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Can Fashion Ever Be Modest? Interview with Hafsa Lodi, Author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox

By Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies

Modest Fashion is one of the latest developing movements in the fashion industry. Hafsa Lodi’s debut book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox examines the causes, controversies and key players involved in this global market. Lodi is a journalist who has been covering fashion in the Middle East for the past decade. Lodi earned her master’s degree in Islamic Law at SOAS, and has always been interested in the relationships between religion, culture and modernity. 

If you look at many of the vibrant, creative women who are leading this modest style revolution, it’s clear that they aren’t dressing for men, or to avoid their gaze.

Tell me a bit about the book and why you’re interested in the topic of modest fashion.

Modesty: A Fashion Paradox explores a number of questions, starting with this one: Why is modest fashion so popular all of a sudden? What’s motivating luxury designers and high street retailers to create clothing that’s stylish, though clearly more conservative? And, since modesty (especially when hijabs are involved) and bold, eye-catching fashions may seem to be contradictory, how are women reconciling, or finding a balance, between both? 

I’ve been interested in this topic ever since seeing hijabi model Halima Aden walk runways at major fashion weeks. Growing up as a child in the US who also adhered to a certain ‘modest’ dress code, modesty was unfashionable and unpopular, and never did I think it would be celebrated on international catwalks. But, with modest fashion has become increasingly promoted through social media, it has raised a lot of questions about how culture, politics and religion are inextricably linked with this movement, and whether the ideals of modesty are in fact contradictory with the aims of the fashion industry and social media. 

How do you define modesty – are there certain parameters or hierarchies that exist in the modest fashion movement?

There are infinite definitions of modesty – everyone has their own view on what modesty looks like, whether it’s covering your elbows, shoulders or wrists, with hemlines reaching knees, calves or ankles. And although stylish women wearing hijabs have become the ‘faces’ of the modest fashion movement, there are many modesty-conscious consumers who don’t cover their hair, or aren’t Muslim, or religious, at all. 

Having lived in London, the US and the Middle East, do you notice different approaches to modest fashion in different parts of the world?

Definitely. The concept of modest fashion has been more ‘normalized’ in the Middle East, where local women traditionally dress more conservatively. But, there are up-and-coming modest wear brands and entrepreneurs all over the world, serving modesty-conscious consumers (not just Muslims) in places like London, Paris, Los Angeles, Toronto and more. People in the West are taking time to ‘digest’ the concept of modest fashion – some feel that labelling certain styles as ‘modest’ can be detrimental as it may both promote ‘repressive cultures’ or deem women who don’t wear conservative clothing, to be ‘immodest.’ 

Modesty has become a bit of a buzzword in the fashion industry lately. What do you think about modesty being commodified as a marketing tool? 

Modesty has undoubtedly become a buzzword in the fashion industry, and it’s being used by numerous brands and retailers as a marketing tool to attract diverse customers. Many labels are also employing visibly Muslim, hijabi models in their campaigns, all of a sudden, to attract the spending power of this market. While some of their intentions may be superficial and only surface-deep, I think the more important matter is the fact that they are catering to consumers who have been historically underserved. Whether or not they truly believe or relate to a modest fashion lifestyle doesn’t really matter – they’re offering more choices for more women, and like any business, they’re motivated by money.

Modest fashion has been criticised on both ends of the spectrum, both for attracting male attention, and for promoting a purity ideal that demands women dress to seem marriage-worthy to a man and his overbearing mother. How does the modest fashion movement combat the idea that all fashion caters to the male gaze?

When it comes to modest fashion, there are so many different cultures and religions involved, and it’s difficult to generalise – I think it all comes down to each woman’s own ambitions and motivations behind dressing modestly. If you look at the religious texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, it is clear that modesty is linked to the male gaze, to avoid the possible ‘temptation’ of men, and this is one of the reasons why critics of the modest fashion movement believe that modest fashion shouldn’t be glamourized so much. 

But, if you look at many of the vibrant, creative women who are leading this modest style revolution, it’s clear that they aren’t dressing for men, or to avoid their gaze. They aren’t engulfed in drab cloaks or demure, unmemorable garments in attempts to ‘blend in’ or hide from the male gaze. They’re often dressed in attire that’s eye-catching, flamboyant, and reflective of whatever styles are currently trending across the globe. They wear bold makeup, they flaunt designer brands, and they take pride in their appearances. Some post images of their outfits on Instagram, and pout for selfies on social media – so they’re definitely not buying into this idea that they have to look simple or subdued in order to be ‘marriage-worthy.’

What are your predictions for the future of modest fashion – what do you think the movement needs in order to sustain itself? 

I think it has become clear that there will forever be a demand for modest fashion from a large group of consumers with significant spending power. I think, within the next decade, modesty will simply become more seamlessly integrated into mainstream fashion, and there may no longer be a need for separate modesty-themed fashion weeks or organisations to prove the worth of modest fashion. I think that’s been done, and that brands dedicated to modesty now needs to further develop, and address issues of sustainability, and inclusivity of diverse sizes and body types. 

Modesty book discussion event at SOAS, RG01 on April 20, 6.30-8 pm – (put in a small coloured text box for layout)

Book cover of ‘Modesty: A Fashion Paradox’ (Credit: Neem Tree Press)
Modesty: A Fashion Paradox will be released on March 19. (Credit: Ushma Dhakan)

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