What Is Modest Fashion? And Should You Embrace It?

It’s gaining popularity. But what is modest fashion? And would you wear it?

By Chere Di Boscio

We’ve all seen that meme by now. On the one side, a woman in a sexy mini skirt and heels, walking down the street. On the other side, a woman in full burqa. The thought balloon for both women? “Poor thing. She’s so oppressed by the patriarchy.”

Yep, we can understand both sides of that argument. Is the ‘sexy’ woman ’empowered’? Or pandering to fantasies of the male gaze? Is the ‘covered up’ women ’empowered’ because she’s not a slave to fashion and the male gaze, or is she pandering to fantasies of male control?

Ultimately, it’s up to each woman make her own decision. And with increasing frequency, more women are deciding to cover up. But what is modest fashion, exactly?

What is modest fashion? And should you embrace it?

Hana Tajima

Modest fashion isn’t about wearing a full on burqa or even a hijab or anything. It’s not necessarily Muslim at all. In fact, women from many conservative cultures and religions, including Orthodox Jews and the Amish, wear modest clothing. They usually wish to cover their hair, as this is considered quite a sensual feature, and is reserved for family – specifically husbands – to admire. Modest clothing still embraces colour, silhouette and embellishments. It’s all about looking beautiful, but not overtly sexy, and there’s a huge audience for it, from Africa to the Middle East and beyond.

Sure, it can be said that Muslim women prefer this style of dress. But increasingly, Western women do, too. That’s especially true since more brands, including well-known international labels such as Uniqlo and Dolce & Gabbana, are designing for those customers. There’s even an International Modest Fashion Week now, to showcase those designs.

Like other styles, modest fashion is also leaning more towards sustainability. For example, the NKWO brand is at the forefront of the sustainable modest fashion movement in Nigeria. The brand’s priorities are the conservation of natural resources and the protection of the environment. Brand designer Nkwo Onvuka knows how much fashion influences nature, so he sees his main task in reducing textile waste, creating a limited number of items from recycled denim, locally produced cotton, waste fabrics and trimmings using local manual labour.

Nkwo Onwuka tries to use new and old technologies in the context of sustainable fashion, and also cares deeply about the preservation of traditional handicrafts.

The Modest Fashion Debate

Hana Tajima

The women who love his creations say they feel ‘freer’ in longer, less revealing clothes. They’re not as self-conscious of their legs, their floppy triceps or of having a bad hair day. They claim they receive far less unwanted male attention; they feel more anonymous in public, and they can just get on with their day without thinking about how their outfit looks every five minutes.

However, opponents to wearing modest fashion say they feel unattractive in such clothing; that they feel less empowered when they’re more anonymous, and that it’s men’s responsibility to control themselves and their gaze, no matter what a woman is wearing.

It’s an interesting debate. We asked two very different modest fashion designers, Sumeyra Acaroglu from Turkey and Ludmila Evgrafova from Russia, Founder of Eva Graffova brand, for their take on modest fashion: why it’s gaining popularity and why they love it.

Two Designers’ Takes

what is modest fashion

First of all, in your opinion, what constitutes ‘modest fashion’?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: Modest fashion is a type of style which includes less skin-revealing clothing. Usually, its skirts and sleeves have longer lengths.

Ludmila Evgrafova: As I understand it, modest fashion is more controllable by its owner. When you are not afraid that your skirt will be lifted by the wind or something, you feel freer.  It has everything ‘normal’ fashion has: bright colours, textures, embroidery, etc. But most importantly it is always comfortable fashion.

Isn’t it just the same as Muslim fashion?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: Modest fashion is about humility, elegance and style. This kind of style makes each woman attractive and unique, regardless of her religion.

Ludmila Evgrafova: No, it’s not just Muslim fashion. It is now more like a new trend that’s popular among Europeans as well as Russians. Environmental friendliness, and more convenience and comfort in this style captivates all women who value comfort.

What is driving the demand for modest fashion?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: I would say the big reason of the demand increase for modest fashion is the prosperity and growing popularity of some Arabic countries. Seeing how the women there dress has made people from all over the world curious about Eastern cultures with its mostly humble clothing style. Another important reason is that maxi dresses have become more popular to save our sensitive skin from dangerous ultraviolet rays during summer time.

Ludmila Evgrafova: I’d say more convenience is driving the demand for modest fashion now. For example, you go to work in a long dress and it’s also fine to go out in the evening in the same kind of outfit.

How is the word spreading about this kind of fashion?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: More and more events dedicated to humble clothing style distribution such as Modest Fashion Week, HalalExpo, Modest Fashion Day, etc. are being held in each part of the world and thus many people learn about this sector.

Ludmila Evgrafova: Fashion often follows the politics and the mood of people. If we see that there is demand for something, we do it. For example, a couple of years ago I had no idea what a customer was talking about in Kazan. And now I see requests for modest fashion in other cities – our online store sells throughout the whole Russia.

Where is this kind of fashion most popular right now?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: I’d say Middle Eastern women prefer modest clothes the most because of cultural, religious and geographical reasons.

Are there any Western designers you’d say qualify as modest fashion creators?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: This kind of fashion is a trend now and it is possible to find several models suitable to modest fashion in each designer’s collection. For example, from the newest collections from the European designers, I liked a Dior costume containing a jacket and a maxi skirt with a fringe, and the long ponchos and long knitted dresses from Chloe. I was also amazed by maxi trench coats of a French brand Lemaire.

Ludmila Evgrafova: Hana Tajima is a really creative designer. Even UNIQLO has already taken her under its wing.

Who are some of your favourite designers or brands?

Sumeyra Acaroglu: I can say which one is my favourite – the Anatomy brand from United Arab Emirates.

Ludmila Evgrafova: It’s hard for me to single out someone. Yet this fashion is personified by the person who invented it. That’s why clients here choose to wear specific designers. The personal image of brand is a very powerful tool. And fans of modest fashion fall under this impact as much as anyone.

So, what do you think? Would you wear modest fashion yourself? Do you think it’s more of a feminist statement than ‘sexy’ clothing is? We’d love to hear from you in the comments, below!

All images: Hana Tajima

Chere Di Boscio
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