Islamic Fashion And The Growing Appeal Of Colorful Modesty

From trendy long tunics to maxi dresses, polka-dot Hijabs (head covering) and abayas (Islamic gown), modest fashion has been gaining momentum over the recent years. Brands like Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY have released modest collections over the years, followed by high-end labels Mango, Tommy Hilfiger and many more.

Ostensibly, mainstream fashion has embraced the modest appeal by adopting a more inclusive attitude towards women of faith.

Hijabistas and fashionistas from the blogosphere have been the driving force, pushing the boundaries to define and represent themselves.

Muslim women have been labelled ‘oppressed’ and are depicted as dressed conservatively, in the image perpetuated by the mainstream media. But a majority of Muslim women don’t wear a Niqab or an abaya or even wear black for that matter. Just take a look at Muslim women living in the West and across Asia and you’ll see plenty of colors and unique styles of wearing the hijab and dressing modestly.

Therefore, it may be somewhat surprising to see Muslim women using fashion to dispel these myths, but at the same time, they are expressing their personality in accordance to their religious and cultural values. They will not change themselves to conform to fashion rather, they will change fashion to meet their needs.

With the proliferation of Muslim fashion designers over the years and increased competition between each other, and between big labels, the diversity, authenticity and style is what really sets them apart.

Take British Youtuber and fashion designer NabilaBeeas the perfect example. Nabila launched her modest fashion wear brand after searching for ways to feel comfortable and stylish within her Hijab.

“My style is very different, definitely not mainstream and conformist, I’m really quirky and that makes my brand stand out,” said the 23 year old.

Like Nabila, up-and-coming fashion designer and investment banker Ayah Meki is set to launch her brand KENTōRE by the end of February. For Meki, KENTōRE is “about recognising and supporting the Muslim working woman by providing her with a range of stylish yet modest workwear.”

Although office attire is available in places like Zara and H&M, Meki’s collection has been carefully tailored to incorporate subtle design elements that are of extreme importance to the modest working woman.

Meki’s brand also helps Syrian refugee women enter and excel in the world of work. “We’re providing 168 Syrian woman with rigorous fashion and textiles training; once they complete the course, each woman will provided with a sewing machine and personal mentor, enabling them to design and sell their own clothes from home, and begin generating a sustainable source of income. Our long-term goal is to wholly incorporate these women into the brand.”

It’s not just modest fashion that has been gaining momentum over recent years but also smaller start-up companies by young Muslims. Take the London Beard Company based in East London which has discovered success through selling beard oils and essentials for the hipster beard trend. Its owner, Abrar Mirza believes that big brands are cautious of tapping into such market more widely as “those that have offered modest fashion items, such as H&M, Marks & Spencer and Uniqlo, have faced backlash in the media.”

Mirza makes a valid point to ponder in consideration of the launch of that hotly-debated swimsuit, the burkini, by Marks & Spencer last year. Critics of modest clothing soon dubbed the retailor as succumbing to sexism. Pierre BergéYves Saint Laurent’s former business partner remarked that high street bands are “taking part in the enslavement of women” in a radio interview last year.

But let’s not forget, modest fashion was always there, like Loiuis Vuitton’s scarfs or Victoria Beckham’s loose tunics and jumpsuits. The only difference now is that Muslim women are creating clothes to adapt to the needs of every women who prefers modest apparel for various reasons and, are actually involved in the conversation.

Undoubtedly, modest wear will be making waves in the future as the Muslim fashion industry is estimated to be worth £200 million by 2018, the Global Islamic Economy report finds.

It is an opportunity for big brands to capitalize on the Muslim market as, “in the past modesty has equated to being boring and dull but now modesty connotes vibrancy, experimentation, empowerment and knowing your limits” said Nabila.

However, it is concerning to some Muslim fashion designers who argue that brands do not necessarily understand why it’s important for Muslim women to feel fashionable and dress within the confines of their religious requirements. Some fail to connect authentically to the needs of Muslim women who live by specific religious guidelines which includes dressing modestly.

So ultimately, when it is commercialized and used as an experimentation tool for big brands, “it loses the essence of what does a Muslim women need,” explains Ayah.

Although mainstream fashion may have the “modest appeal,” for now, it ought to consider that modest fashion is a chosen lifestyle for some, from Muslims to Mormons, if it is to win over the hearts, mind, and even the capital of this growing market.

However, fashion is ever-changing its trends and, for this reason, it will be the smaller brands and fashion designers who will have the upper hand in catering for the Muslim market. They need not to worry about the social and political discomforts of their designs unlike big labels. They are the future for a new kind of fashion, targeting a niche — and yes, one that is modest and non-conformist to mainstream fashion.


Amarni Sharmin Akhtar
Amarni Sharmin Akhtar is a blogger with an interest in international politics. She has published for media outlets like The Typewriter and is a former TV panelist for Islam Channel in the U.K. She graduated in International Relations from the University of Westminster and is currently working on a documentary about media freedom in Egypt.
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