When I first wrote this article on modest fashion back in March of 2019, Pinterest UK told me that searches for "modest fashion" were up 500% since the beginning of the year. Looking back, it wasn’t so much that modest fashion itself was being searched for more but that the industry and audience were wising up to its potential. Brands, designers and stores were finally coming around to the fact that a huge market of fashion-loving people had, until then, been sorely underserved. Fast-forward to this year, and the search results are indicative of just how much more engaged and active many modest shoppers are. YoY, “abayas fashion” is the second most-searched-for term overall in women’s fashion on Pinterest. Meanwhile, over on Lyst, pageviews have increased by 39% in the past six months for “modest kaftans.” Not only is the general interest increasing, but we're now at a stage where things are getting specific, and rightly so.
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Back in 2019, the global modest fashion market was already reportedly worth hundreds of billions and was set to scale up by gargantuan proportions over the next five years. Fast-forward to 2022, and the forecasted numbers aren’t far off. The State of the Global Islamic Economy Report for 2020/2021 explains that Muslim spend on apparel and footwear increased by 4.2% YoY in 2019 to $277 billion, and although the pandemic did negatively impact the original growth that experts predicted, it is expected that numbers will bounce back to $311 billion in 2024.
In more recent seasons, the combined effect of “modest fashion” rising and a consumer’s desire for comfort has resulted in more loose-fitting, oversized, creative layering and covered-up options than ever before. With one look at hyped designer labels such as The Row, Chloé or Petar Petrov, you’d see a huge percentage of the offering could suit those who want to dress more modestly. Lyst tells me that high fashion labels such as Taller Marmo, La Double J and The Row have all experienced an increase in saves to wish lists from users looking for modest fashion pieces.
Photo:Courtesy of Huishan Zhang
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A quick glance on Instagram and TikTok reveals a host of new names and faces bringing modest-fashion looks to a wider audience. “Social media has changed the modest-fashion landscape, as it’s made the modest-fashion world more visible,” explains Who What Wear U.S.’s assistant market editor Yusra Siddiqui. “Before social media, people had a cookie-cutter image of what a modest dresser looked like, and having the opportunity to see people around the world shows that there is no exact image or persona for the modest dresser.”
So it would seem that modest fashion is everywhere. H&M launched a range earlier this month centered on modest silhouettes that are “perfect for upcoming Eid celebrations,” according to the press release. But what exactly is modest fashion? As a whole, this movement has been picking up the pace for over a decade in the fashion mainstream, but there’s still a fogginess about what it means to be a modest dresser, what it looks like and how it’s influencing style-aware people right now. I spoke to a range of experts in the field to understand more. Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about modest fashion, as well as some shopping picks for the season.
So what does "modest fashion" actually mean?
If there's one thing all of the women I spoke to agree on, it's this: There is no one definition of what modest fashion means, but it essentially relates to having a degree of awareness when it comes to covering up parts of your body. This chasm of information we cannot categorise and pigeonhole contributes greatly to the mass market's uncertainty of how to communicate with and supply to women who want modest fashion. It can also make anyone who isn't personally versed in the concept feel ill-equipped to talk about it, but perhaps confirming its ambiguity can help to push the concept forward.
Shanara Matin, CEO and creative director of Naayib London, admits that even experts in the arena, such as herself, are not immune to misconceptions surrounding modest dressing now. “I continue to learn so much about what modest dressing means to people, and I think that’s the big takeaway itself,” she tells me. “My vision for Naayib was that it be cross-cultural in appeal, and we’ve been happily surprised just how much it does reach across different communities of interest, identity and place. There are really, really diverse aspirations and motivations for looking for clothing that is not focused on enhancing the pure physicality of our bodies but just as much about dressing for ourselves as any other approach to fashion in that it’s determined by personal priorities and our own self-image of how we want to participate in the world.”
"The reality is that everyone has their own idea of what modest fashion means to them."
Model Halima Aden at the CFDAs in 2019 wearing a leather coat and printed headscarf.
"Modest fashion as a term, as a market term, came to prevalence in the mid-2000s, and this was partly because a number of the brands that first started up came from designers and creative entrepreneurs who were themselves religiously motivated," says Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion, UAL. She explained to me that the internet made it possible for savvy, underserved religio-ethnic individuals and groups to start providing both the products and content that they were missing.
As Hana Tajima—the British Japanese Muslim fashion designer who has repeatedly collaborated with Uniqlo on a range of modest-friendly fashion—tells me, "The reality is that everyone has their own idea of what modest fashion means to them. And that runs alongside people's personal preferences of colour and style. It's such a broad idea that gets very narrow inside those two words."
So, in brief, modest fashion can describe varying degrees of covering up on purpose. The decision can be due to religio-ethnic fulfillment or to attain a certain aesthetic and level of ease because it is not just a trend that's tied to spirituality.
What's going on in mainstream retail for modest fashion right now?
First up, let's look at the primary stat that gets referenced time and again. According to the Global Islamic Economy Report, the Muslim fashion spend alone in the UK is estimated to reach $311 billion by 2024. This is, in part, due to an increasing number of millennial Muslim women—or Generation M—who have larger amounts of disposable income thanks to their new positions in the workplace rather than the home.
Outside of facts and figures, take a second to think about where fashion is headed right now: Social media has prompted diversity to become a mainstay—not a gimmick—within the industry. It's also shone a light on the (obvious) fact that women of different shapes, faiths, colours, sizes and backgrounds can be just as stylish and can be equally valuable customers.
Photo:Courtesy of H&M
H&M's Spring Statements collection was angled towards Eid celebrations for 2022.
The global response every time the modest-fashion market is addressed highlights just how much this faction wants to be spoken and catered to. When DKNY marketed a Ramadan collection of existing pieces that were suitable for modest dressers in 2014, the press coverage was phenomenal. The same goes for when H&M selected Mariah Idrissi to feature in a video in 2015. She became the first hijab-wearing model to feature in one of the megalith's campaigns. She tells me her life changed overnight. "I was scouted in a shopping centre soon after graduating university and [had been] planning on working for myself in a creative field, but I never expected to be a model," she says.
"That went viral within minutes," Lewis says of the high-street campaign. "I think the brands involved haven't realised the appetite for this … how much it would get taken up. I think Mariah got more traction and coverage than the other people involved in it, but the video was innovative in a number of ways in terms of how it presented social diversity for fashion."
If I'm not religious, can I be a part of the movement?
Lewis explains that while the modest fashion market is predominantly growing within the Abrahamic faiths (that's Judaism, Christianity and Islam), according to census data, more and more young people are identifying as "spiritual, not religious." With that in mind, it's quite possible that piety and modest dressing are by-products, but yes, anyone can dress modestly—to any degree—if they want to.
"I would make the point that women interpret requirements to dress modestly in many different ways, and the way they interpret it can change over their life. Within any one religious denomination, there will be a number of different interpretations and practices," Lewis says.
"Interestingly, there are a lot of non-Muslim women who are drawn to this aesthetic," Tajima says. "There seems to be an overlap of subcultures and women redefining what femininity means to them. It helps that the clothes are inherently comfortable. Japan has been exceptionally receptive to my collaboration with Uniqlo. I think a lot of women aren't necessarily aware that the clothes could be seen as 'modest fashion.' It's just a style that resonates with them.”
Is it a coincidence that the oversized silhouettes—like the super-wide trousers or statement sleeves—we're into are so prevalent on the runways and in stores right now? Fashion is often a reflection of the cultural conversation, and today there are more options than ever for dressing modestly. Lyst, the data-crunching fashion search engine, has seen an increase in related terms such as "high neck" or "long sleeve" increasing by 40% and 52%, respectively, over the past six months. Meanwhile, the brand notes that even more specific categories, such as "modest bikinis," are winning out over skimpier styles.
What's the biggest misconception about modest fashion?
Once you put aside the misconception that modest fashion is only tied to religious and religo-ethnic desires, many of the experts I tapped for information were quick to stress that covering up doesn't have to equate to looking boring or avoiding trends. Anum Bashir, a Dubai-based influencer who used to share her looks on a now-defunct blog called Desert Mannequin, completely debunks the myth that modest fashion "can't be on-trend or that designers don't design for the modest dresser. … I love having fun with clothes as of late: colours, prints, layers, etc. What I don't tend to do is show too much skin.”
Does Bashir's process sound familiar to you? It's one that I share, yet I've never purposefully sought out or aimed to participate in the modest-fashion movement. The idea is far from restrictive, agrees Aysha Harun, although it did still take the L.A.-based influencer a beat to catch up with her own wardrobe desires. “I think when I first started dressing more modestly, I didn't realize that I'd be able to give current fashion trends a modest twist, so I didn't feel super confident in the clothing I put on. Over time, as I began getting more comfortable with modest fashion, I started experimenting with trends and altering them slightly to fit a more modest look. That meant layering different pieces, adding neutral basics into my wardrobe to easily give something with cut-outs and slits more coverage, etc. Now I feel like I can confidently participate in any current fashion trends and make them modest with ease.”
What are the staple items for modest dressers?
Idrissi's key pieces are far from the traditional super-long skirts or loose layers you might have imagined. She relies upon "a black polo top, a pair of mom jeans and a white pair of trainers." Designer Tajima has explained that "through the winter, I've been living in thrifted cashmere knits and wide-leg pants. Many years ago, my aunt gave me a beautiful black wool shawl with simple white floral embroidery. I almost always take it with me when I'm travelling. It makes anything else I'm wearing more interesting and put together."
The common thread that runs through many of the best dressed in this category is accessories. Like it is for any other fashion lover, outfit success is all in the details, from cool sunglasses to an elaborate pair of shoes. Whether you choose to seek out today's most appropriate trends or look back at iconic, demure fashion moments in time, there's no one prescription for pulling a modest wardrobe together.
Model Ikram Abdi outside the A/W 22 Dior show in Paris.
Matin has seen at Naayib that certain categories can perform best. “Our skirts are super popular—I think perhaps if you like the modest aesthetic, a long skirt is a wardrobe staple, but it’s also a chic and timeless product whatever your style preference,” she says. “We also have a knitted cape, which has been a best seller every week, come rain or shine! It’s a great outerwear piece with lots of styling versatility, which is something we strive for in all our pieces.”
Siddiqui has a few favourite items worth your consideration. “I love that vests are back, as I always gravitated towards them since they provide optimal coverage and give me an easy way to layer. I think they'll be sticking a while and become a closet staple, as they've surely become one in my wardrobe. I'm also very much here for tonal suiting, as it's an easy-to-style outfit with a more oversized silhouette that works great for me when I want to look put together.”
Being religious and fashionable: Why is that a problem for some people?
It's a hotly debated topic, and like with anything in this world, there are many sides to the story. Some onlookers feel that being self-conscious about your outer image could be non-religious in itself. But there's another side to this retail sector being a prime target for sales and marketing. "There are some commentators who say they don't want Ramadan to become a fashion pressure," Lewis says. "Say if you're going to break the fast, and every time you see a different group of friends and family, do you have to have a different outfit? Do you have to be on-trend? Are some women going to be priced out of piety because participating in consumption becomes an obligation that makes it hard to be involved in community events?"
However, outside of the obvious positives in terms of empowerment, and noting that many modest dressers are feminists, Lewis explains that other important ethical conversations are often born out of the modest-fashion movement. "I've been seeing for quite a long time from fashion bloggers, designers and consumers that it's all very well to say that because of my religious convictions, [I'll wear this] … but are you buying too much? Or that it's not just how wear your hijab or how you're styling your hijab, but where did that come from or who made it? What is the environmental and social impact of your clothes? Many fashion consumers, particularly younger fashion consumers, are very motivated about [this] in general."
A defining runway moment: Halima Aden on the Max Mara runway in 2017.
The intersection of sustainability and modest fashion is one that has really developed over the past few years, as it has with most pockets of the retail industry. “Modesty as a human value is about humility and compassion as key ingredients in how we live with each other and absolutely in relation to Mother Nature and our environment. We’ve had some engagement with customers who have rightly wanted to know about the ethics and practices that operate within our supply chain, which we are proud to stand by,” says Matin.
What's next for modest fashion?
Many of the women I spoke to all felt that the next stage for modest fashion lies in diversity: the diversity of women who are choosing to dress this way, as well as an expansion of designers, influencers and platforms that this department will seep into. Most significantly, there is a strong desire for sizing to be more inclusive. “I still think there's a long way to go—especially when for years modest women were told that designing for them wasn't suitable, but now that oversized silhouettes and longer lengthed items are 'trendy,' brands have no problem creating pieces. Also, just like the rest of the industry, I think the modest-fashion industry can definitely do a better job at size inclusivity,” explains Siddiqui. “While many brands may release modest pieces and collections, they often leave out a large portion of sizes. Vela Scarves is a hijab brand that I think does a wonderful job at casting for its campaigns. Despite the product being a scarf, the brand shows it on different skin tones, age groups and body types.” Aysha Harun agrees, noting that “sizes in modest clothing will rarely ever reach an XL, which makes it a lot harder for curvy and/or plus-size modest-dressing women to find pieces that fit their bodies.”
Idrissi is hopeful that more major retailers will collaborate with modest designers, while Lewis predicts that we may start to see more modest fashion events that live offline and empower women in person. "While I believe it will continue to grow naturally, as it caters to a particular woman, not a culture or a religion, I also believe modest fashion shouldn't even be labelled," says Bashir. "It should seamlessly be integrated into the industry.” One would imagine—or hope—that the sustainable elements and better sizing ranges would start to weave into this approach too.