It seems as though the fashion industry has finally reached a space where current trends can coexist with modesty – where one need not be rejected for the other. Large clothing brands like Dolce and Gabbana, ASOS, and H&M have expanded their reach to offer Muslim women modest clothing lines. The modest fashion industry is worth approximately $283bn and the global Islamic fashion industry is estimated to reach $361bn by 2023, proving it is an especially lucrative market for brands to invest in. However, I sometimes find it difficult to believe that some modest fashion campaigns are truly complying to the term they market themselves under. By combining ideology and commerciality, are they commodifying components of identity for profit?
Whilst doing research for an article I was writing about the Rise of Modest Fashion for Heroica.co, I constantly saw myself analysing the brands I was looking at on my browser. I saw myself questioning the authenticity of the label ‘modest’. I was asking myself: are they living up to their advertising or are they aiming to profit from the growth of this viable and trending market? Are fashion giants developing clothing items organically or are these pieces simply part of token statements for diversity and representation? These are all important questions that must be asked when approaching the topic of the growing modest fashion industry.
It is firstly crucial to broadly define what modest fashion is. It means to dress oneself in less figure-hugging and skin-revealing clothing. Women of various cultural and religious backgrounds or alternatively, those with no affiliation to a spiritual or ethnic objective, can choose to dress more conservatively. Specifically, the growing modest fashion industry has hugely impacted Muslim women, with brands often targeting their pieces and advertising directly towards them.
E-commerce giant Pretty Little Thing recently launched a ‘Modest Clothing’ line, championing diversity and representation under their ethos ‘EveryBodyinPLT’, introducing models such as Billy Marsal, a black Muslim plus sized hijabi to be at the forefront of this campaign. Although this is an exciting and important trajectory, it needs to be fulfilled in a truly legitimate manner. They do offer maxi dresses and long sleeve abayas, however some pieces advertised under the modest category verge on the more revealing side, yet have been styled to appear modest, on a hijab-wearing model. Undoubtedly, representation is crucial, however, by simply modelling clothing on a hijabi model, these pieces cannot necessarily be categorised as modest when the product is a sleeveless low-cut top, and the back of a dress has a slit revealing the model’s legs. It is questionable as to whether a tight dress that has been modelled on a hijab-wearing model with leggings is the most authentically modest form of clothing or representation. Is this false advertising simply to engage the Muslim consumer? Or is it a way of showing how certain items can be altered to fit a Muslim idea of modesty?
[Image Credit: @amxnahali on Instagram, @champion campaign]
This question of authenticity has been a long on-going debate from the early beginnings of the rising industry in the West. In 2015 when Mango launched its first ever Ramadan clothing campaign, it was hit with some criticising remarks regarding the commercialisation of a sacred month for profit. Ultimately this growth must be perceived beyond a fundamentally consumer level to also encompass how the development has been a huge step forward for representation and acceptance of Muslim women in the West. Previously, the consumer market was majorly centralised in the Middle East, but I now look at western cities like London as multicultural, vibrant and innovative spaces of fashion for the modern Muslim woman. For instance, the 2017 London Modest Fashion Week aimed to tear down the cliches and oppressive labels surrounding this type of dress, instead highlighting the beauty of modesty, whilst showcasing and promoting some of the world’s leading modest fashion designers. One of their key aims was to transition the term of modest fashion into just fashion!
[Image Credit: @amxnahali on Instagram]
Although modest everyday clothing may be considerably easier to find now, high-quality conservative swimwear is a lot more difficult to purchase. They are often ill-designed, with the material easily becoming waterlogged, dragging, and ballooning. This weighs the swimmer down and limits their speed. After extensive research was conducted by studying how sharks swim, and consulting basketball jersey manufacturers, Nike were committed to use this research in their production of effective swimwear pieces. They specially designed their ‘Victory Swim’ collection to avoid unwanted effects caused by the excess material through a gill-like mesh, a raglan sleeve, and water-resistant nylon. The line was put into action following a research trip in 2018 to South Asia. Many of the Nike designers observed how these women could not participate in swimming due to the risk of drowning in their clothing. Because they were held back by their dress, most women had not learnt the basic skill of swimming. Nike produced this innovative collection with the objective of Muslim women engaging with a sport like swimming whilst still being observant of their dress. This is a form of organic design, rather than a token statement of modesty.
Would I feel comfortable wearing this on a beach in Europe? Unfortunately, the truth is probably not. Due to the social culture we live in, modest swimwear has not yet been normalised in a western environment, to an extent that you would not feel at least partially judged wearing a “burkini”. When you visit Dubai, and see a woman wearing this choice of swimwear, it is normal. But why is it that if you were to see the same woman in France, you would be frightened for your safety? I have realised that to be modest also means to be brave. This is why representation is so vital; for people to understand why modesty is spiritually important. This must be authentic in both advertising and design. Women should not feel scared to dress in the way they choose.
I spoke to Aminah Ali (@amxnahali), content creator, the founder of @redefiningconcepts, and ASOS modest-wear model about what modesty and representation means to her, as well as her experiences with working for the fashion giant.
Q: Have you seen any changes in the fashion industry in the last 5 years and if so, what would they be?
Aminah: Yes, I feel like the diversity quota has improved within the industry over the past few years, I believe it is essential for the industry to improve diversity and believe it should be a priority. People have used the power of social media to become more expressive and showcase more styles which has ultimately led to fashion brands tapping into more niches and exploring more fashion concepts.
What contributions do you think you have made to this industry?
The contribution I have made or the message I hope people can take from my involvement with working alongside brands such as Adidas, ASOS, etc. is that it should be normalised or be widely accepted for Muslim women to be involved in mainstream media. Whilst the media sometimes may stereotypically portray the hijab as a sign of oppression, to me the hijab is my identity and a sense of inner freedom. We as young Muslim women should not shy away from mainstream opportunities- considering that they are in line with our values. Rather we should embrace them, in order to break these stereotypes. Hopefully my work and being an advocate for modest fashion can open many doors for others and allow them to feel hopeful about excelling in the industry.
How has your definition of modesty changed from your early teenage years to now?
Modesty to me is a lifestyle and a mindset, whereas before, I would only see modesty as a covering up. I am now also very open to being very expressive with my dress sense if it is in line with my religious requirements and morals. Now it’s about looking for new creative ways to remain modest and fashionable based on the trending styles influenced by different cultures and an innovative flair which allows me to embrace myself.
Why do you think representation is important?
Representation is what creates diversity within the industry. Everyone has their own understanding and perspective of creativity that can add to the fashion industry. Fair representation is needed to create a safe space for all people.
What has been your experience modelling for ASOS? And what does this mean to you?
Working with ASOS gave me a better insight of what it is like to work in an e-commerce model, which was different to the campaigns that I was used to. Working with certain brands has always reminded me of the importance of always remaining true to myself. It is important to remain firm about my beliefs and never change or mould my identity or personality for this industry, in order to ‘fit in’.
What Aminah, and many Muslim models and influencers aim for is authenticity. Being able to stick firm to their values whilst representing their community. This year, leading supermodel, Halima Aden decided to take a back seat in her career, after having realised her modesty was not being fully adhered to in various campaigns. Despite the covering on her head, she did not feel like it was her hijab. She was not in control of the direction of her work.
What becomes strikingly important in the rise of modest fashion is the meaning behind representation and clothing. Of course, representation and diversity are important, and they have been propelled by this growth, however modesty cannot and must not be used as a token statement of inclusion. It must be genuine and in line with the beliefs of its target market and the people who champion it, like Halima and Aminah.
Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar, Deputy Editor-in-Chief