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MoMu & Mvslim: Modest Fashion Forum

Modest Fashion Forum poster with two women wearing headscarves
Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

What is modest fashion?

In its essence it refers to a fashion trend of wearing less skin-revealing clothes. The exact interpretation of 'modest' varies: women dress modestly due to religious and cultural reasons, including Muslims, Jews and Christians. Or to attain a certain aesthetic due to personal preference.

We invited Emma Tarlo to shed light into the tradition, identity and fashion of modest clothing.

Emma Tarlo is a professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and an author. Her previous books include Clothing Matters , winner of the 1998 Coomaraswamy Prize, and Visibly Muslim.

The below texts are a transcript of “Veiling: Tradition, Identity and Fashion”. For the imagery with the text we invited fashion stylist Farah El Bastani. Along with photographer Sophie Rata, Farah successfully incorporated Belgian designers in this inspiring modest fashion shoot.

  • Two women wearing headscarves
    Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani
  • Two women
    Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani
  • Two women standing on stairs
    Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani
  • Woman wearing head scarf posing with two children
    Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

Why do Muslim women adopt modest clothing?

Tarlo became interested in Muslim women’s dress in around 2004, and this is when she realized the extraordinary diversity of the different types of Muslim dresses that there were in Britain. She began to research why people wear what they wear, and came to the conclusion that all sorts of different issues come in to play. It may be religion. It may be politics but it may be family background. It may be cultural heritage but it may also be fashion. It may be your relationship with your peers. So it can’t just be boiled down to religion or politics. So in a sense she got interested in exploring as an anthropologist.

Emma conducted research of Muslims living in strong ethnic neighbourhoods in London, but also those living in other neighbourhoods. Attending Islamic events and interviewing entrepreneurs and students who were developing fashionable clothing for Muslim women. She understood that women adopt ‘modest clothing’ to try practice Islam as part of everyday life- not reserved just during prayer time.

A young woman born today, brought up in a multicultural context, say in Britain, encounters a whole range of discourses which are fashion, individualism, discourses from their peers and their family. They’re trying to find something that makes senses of that whole composite mixture

Emma Tarlo
4 women posing as a family
Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

How does modest fashion differ from other fashion retail industries?

In many ways the modest fashion industry is not dissimilar from other types of fashion industries and interestingly, quite a few of the people who are involved in it may have started out in the mainstream fashion industry or been trained through the mainstream fashion industry.

They’re using very similar modes of display, and advertising as the mainstream industry. But they do face the dilemma of how to display the objects where on the one hand making garments sexually appealing is very much a mainstream strategy within the fashion industry. This leads to a complicated relationship in how to display the clothing whilst still maintaining modesty.

Two young women: one is sitting on a ledge, the other one is leaning against the first woman
Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

They can display without mannequins in them, which also happens to some extent with mainstream fashion retail. But where bodies/ mannequins are displayed there’s this problem of how to display the bodies so some companies for example, will display the items with bodies inside them but they’ll be cut off at the head so you don’t see the face- others will incorporate the face but they’ll try to not be too made up, others will in fact use a very mainstream, sexualized styles of body presentation.

So companies situate themselves very differently along the spectrum of in a sense how seriously they want to be taken in terms of religion or whether it’s closer to the kind of fashion side.

Modest Fashion Today

5 vrouwen in een hoofddoek en twee kinderen poseren voor de foto
Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

Marketing to this niche industry proves tough for a lot of brands, knowing how to approach the market, what the customers are looking for- or even truly understanding what Modest Fashion even means. The Modest Fashion Forum aims to shed light on these issues, allowing brands to connect with their audience in a meaningful way and network with modest fashion industry leaders.

This trend of modest fashion has taken the fashion industry by storm. Aside from the rise of independent modest fashion designers, global fashion brands from luxury to high street are also continuing to release modest clothing collections- e.g. Nike, Uniqlo, H&M, D&G and many more. Brands have begun to recognize the market potential of this industry, with searches for the term ‘modest fashion’ up a staggering 500% since the beginning of 2018 according to Pinterest UK. Mainstream brands are playing catch-up to appeal to women who dress modestly for religious and cultural reasons.

Though with this trend, retailers have noticed that Modest Fashion is applicable to all women, whether they dress in that manner intentionally or unintentionally. Women dress modestly perhaps due to the cold weather, or an event where revealing clothing wouldn’t be appropriate- showing that dressing modestly is global. The new fashion trends of covered-up-chic being the new trend, shows retailers offering palazzo pants, turtleneck tops: it’s just a style that resonates with them. Modest fashion is diverse, in the sense that women opt modest clothing for various reasons from cultural reasons to personal preference.

Modest Fashion Forum poster with two women wearing headscarves
Photo: Sophie Rata | Styling: Farah El Bastani

Join us for the first edition of the Modest Fashion Forum that will delve deeper into this niche $44 billion industry, on 23rd of November at Arenberg! Use the code 'partnermff18' to receive a ticket at discounted price. For more information about the event, click here.