Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Beyond the Veil of Modest Fashion

6 Mar 2018

As we reach the end of Fashion Month, William Temple Scholar Yasmin Khatun Dewan considers religious observance and the phenomenon of ‘modest fashion.’

We’ve just reached the end of Fashion Month, the time of the year when the world’s biggest designers showcase their collections in the four major fashion capitals – setting trends for the seasons to come. Varying trends are introduced each season but the phenomenon of ‘modest fashion’ has withstood changing seasons over the past decade and created a flurry in fashion, politics, religion and society. Longer hemlines, sleeves and less cleavage have been seen industry-wide. This can be attributed to economic factors (the saying goes that downturns always add inches), but it’s also been driven in large part by the enthusiasm among young Muslim women for the ‘modest fashion’ movement, which we see more and more frequently on our screens, in campaigns and global streets. It’s a trend that has exploded into a major global spectacle.

Some attribute the success of modest fashion commercially to the rise in global Muslim spending power (more than £200 billion spent on clothes annually); the other major factor is most certainly the internet. A platform that has allowed trends to travel across land and sea and introduced democratised commentary to a scale unseen previously. Social media vlogs and images have increased the visibility of the trend and catapulted it to new heights. Those utilising these platforms have become influencers in their own right, significant players in the worlds of fashion and beauty and heightening the global impact of the trend.

In London, alongside British designers Burberry and Erdem, for the second year in a row an event titled London Modest Fashion Week also took place. Showcasing mainly Muslim designers from 20 countries including Australia and Singapore it’s held over two days and hosts up to 700 guests per show. At these shows social media influencers are escorted to front row seats and dressed by different brands emulating mainstream fashion shows.

The event draws crowds of young women – mostly if not all Muslim, queuing to make their way in. Hashtags and quotes about modesty are spread across the venue and attendees come in their best display of modest fashion. Most of the designers are also Muslim, although this year there was also a Jewish designer. From the crowd attending and designers creating it feels quite clear that this is a faith-based movement. Modest fashion sets out to provide an alternative to what might be seen as dowdy or frumpy modest clothing religiously observant women may wear, offering them a more modern alternative.

Understandings of visibly Muslim women have for a long time been shaped by the presence of a headscarf as a distinguishing factor, regardless of whatever else she may wear, so it’s interesting to me that at the London Modest Fashion Week event so many of the women walking down the catwalk appeared unveiled – no headscarf. Some of the pieces were loose and flowing, while others were cropped and figure-hugging, high heels were aplenty and elaborate make-up consistently applied; begging the question of what makes something modest enough to make it onto the modest fashion catwalk and how is modesty being defined? Is it simply that the designers and audiences are mostly Muslim women who buy into the trend and choose to adopt similar aesthetics?

It could be argued the modest fashion trend offers only a subtly different product for capital gains, but clever marketing serves as a form of validation for women who might otherwise feel excluded from the fashion industry. It’s often described in terms of progress and gains by Muslim women with connotations that those buying into the area are forward-thinking and those of a more traditional mind-set become associated with notions of backwardness or even ‘extremism.’ Its emergence is changing the way Muslim women and the headscarf are seen.

Fashion reflects the politics of its time and continues to reformulate every season. The hemline this season may flip upon its head the next. But the bankability of the area has caught the attention of huge brands and that’s what gives the trend staying power. Last year hijab-wearing Muslim model Halima Aden made her debut on the mainstream catwalk with her headscarf; her presence an indication of the inclusion of ‘visibly Muslim’ women in fashion. And it was only last season that Marc Jacobs elaborately styled turbans on his models on the runway – they weren’t Muslim and you could align them to Studio 54 but it’s the way a number of Muslim women are choosing to wear their headscarves ‘hijab’. A way you could say buys into the modest fashion trend.

The most religiously and culturally significant turban this season came in another form. Traditional Sikh turbans appeared on the Gucci catwalk – they were worn by non-Sikh models and immediately came under fire for appropriation and disrespect for the use of a religious symbol as a trend. Shown in four variations, the highly influential designer received much criticism for the styling. Creative director Alessandro Michele presented an article of religious faith and practice but without those who observe it. The same thoughts could be applied to modest fashion and its use of religion and religious symbols where much of what appears to buy into the act of religious observance simply buys into a trend.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Social Theology after William Temple
Malcolm Brown

Back to The(ological) Future: Questions for a Digital Age
Tim Howles

Theology and Technology: Finding God in Cyberspace
John Reader

Physician Heal Thyself: Time for a Corporate Lent?
Eve Poole

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