fashion brands are unable to understand their customer’s needs. Innumerable hours are spent scavenging for inner shirts, safety pins and sewing loose ends together. So, she decided to pave her own path- a road only the brave dare to take.
The trendiest and most common styles of women’s fashion in the 21st century serve as an antithesis to Modest Fashion. Women who choose to dress conservatively are a bit too aware of the stress-inducing antics of mainstreamshopping. However, in the past decade, global fashion businesses have gained increasing interest in the roaring ‘multi-billion-dollar market’ of Muslim female consumers, according to Vogue UK.
World-famous brands like H&M and Dolce and Gabbana have leaped to inclusivity by selling Modest Fashion collections. Vogue and Sports Illustrated have featured hijab-wearing models on their cover pages. Gucci and Marc Jacobs have walked veiled women on the catwalk at their runway shows. At face value, there has been a successful breakthrough for modesty in the mainstream fashion industry.
For Farha, Western clothing lines competing with local businesses is “unfair to small business owners who target only that specific demographic and have a thorough understanding of Modest Fashion customers.”
“Designers and entrepreneurs put a lot of effort into establishing their brands based on the authenticity of where they are coming from – in this case, from majority Muslim backgrounds,” she remarks on the issue of rising competition in the market. High street brands easily benefit off the purchasing power of Muslim women without giving much attention to the specificities of Modest clothing.
Hafsa Lodi, a fashion journalist and author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, says about the ingenuity of brands: “When modesty becomes a buzzword that’s tacked onto collections that may not necessarily reflect the consumer demands of the demographic, it becomes clear that modesty has become a money-making scheme for them.”
Striding towards inclusivity isn’t a smooth sailing ship, but what does this progression mean for Muslim women who chose this lifestyle as a result of religious beliefs?
More than four years ago, Dina Tokio, a YouTuber and Modest Fashion icon, vented out her frustrations at western brands’ pseudo attempts at inclusivity on her YouTube channel. She commented on H&M’s 2018 Ramadan collection: “While you’re being inclusive, you’re not really trying… we’re not asking brands to sell us what our cultures have already invented.” The problem, she claimed, is that Western brands aren’t working with Muslim bloggers and influencers to understand what Muslim women want in their clothing, and the issue still persists.
A lack of market research and understanding of Modest Fashion trends especially in the young generation of Muslim women, is how companies fail to provide and represent this faction of women.
One may wonder why fashion and clothing are such a pressing matter for underrepresented groups like Muslim women. Bat Sheva Hass, a Ph.D. candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – specializing in the anthropology of religion and gender – enlightens us with her take on the interplay between faith and fashion in her study of Muslim women in European societies (specifically the Netherlands).
She says: “Muslim women in my study often claim not feeling a sense of belonging neither in the Dutch community nor the Muslim community, so Islamic dressing is a way to claim belongingness.” She believes that Muslim women who live in Western societies have to constantly justify their choice of wearing a hijab or covering up. “Not everyone will agree that modesty has a place in a secular, emancipated, enlightened society like the Netherlands”.
In her study, she observed that the women were insulted by these Western perceptions of wanting to liberate women from their headscarves. The subsequent stereotyping and misconceptions of Muslim women is why she thinks modest and religious fashion styles should be recognized in mainstream global fashion – it creates a more tolerant and cooperative society.
Hass suggests that Instagram and YouTube channels that advocate Modest Fashion help build a bridge of understanding. Inclusion of Modest fashion (in the right way) is a latent form of educating people on tolerance and accepting others. “Fashion, clothing, covering, and identity-forming are an effective tool in fighting stigmas and stereotypes,” she concludes.
Lodi reinstates this idea as she says: “The rise of the Modest Fashion movement is proof that you can be both stylish by mainstream standards and modest at the same time.” The journalist acknowledges that this trend has led to a decrease in stigma and negative associations with modesty- it is now considered fashion-forward rather than solely religious or “cult-like”.
“It couldn’t have been possible without notable hijabi women in the limelight that helped de-stigmatize modesty,” she adds. During the discussion on the topic of hijabi models being represented in the media, Lodi said “inclusion of hijabi models is a hugely positive thing and can even help counter Islamaphobic sentiments which portray Muslim women as othered, alien and foreign.”
Whether you’re a risk-taking entrepreneur, a trailblazing blogger, or a fashion writer, fashion and clothing are a fundamental feature of an individual’s identity. While western society has a long way to go in understanding what it truly means to observe modesty as a Muslim woman, the rise of the Modest Fashion movement has created permanent ruptures in the fashion world.