Modest fashion has entered the world of popular fashion, carrying with it a pietistic past of moral hierarchy. Features writer Margaret Mitchell considers the reconciliation faith and fashion, yet realizes that a future of modest fashion ultimately must move beyond the limits set by its past.

The sartorial influence of religion has carved a place for itself in society, whether we want it to or not. Earlier this year, the celebrity approach to the Heavenly Bodies Met Gala ignited controversy within the Catholic Church. It was both the source of upset and fascination, as aspects of religion often are. The responses to the Met Gala testified to the way religion simultaneously brings us together and tears us apart, fascinates us and upsets us. This power extends beyond the extravagance of the Met Gala and into the everyday, informing our choices about what we wear and what we don’t. The lens of religion leads us to look at the body and see more than the physical — something capable of virtue, or conversely, sin.

The lens of religion leads us to look at the body and see more than the physical — something capable of virtue, or conversely, sin.

For ages, women’s bodies have been the subject of religious regulation, especially within the Catholic Church. The woman is venerated in her idealized form of purity and chastity, and there is a perceived “freedom” in this modesty. However, we often see women shamed for wearing too little or ridiculed for wearing too much. We rarely ever feel ourselves to be the embodiment of the Madonna’s radiance. Yet, this binary of veneration and condemnation is not exclusive to the sacred realm. Our patriarchal society has crafted the image of woman to be produced and sold as a bodily commodity completely severed from her humanity. It is one that we have seen increasingly twisted in order to place women in a role that is consumable and demeaning in every way that it should be liberating. And when a woman resists by finding freedom in choosing to express her sexuality by wearing clothes that reveal her body, she is shamed for her surrender to objectification.

Muslim women in particular have been at the center of the subversion of this culture. In 2014, DKNY released their first Ramadan collection that was curated by Middle Eastern designers and influencers, Yalda Golshfari and Tamara al Gabbani. In 2017 Ghizlan Guenez founded The Modist, an e-commerce site focused on providing high-end modest fashion. The entrance of these designers heralded an invitation for the religious imagination to enter into the world of fashion, where it has traditionally been seen as imposing.

“Modest fashion” designers have been incredibly successful in the Middle East, but there is still a struggle for Europe and the U.S. to integrate these new faces of beauty and fashion into our realm of the  familiar. In 2016, British retailer Marks & Spencer released a burkini swimsuit catered to Muslim women. It was met with heavy criticism from those who believed it was affirming sexist ideals about forcing women to cover their bodies. In 2018, M&S introduced a category of “Modest Clothing” to their website. This time, it was the name “modest” that caused problems, not the clothing itself, as it led women to question the label placed on those who chose not to purchase from the modest section.

These controversies make it clear that we are still grappling with the inherent ambiguity of modest fashion. It is a category which must be broad and vague in order to include women of all religious beliefs. Yet, is so touched by historically moralistic undertones of purity and comparisons of virtue that cannot be forgotten. The name “modest fashion” risks creating a sort of hierarchy among women, implicitly asserting that those who do not wear modest-labeled clothes are somehow immodest. But in this hierarchy, the woman who covers up her body is not necessarily allowed to rest on her laurels. Rather, she is called moralistic or even prudish, perceiving herself as a rung above the rest on the ladder to heaven. At worst, she is called complicit with the patriarchy. It’s a cycle that seems to be inescapable when we talk about modesty.

Hana Tajima offers a solution. The London-based Muslim designer created a collection for Uniqlo which she called “understated fashion.” Tajima explained, “That term [modest fashion] doesn’t rub me the right way. It feels like there’s something implied — some kind of value being placed on someone’s ideals.” The clothes she designs are not for women who fall under a certain label. It’s all about preference and what the individual feels most comfortable in. “I like the idea of understated fashion,” Tajima says. “It feels like it fits closer to where it actually is.”

While Tajima’s collection had its roots in Muslim fashion, she seeks to include women of all religious beliefs. “It’s not like I want to downplay the roots of it being Muslim fashion,” she explained. “But I design from being a human first.” Religion can be, as Tajima says, like roots. It can be a foundation of inspiration, or a motivation for progression away from a dangerous past. However, “modest” fashion, or understated fashion, swells beyond these roots and belongs to women of any creed, breaking the bonds of hierarchy and sanctimony.

Photography by Ruochun Yang. Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 1.

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