Opinion: Is ‘modest fashion’ a feminist conundrum?

Dress by Marques’ Almeida. Trousers by Marques’ Almedia. Turban and earrings, Maria Alia’s own. (Photo: Maria Alia/The Modinist)

Written by Niki Bruce

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about the rise of ‘modest fashion’, a fashion trend that was partly powered by Instagram and the establishment of the #hijabista hashtags, and also by an increasing number of women coming out in order to support their choices to cover-up a bit more whether for religious, or again, more personal reasons.

That original blog post was kicked off by Yves Saint Laurent’s ex-partner Pierre Bergé saying that Islamic clothing contributes to the “enslavement of women”, on the back of luxury brands being to create specific modest collections for their fans located in Muslim countries.

“I am scandalised. Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life. These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions. Renounce the money and have some principles.” – Pierre Bergé

Around the same time I attended the launch of the first ready-to-wear pieces from Singapore ‘hijab’ fashion brand – Adlina Anis – and was so impressed by the minimal, wearable separates that I bought three pieces. These garments didn’t look traditionally Islamic, they were on-trend in oversized shapes, fashionable fabrics and layering, and it never occured to me that I couldn’t wear them because I wasn’t Muslim. They were just great clothes that suited my personal style.

Since 2016 there have been more and more examples of high end fashion brands jumping on the modest wear bandwagon. In 2017, Ghizlan Guenez launched The Modist, basically a modest version of Net-A-Porter, with brands like ‎Mansur Gavriel‎, ‎Simon Miller‎, ‎Nanushka‎, ‎Magda Butrym‎, ‎Simone Rocha‎, ‎JW Anderson‎, ‎Tibi‎, ‎Oscar de la Renta‎, ‎Lanvin‎, ‎Alberta Ferretti‎, ‎Proenza Schouler‎ … the list goes on. All the ready-to-wear featured can be worn in a ‘modest’ way, and is photographed and styled modestly too.

Dress by Preen by Thornton Bregazzi. Coat by Giuliva Heritage Collection. Boots by Malone Souliers. (Photo: The Modinist)

Google ‘modest fashion’ and you get 189,000,000 results, and modest fashion is going to each a net worth of US$450 billion – an increase 51% – by 2019, according to Forbes.

But before you think this increasing attention to modest fashion is only about the money to be found in many Muslim countries, the rise of modesty in fashion is equally supported by non Muslim fashionistas too.

Modest fashion hashtags on Instagram include a lot of Christian oriented ones too: #themodestymovement #godfirst #kosher #shalom #modestishottest #modesthomecoming #virtuousprom #pentecostalfashion #ldsprom #utahfashion #moprom #womenoffaith #apostolicfashion #modernandmodest #modernmodesty #churchoutfit #whatiworetochurch #evangelicascomestilo #evangelicasnamoda #saiajusta #apostolicfashion #modaevangelica #modacristã …

From this perspective it seems that modest fashion continues to be almost entirely tied to faith choices, but actually it’s not.

With the rise of the #metoo movement that saw more women opening up about their personal experiences of ‘male power’ in the workplace, there’s also been an increase in women wanting to dress in a more ‘covered up’ way. It could be for emotional comfort, or a way to avoid entrenched male attitudes about women’s bodies, or it could also be seen as a feminist choice to keep your body private.

Early feminists were all about embracing their own bodies and choosing to wear whatever the hell they wanted to show their disdain for being told what to do, and what to wear, by men.

This was mostly a backlash due to centuries of women’s bodies being controlled by men for political, dynastic or cultural reasons. It was about controlling reproduction to ensure that the men in charge were certain of their offspring being theirs.

There were chastity belts in Europe during the Middle Ages and foot-binding in China during the Imperial period (10th or 11th century), harems and concubines locked up in various palaces around the world; even corsets and heavy clothes during Victorian times, right down to the modern high heels with make it hard for women to run away. Fashion has been used for centuries to control women.

Now there appears to be a backlash against the showing of ‘too much skin’, that it’s trashy and tacky and adds to the problem of women being raped. Ahh … But that’s a whole other issue. Afterall, shouldn’t women have the right to wear whatever they like, wherever they like, at whatever time of day or night, without the threat of being raped?

So, now to my personal reasons for appearing to be a modest dresser. While I don’t cover my hair – my stylist would kill me after all the time and money I’ve spent on it over the years! – I do generally cover everything else, and in fact am now wearing more and more hats as well!

Usually you can only see my hands, forearms (maybe) and ankles and I’m not even particularly fond of open-toe shoes. But why? I’m definitely not religious, although growing up in Asia has made me aware of being respectful towards other cultures.

Dress by Zimmermann. Coat by Ellery. (Photo: The Modinist)

For me, covering up is more about health, and all about the sun. My father suffered from skin cancer for years and years. He had them frozen or cut off his face, his ears, the top of his head, shoulders, back, hands … by the time he passed his body was full of divvets where damaged flesh had been removed.

I don’t want that to happen to me. 

Also, my favourite fashion style is more Winter than Summer. I like coats, boots, tights, layers. I just do.

So, when it comes down to it, I choose to wear clothes that look like modest fashion, but for entirely non religious reasons.

And that’s the real point. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, when they want, and nobody should have a say other than themselves.

Yes, there are women living in environments that do not give them this choice. And we, as the luckier ones, should be doing what we can to help them. We shouldn’t be sitting on our privileged backsides denouncing women who choose to dress differently from us; we should be fighting for the rights of all women to wear whatever they choose.

So, now we come to the ‘feminist conundrum’. Should I not cover-up to prove that men have no control over me? Or is that just fitting into the established ‘male gaze’ of what is ‘sexy’ and actually turning myself into an object? As an educated woman from a developed nation should I be advocating the banning of the veil as a symbol of repression? Or should I rather, be supporting women who choose the veil as a symbol of their religious choice?

There is not an easy answer for this issue. With so many differing perspectives, you can really only choose to make your own personal decision.

As for me, I’ve decided that it should be about a woman’s personal choice, insofar as she is able to make it due to her situation; but even that statement is still a work in progress.

Niki Bruce is a fashion writer and editor. You can follow her on @ini_niki_b or on www.nikibruce.com.