Empowering women through modesty
Why the modest fashion movement is important for Muslim women globally
For women living in the UAE, the phrase "modest fashion" may seem like an overplayed tune. We see these words quite frequently on signs in storefront windows, especially around Ramadan, when retailers amp up the "modesty" marketing. As a fashion journalist in Dubai, I've received countless press releases headlined with the word "modest", which has become a buzzword particularly hyped up in the Middle East, where modest dressing is part of the cultural fabric of society. The phrase began popping up in my e-mail so frequently - from Mango's annual Ramadan collections to Dolce & Gabbana's abaya offerings - that I soon found myself desensitised, assuming that this movement was blazing across the globe with equal fervour.
So, in 2018, when it felt like modesty was one of the retail industry's biggest buzzwords in the Middle East, I posed a question to celebrity stylist Law Roach, whom I had grown up watching on America's Next Top Model. "Modesty is being touted as a global fashion movement - is this something you're witnessing in America too?" I asked Roach during his trip to Dubai. He replied saying that he had only been introduced to the term, modest fashion, the day prior, and joked that America wasn't really known for its modesty.
Alas - though hijabi models like Halima Aden and Mariah Idrissi were starring in Western fashion shows and campaigns, and Western labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors and DKNY had begun catering to the modesty-conscious Middle Eastern market, perhaps this style movement wasn't surging across the world with the same momentum.
Fast forward to 2020. In a span of two short years, modesty has been celebrated in the USA on a multitude of platforms: the Contemporary Muslim Fashions Exhibition kicked off at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Florida witnessed its first-ever Miami Modest Fashion Week, and hijabi model Ikram Abdi Omar starred in a campaign for American designer Diane von Furstenberg.
These triumphs may seem small from across the Atlantic, in the Middle East, where exhibits, runway shows and fashion shoots often incorporate modest attire and hijabs, but they are, in fact, groundbreaking moments for Muslim communities in the West.
As a female Muslim who strives to dress relatively modestly, I'm privileged to live in the Middle East, where this style of dressing is the cultural norm. But I spent my childhood living in the United States, and during my early teen years, not only was I the only Muslim in my small private school in the agricultural town of Morgan Hill, located outside of San Jose, California, I was one of the few (along with a handful of Mormon peers) who adhered to a religiously-influenced dress code.
Shopping for clothing that would both conform with mainstream style trends, and with my modesty guidelines - covering the shoulders and knees - was a constant challenge. Outfits considered "cool" consisted of distressed denim cut-off shorts, paired with form-fitting T-shirts and tank tops. Never did I imagine that an entire exhibition would take place in one of California's most prestigious museums, centred on fashion for Muslim women.
It's great that modest fashion is a thriving retail category in the Middle East, but more impactful is its rise in Europe and North America, where Muslim women have historically been the butt of Islamophobic prejudice and ostracised for how they dress. The modest fashion movement, which is now significantly influencing Western retail, offers these women long-awaited acceptance and validation for their choices to conceal, rather than reveal.