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‘Modest Fashion’ is an oxymoron…

‘Modest Fashion’ has become a catch phrase that is used to refer to a broad spectrum of clothing, generally in the milieu that is considered to be ‘covered up’. It may or may not include a head covering.

In the past five years, with social media platforms accelerating as popular bases for self-promotion, ‘modest fashion’ has experienced a huge (and this is an understatement) growth. With the aid of ‘modest fashion bloggers’ and ‘modest fashion businesses’ that have cropped up, the industry is now worth over $300 billion dollars, and is set to grow. Mainstream fashion houses such as Mango, DKNY and even Dolce & Gabbana have tapped into the niche by producing collections specifically for the modest market.

Modest fashion bloggers have been a huge part of this growth in the industry. They have amassed (altogether) millions of followers across their social media, from Instagram, to Facebook to Youtube. More specifically, ‘hijab bloggers’ are increasingly sponsored by and affiliated with mainstream fashion houses, such as Ascia Farraj’s collaborations with Net-a-Porter and Dior, to name just a few. Recently, Covergirl included beauty blogger Nura Afia as part of their #LashEquality campaign- because every woman deserves to have “bold, sexy lashes” ok? Even women who aim to live modestly, which is the EXACT opposite of being ‘sexy’. Even H&M got in on the action by including a ‘hijab model’ in their campaign to promote their ‘Close the Loop’ recycling initiative.

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“Bold, sexy lashes for all”= EQUALITY FOR ALL WOMEN

All these examples point to greater representation of women who wear the headscarf (or hijab) in mainstream media. I remember 7 years ago or so when I first put on the headscarf and was browsing the internet for inspiration or even a ‘hijab tutorial’, the only bloggers active were Hana Tajima and Dina Torkia. There were practically no companies catering specifically for women who chose to dress modestly, let alone for the customer who wore hijab. I bought my clothes and scarves from Sportsgirl, Witchery and other mainstream stores, enthusiastically buying any maxi dress that I could get my hands on with cropped jackets on top, or wearing short tunic dresses as tops with loose pants underneath. There were no straight-legged, peg-legged looser pant options back then. It was only skinny jeans.

Given the momentous change in the industry now, I think it would definitely be easier for a girl to make the decision to wear the hijab, or just dress more modestly, given that there are so many examples of how it is done, a plethora of companies catering to the modest consumer to purchase from, and also a general sense of empowerment given the increasing representation of modest fashion and bloggers in the mainstream media.

I’m going to throw a spanner in the works here though and discuss a few problems with all this. Sure, all of this increasing representation is great, but I feel that it comes at a cost. A cost of our core values and principles.

You see, dressing modestly isn’t just one, isolated value. It is and should be, part and parcel of a much greater ethos of humility that is central to the religion Islam, and to other religions might I add.

And what we are seeing in the modest fashion blogger is in fact quite the opposite of ‘modesty’. And no, I’m not talking about how they dress because I’m not here to nitpick at what people choose to wear. I believe that people are fluid in how they choose to dress, and that it transforms over time.

What I am calling out though are the bloggers whose Instagram pages are an endless stream of pictures…of themselves. Whether you choose to admit it or not, the “selfie” is at its core, a narcissistic undertaking. And we now have ‘modest fashion bloggers’ whose social media pages are full of photos of themselves in various outfits, close-ups of their faces… and not much else.

And this is what the public want. Do some research on how to “increase your followers on Instagram” and the type of post that receives the most traffic is one with someone’s face. It has become incredibly easy for somebody to take photos of themselves in a #modestfashion #ootd and amass hundreds of thousands of followers within months. Especially if you are “pretty” and “slim”.

Yes. This standard of beauty also applies to the modest fashion blogger.

The problem with this is that it essentially promotes and supports a culture of the self, of promoting a shallow version of oneself based on what you look like.

So sure, modest/hijab bloggers are much more visible these days, but how different are they from the average fashion blogger? What sets them apart?

What is more dangerous here also is that being swept up in the current of fashion blogging for the sake of mainstream acceptance promotes a culture whose values run counter to many of our religious principles.

We are just as susceptible of seeking acceptance by a culture that thrives on the objectification of women by creating a consumer culture and standard of ideal beauty by manufacturing beauty products and clothing en masse and literally brainwashing ALL women into thinking that they NEED these things to be presentable to the world.

If you have a Muslim hijab blogger affiliating themselves with these major corporations, then is it not creating an association between all the values that we should strive to espouse, and the values of these corporations?

Furthermore, it’s not just the polar opposites of humility and narcissism that is married in modest fashion blogging, there are other weightier values put at risk and being compromised here. Values that we compromise that have a much greater impact on the world.

When H&M used a hijab model in their campaign, the Muslim community (women mainly of course) celebrated this as a step forward in the mainstream “accepting”us and applauded H&M’s boldness. But who took a step back and looked at the company itself? H&M is well known for its unethical manufacturing practices. They represent all that is wrong with the fast fashion industry. In fact, their factories were involved in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. So whilst it may seem like a win for Muslim women to be ‘accepted’ and ‘represented’ by a company like H&M, the flip side to this is that we have just aligned ourselves with a company who epitomises values that run completely counter to our religion as a whole.

Islam has a strong social justice dimension. It heavily emphasises the importance of respecting human dignity, of treating workers fairly, but also of respecting the environment. It is evident that the cost of fast-fashion is not just on the workers who are forced to work in oppressive conditions, but also on the environment. This article for example outlines the climate costs of fast fashion amongst other issues such as worker’s rights.

When a Muslim modest fashion blogger affiliates themselves with companies such as H&M, Zara, and other major designers/brands, they are essentially promoting the company’s ethos and influencing their ‘followers’ to purchase from these companies. This is the point of ‘affiliations’. That a company would seek an ‘influencer’ (i.e. blogger) who they believe will market their products, but more so, the ‘lifestyle’ that they promote.

A cynical side of me also thinks (ahem, knows) that these companies are simply tapping into an avenue of profit. Do you think they really care for more representation of Muslim women?

What’s more is that when we think of ‘modest fashion’ what do we mean really? I can tell you that most of the clothes that I buy and own do not come from a ‘modest fashion brand’. The few clothes that I have bought from companies such as these have only disappointed me in their lack of consistent sizing and general low quality of their garments, for example in their use of synthetic fabrics such as polyester.

Essentially, it comes down to marketing. That when a company like Mango create a ‘Ramadan collection’ and it has items such as this…

mango-ramadan-collection-1

and then you go onto their site, check out their maxi dresses and find an item like this…

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the question has to arise… isn’t it just all marketing?  Isn’t it all JUST CLOTHING that we NEED to cover ourselves?

witchery-spring-summer-2016-collection-pictures

“Modest Fashion” right? Or just clothing? Or just “fashion”? Image via Witchery (a mainstream company). 

I’m not here to be all cynical and whing-y. My intention in writing this is to call out some serious problems with the ‘modest fashion’ world that needs to be called out. We can’t be blind to these real issues, and we should be brave enough, courageous enough, creative enough and principled enough to challenge the ‘mainstream’, rather than do anything it takes, and compromise on values that form the essence of our beliefs, to simply be ‘accepted’, or ‘represented’.

And there are some brilliant examples of how people in the industry have done it right. Hana Tajima for example continues to assert her unique aesthetic and creative and artistic talents, and eventually teamed up with Uniqlo to create a collection specifically for Muslim women. It was available not just in the Malaysian Uniqlo stores, but also the US and Australia.

Ruh Collective is also changing the modest fashion marketplace, with its focus on ethical manufacture, transparency in their pricing and even (shock horror), moving beyond promoting the self and focusing on the garments themselves. Their campaign images do not show the faces of the models. They use their creative and artistic abilities to do something different. I’m not saying that I necessarily agree that a woman, in hijab, shouldn’t be photographed with their faces, but I applaud Ruh Collective’s efforts to appeal to a broader market by not portraying their models in hijab.

Also, it really shouldn’t be about ‘fashion’ at all for the one who chooses to dress modestly. The ethos of ‘fashion’ runs completely counter to what it means to dress modestly. Or live modestly. ‘Fashion’ is defined as “a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behaviour.” The culture of fashion is linked to pop culture, by its very definition it requires acceptance by a mainstream, but also, it demands fast production methods of clothing so that one can keep up with ‘trends.’

Adorning oneself in the realm of ‘modesty’ is the polar opposite of this. It is quite literally about covering up your nakedness with good quality clothing that will last for years so that you don’t have to keep purchasing. Because constantly buying clothing is a sign of extravagance.

Dressing yourself modestly is about respecting and valuing the clothing that you possess, but not being attached to the item itself. The Prophet (pbuh) used to value his few clothes and even give them names. But when he (pbuh) saw someone in need, he easily gave the clothing to them.

Dressing well is also about ambassadorship… Because the reality is that how we choose to dress says a lot about who we are, and what we represent. Dressing beautifully is a good thing because we are naturally drawn to that which is beautiful. And we should strive to be beautiful ambassadors of our religion.

All of this runs counter to the aim and purpose of major clothing companies, who want you to follow trends and keep purchasing to keep up with ‘fashion’.

So, all in all, ‘modest fashion’ is actually an oxymoron. Two polar opposite words married into one phrase made popular simply for the sake of acceptance by the mainstream, or used by companies for profit.

Let’s be brave and do something different. Something that stays true to the source of why we prioritise modesty in the first place… Let’s go beyond ‘fashion’ and looking ‘trendy’ for the sake of acceptance by a culture that runs completely counter to our core values. Let’s take back what it means to dress ‘modestly’ in the context of our religion and be courageous enough to assert this.

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9 Comments

  1. Excellent piece as usual, Saltanat. 👏👏👏
    About “hijab bloggers” I feel the same way. I believe in the beginning they had good intentions, but fame and nafs got the better of them, unfortunately. I watched their Instagram feeds transforming from talking about modesty, Islam and simple hijab tutorials to endless fashion or close-up shots and make-up tutorials. Sad. I ended up unfollowing all but one such blogger who managed to maintain modesty.
    It’s challenging to be aware about all things halal around us, from what we eat, to what we wear and what we apply to our bodies. May Allah guide us all. Ameen.

    Have a blessed and safe delivery Saltanat and inshallah having a baby won’t stop you from writing as you do it so well MashAllah.

    Like

    • Aww thank you Larissa. Your positive feedback, and engaged response is so helpful. Readers such as yourself will surely motivate me to continue writing. Much love xx

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  2. Thank you for this interesting article, definitely got me thinking. I like the distinction you’ve made between dressing in a presentable manner and unnecessarily wasting so much time and effort trying to emulate the latest fashion trends set by fashion bloggers/companies.

    And, I definitely understand the disappointment brought on by so-called ‘modest fashion brands’. A certain brand presents itself as using only high quality fabrics, well, you can imagine the unease I felt when I found out many of their items were 100% (or close to) polyester. Not sure how much I can trust their ethical claims, with the lack of transparency, either. I guess as a company grows and demand from customers increases, its adherence to its underlying values begins diminishing, unfortunately.

    Also, what is the difference between Hana Tajima partnering with Uniqlo and other Muslim fashion bloggers affiliating themselves with companies such as H&M/Zara in terms of ‘promoting the company’s ethos’. In my understanding, Uniqlo has several of the same ethical issues as H&M/Zara. I get that by designing a collection, she did more than just market/promote Uniqlo’s products, but I’m still a bit confused.

    In the end, as Muslims, we absolutely need to start thinking about how our actions are affecting ourselves, others’ lives and the environment, and changing them for the better. This article will hopefully be a step towards that.

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    • Thank you for your support and contribution. The fashion blogger and their lack of regard for the holistic values of Islam, the religion they purport to represent simply by wearing the hijab, is a huge problem. The other side of the coin is the Muslim consumer and the fact that buying ethically has not even entered our consciousness.
      As for Hana Tajima + Uniqlo, to me the reason why it is a good example is because the company chose a Muslim to design clothing for Muslims, and furthermore, Hana herself designed a collection that was true to her aesthetic. Not one that simply reflected ‘trends’ in the Muslim modest fashion world. Sure, there are still issues of ethical manufacture, but in terms of the design aesthetic and her lack of willingness to create a collection that was ‘on trend’ is where she got it right.

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  3. Amina Khan says

    Thank you for writing this article! Its about time we address these issues in our Ummah.
    Love, your sister.

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  4. Soni Ruh says

    An incredibly insightful article, Saltanat. Thank you for writing such a brave piece. After a year of building RŪH, I resonate with so many of the issues you have pointed out.

    I pray sincerely that all of us – Muslim, or not – understand that every purchase we make is a vote with our wallet. It can either feed an ever-present culture of narcissistic consumerism, or it can be a vote for change – for our environment, for fellow human beings in the garment industry, and for our own well-being.

    I hope that more of those who have given a platform of authority in this industry use it to express the stark reality of this. Because behind the hood, there’s not much that’s glamorous about the fashion industry as it is today. In many ways, it can be boiled down to excess waste and exploitation. Nor, as you pointed out, are there always pure motives behind supplying styles Muslim women. Unless we write our own narrative of why we dress the way we do and what we want out of our clothing, others WILL.

    I am incredibly grateful for voices like yours. To me, they are the only way we will raise the bar and demand more. I, too, am encouraged by increased representation of Muslim women in the media, but the cost – a potential dilution and even warping of values – just can’t be ignored.

    And of course, I’m incredibly grateful that you included RŪH. I pray that we live up to the expectations of wonderful, thoughtful sisters like yourself.

    In solidarity,

    Soni

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    • Soni, thank you for taking the time to stop by here, read and provide such an extensive and crucial commentary! We are passionate about supporting companies who get it right, and your work is one of them. Looking forward to building a close connection with a person such as yourself who is doing groundbreaking and important work in an industry that has so much to improve on. Kindest, Saltanat.

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