Modesty is getting a makeover and inching its way into the fashion mainstream, courtesy of an unlikely source: religious Jewish and Muslim women.
On the streets of Brooklyn or San Francisco, mingled seamlessly among the crop tops and body-con dresses, are flocks of young women wearing wide-legged culottes and mid-calf skirts. The muumuu dresses favored by a certain type of hipster are now so commonplace that they’ve gone from being a statement to a wardrobe staple. A growing number of twentysomethings, it appears, are rejecting hyper-sexual, revealing fashions in favor of clothes that offer a return to comfort, coziness and coverage.
Like all fashion trends, this one started at the fringes. But in contrast to most of what’s come before — think punk rockers in skinny jeans decades before they became a frat-boy go-to — the growing popularity of modest clothes is influenced by sources that are viewed as anything but fashion forward. Sources such as Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, a pair of Hasidic Jews. They are sisters-in-law, lovers of the chatty Instagram caption and the founders of Mimu Maxi, a clothing line they run from Crown Heights, a neighborhood traditionally populated by Hasidic Jews, but now home to a diversity of young New Yorkers, toiling at starter jobs. Frustrated by the lack of good quality, affordable options for Hasidic women, the women decided to go into business together in 2012, and created a collection that reflects their “religious-but-worldly sensibility,” said Hecht, 28, in an interview with Women in the World. “We keep the Sabbath, and we also love Beyonce,” Notik, 26, added.
So, in place of the ankle-length, shapeless shifts and thick stockings worn by many ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, Mimu Maxi sells simple frocks and billowy dresses in muted colors. Their “skirt legging,” available in bright colors, updates the amorphous black skirt. Mimu Maxi’s website declares that “skirt leggings are the perfect antidote to the frumpy and unflattering skirt of yesteryear.”
The clothing line accommodates its creators’ need for modesty while capturing a pared-down, tabula-rasa chic that many women adopt, no matter where they come from or what faith they do or do not practice. Similar styles sell for top dollar at Bird, a decidedly secular Brooklyn purveyor of post-modern garments, and at the boutique chain Steven Alan.
Most of Mimu Maxi’s business comes from ultra-orthodox Jews. But its founders have had success selling to devout and fashion-forward Muslim women, and are increasingly attracting secular women, as well. Of their roughly seven thousand unique customers, half are not Jewish and around a quarter aren’t religious at all.
“We see the word — and hashtag! — ‘modesty’ really growing and taking on speed with religious women. But then again, to non-religious women, the word ‘modesty’ sometimes sounds archaic, even ugly,” Mimi Hecht said. “We are doing our part to change that, to show that modesty can be beautiful, fun, even sexy.”
One of their most potent weapons in their mission to change perceptions comes straight from the millennial arsenal: Instagram. Their account, @mimumaxi, has more than 18,000 followers, with photos accompanied by captions that are conversational and punctuated by emoticons to show that religious women can be “fun, and funny, and open, and have the same struggles, and enjoy the same things as everyone else. That’s a big epiphany for some people,” Notik said.
Observant Muslim women have run into some of the same image management problems, and are aiming to similarly change ideas about just what constitutes fashion. The founders of Haute Hijab, Melanie Elturk and Ahmed Zedan, have created a line of modern, trendy hijabs, the headscarves worn by observant Muslim women, and “high-quality hijab-friendly designer clothing.” Their pieces provide coverage but not at the expense of playful, modern patterns or flattering tailoring.
And then there are the modest-fashion muses like 21-year-old Noor Tagouri. A Muslim-American journalist of Lebanese descent, she wears a headscarf and has made it her goal to be the first anchor on commercial television in the United States to wear a hijab. After posting a picture of herself behind an ABC news anchor desk with the caption “My Dream,” she swiftly amassed a digital fan base and launched the social media campaign #LetNoorShine. Her prolific, modest-positive social media activity consists of “#hijabfashioninspo” (hijab fashion inspiration) — images such as post-workout Snapchats of her personal training sessions featuring bold Lululemon-esque leggings, close-up glamour shots and a disgruntled beach selfie where she describes her own struggles wearing a hijab on the beach.
Modest fashion has found another well of creative juice in the burgeoning black Muslim populations in Detroit, Atlanta, the DC-Maryland-Virginia region and Philadelphia. This past August, 200 Muslim women, or Muslimahs, attended the Riyaadah Fashion Show at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The styles on and off the catwalk included swaths of brightly hued fabrics, striking animal prints and a variety of methods to wrap, drape or pin head-coverings. Some models wore six-inch heels under billowy overgarments, while others embellished their hijabs with silver and gold headpieces.
The “Modesty in the Millennium” themed event showcased the diversity of modest dress alternatives and a growing willingness to push back against the assumption that modesty negates individualism.
A founding coordinator of the fashion show, Fatima Rashid, told Madame Noire in September, “I think that there is a misconception that Muslim women aren’t supposed to take pride in their appearance. I think that people see sisters in burkas, which is a cultural thing and specific to only certain parts of the world, and believe it applies to everyone … If you went to China, Malaysia, Africa and look around here in the US, you would see a lot more Muslim women expressing themselves through what they wear.”
In certain communities, hijabs are increasingly seen as an accessory (albeit, a politically charged one) rather than a religious imperative in demand of a workaround. According to Puteri Hasanah Karunia, an Indonesian fashion-blogger and self-identified member of the “hijaber” movement, the demand for modest fashion lead non-Muslim designer Itang Yunasz to include a variety of head wraps and headscarf-friendly looks into his line during the early 2000s.
In Indonesia, home of the world’s largest Muslim population, modest fashion is synonymous with Islamic fashion and its popularity can leave women who choose not to wear a headscarf prone to public derision. But for the more secular-minded in other parts of the world, there are plenty of non-political virtues to be found in the virtuous look. Chelsea Goldman, a 25-year-old designer in New York says that, to her, longer hemlines and more forgiving cuts are simply more alluring.
“I’m not like ‘ok, I’m creating modest fashion.’ I think it’s personally what I find attractive. I think there’s a quietness in it, which is interesting,” said Ms. Goldman of her CF Goldman line of clothes, which are sold at Opening Ceremony, an upscale, fashion-forward boutique in lower Manhattan.
A general shift toward more modest fashion does fit in neatly with broader cultural and intellectual trends. A lingering tolerance for the objectification of women among liberals is finally disappearing, and many younger people have grown up imbued with identity politics and a difference-tolerant mentality that is extended to all sorts of other cultures — including more modest ones.
As the West embraces this modest aesthetic, young smartphone-carrying women in Iran are also reinterpreting modest dress requirements to complement their personal style. In that case, the movement is toward a more lax interpretation of modest dress — one that maintains faith-based standards while infusing global fashion influence.
The Tehran Times, a fashion blog founded in 2012 by Iranian fashion designer Araz Fazaeli, chronicles street style in Iran’s capital. His pictures feature women in loose-fitting headscarves, sporting provocative graphic tees, accessories with spikes and ripped jeans or slashed leggings.
Designers, unsurprisingly, are already looking to cash in on the growing market for subtly shrouded, avant-garde fashions in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, especially among the wealthy and free-spending elites in the Persian Gulf.
The Japanese retail giant UNIQLO partnered with Muslim UK-born designer Hana Tajima to start offering a modest but spunky line that includes hijabs and kebayas made from breathable, flexible fabrics. H&M has also recently released its first ad campaign featuring a Muslim model, Maria Hidrissi, which elicited an outpouring of support on social media.
The eagerness of Western retailers to cater to Middle Eastern consumers was also on display this year during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which observant Muslims fast all day and, in the Gulf, tend to shop all night.
There was Oscar De La Renta’s special mule collection for the Dubai Mall. Net-a-porter did a “Ramadan edit.” Moda Operandi had a Ramadan trunk show in February to stoke interest ahead of the holiday, which this year began in June. Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY and Mango also each put out Ramadan capsule collections this year.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of MuslimGirl.net, the largest online platform for Muslim-American women, sees how the commodification of “cultural dress” might frustrate adherents of faith-based modesty, particularly given the obvious profit incentives that are driving the modesty-to-mainstream movement.
“Of course the rise in modest fashion lines is profit driven,” she explained. “Now that brands are waking up to recognize that there’s money there, it’s suddenly cool.”
At the same time, Al-Khatahtbeh also said she saw the development as a positive move toward more inclusiveness, even if it is primarily profit-driven.
“It’s a natural process,” she said. “With growing Muslim communities becoming more integral to and active in society, brands are starting to recognize that there are more diverse consumers to whom they must cater their products and services. I think this could lend itself to increased tolerance and acceptance in society as well as further empower these communities. I’m eager to see what’s to come of it.”