Modest Fashion is having a moment. From London catwalks, which hosted the first branded “Modest Fashion Week” in February this year, to gyms and running tracks worldwide, where Nike’s “Pro Hijab” workout gear is the choice of women athletes who favor a more covered-up look, a new market sector has clearly emerged. Visit the luxury e-commerce platform Net-a-Porter and you’ll find an entire online boutique specializing in “Modest Fashion,” where offerings range from a Michael Kors “pussy-bow georgette blouse” costing just over $100 to an “embellished appliquéd tulle gown” from Marchesa with a price tag of over $16,000.1 Don’t have the time to search through all of Net-a-Porter’s stock? Shop online at The Modist, instead, where luxury limited to modest choices is the platform strategy.
For those on more limited budgets, Amazon’s “modest fashion for women” selection includes burkini and tankini swimwear, as well as dresses and blouses, most available for under $30. And for those who prefer to shop department stores, Macy’s has just launched the Verona Collection, designed by fashion photographer Lisa Vogl, which includes “flowy tops with sleeves, long cardigans, and colorful hijab,” priced from under $20 to approximately $100. As Vogl explains on the Verona website, the label was “simply an idea conceptualized by a single mom who had converted to Islam in 2011 [and] … had a stark realization: modest and fashionable clothing was both hard to acquire and difficult to afford.”
As these examples demonstrate, that is no longer the case, in large part because of the rise of a youthful Muslim consumer base hungry for chic styles that align with their faith. Muslim women, of course, are not the only group interested in modest dress, but they are the largest and fastest growing; a recent study by the Pew Research Center reports that there were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world as of 2015, constituting approximately 24 percent of the global population, with an expected population growth of 70 percent by 2060. If this projection holds true, Muslims will by that time be the world’s largest religious group, surpassing Christians by over 40 percent.
According to a recent Thomson Reuters study, Muslim women are spending significantly on fashion, “driving this market forward, and are innovatively pushing boundaries within the fashion sector.” The study reports that Muslim women spent $44 billion on modest fashion in 2015, and notes that projected growth of the Muslim market for fashion is 7.2 percent by 2021. Zeroing in on the highly coveted Muslim millennial consumer, the report highlights this group’s “large and growing interest in hijab … in the prominent countries of Indonesia (home to the world’s largest Muslim population) and Malaysia.” “The clothing may be modest, its success is anything but,” concludes the report.
In Bucar’s analysis, the heightened presence of Muslims in fashion and beauty has signaled their power in America.
Elizabeth Bucar, in the epilogue to her book Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, pinpoints 2016 as the year that Muslim dress went mainstream. “It seemed,” she writes, “as if pious fashion were being talked about everywhere; it had finally been authorized as ‘newsworthy’ for non-Muslim audiences.” Ticking the boxes, she cites the inclusion of coordinated headscarves and abayas (loose, robe-like overgarments that cover the entire body up to the neck) in the winter collection of high-fashion house Dolce and Gabbana; the release of a collection of body-covering separates and a hijab created by UK-based Muslim fashion designer Hana Tajima for mass-market clothier Uniqlo; the launch of Istanbul Modest Fashion Week, which featured designers from the UAE, Bahrain, Turkey, and other locations in the region; and the first New York Fashion Week runway presentation of Islamic fashion, featuring designs of Jakarta-based Anniesa Hasibuan.
Bucar draws attention to the role the media played in amplifying the significance of these events, noting coverage in major newspapers and magazines. She cites the launch of the digital version of Vogue Arabia as especially momentous, since only a decade earlier the head of Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, had rejected the idea of publishing a title directed at Muslim women, expressing fears that it might “provoke a strongly negative, even violent reaction.” Finally, Bucar highlights the strategy that global beauty leader Coty embraced by selecting American video blogger Nura Afia as the first headscarf-wearing, Muslim spokesperson for its top-selling CoverGirl makeup brand. “Read together,” Bucar writes, “this journalistic celebration of new collections, fashion shows, and a hijabi spokesperson seem to provide evidence that mainstream Western culture is beginning to notice pious fashion, even to admire and desire it.”
Bucar devotes the final pages of her book to a brief but incisive discussion of the tensions that this meshing of cultures exposes and aggravates. Conservative Muslims, she notes, have reacted strongly to the idea that fashion was “polluting Islamic practice,” while some fashion designers and industry executives have objected to the Western embrace of dictated forms of dress. Summarizing this strange transitional moment, Bucar sharpens her focus: “The increasing inclusion of Muslims in the creation, marketing, and representation of fashion and beauty has been occurring simultaneously with a backlash against Muslims throughout the West … While the designer Anniesa Hasibuan was receiving a standing ovation at New York Fashion Week, Donald Trump was winning the U.S. presidential election on a brazenly Islamophobic platform.”
In her analysis, the heightened presence of Muslims in fashion and beauty has signaled their power in America, evoking an embrace of Islamic culture as a source of inspiration in some circles and igniting a complete rejection of its ideology as a threatening aberration in others.
Bucar, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University, establishes the concept of “pious fashion” in order to expose the contradictions at the heart of this complex matter. By combining these two words, she sets up the key friction explored in the book: notably, how can “fashion,” which is by definition ephemeral and transient, be married to “piety,” which connotes consistency, duty, and devotion?
Bucar considers fashion broadly: as a sociological phenomenon and cultural practice, a means of communication, and a mode of individual expression. “I use the term ‘fashion,’” she writes, “to refer to clothing that does more than keep us warm. It can be used to … construct identities, communicate status, and challenge aesthetic preferences.” As for the choice of “pious” rather than “modest” to describe the style in question, Bucar argues that for Muslim women, the term “pious” signifies devotion to Islam as a religion and an imperative to act in an ethical and disciplined manner. The “word ‘pious’ is more appropriate than ‘modest’ because it captures a number of ethical and religious dimensions of this clothing, such as character formation through bodily action, regulating sexual desires between men and women, and creating public space organized around Islamic moral principles.”
Bucar thus construes “fashion” capaciously, while freighting “pious” with meanings both specific and elusive. This is purposeful: she states that she intends the terminology to be “slightly provocative,” in order to debunk assumptions that fashion is “a way to express materialistic desires” while piety intends to “efface the body.” By framing her study around these stark poles, Bucar sets a challenge that is at once exciting for its originality and naive in its approach.
The book is structured as a series of case studies, examining pious fashion primarily in communities of young women in three major cities where Islamic dress is common: Tehran, Iran; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and Istanbul, Turkey. Bucar reports that her selection of locations outside the Arab world, and in countries that have complicated relationships with that world, is intentional and intended to demonstrate the globalism and diversity of this mode of dress. It has the further advantage of illuminating the style preferences of women in far-flung areas of the world and providing a context for variations in dress from city to city.
For all of Bucar’s insistence on her feminist credentials and commitment to cultural analysis, her anxiety about fashion and its potential for “superficiality” suffuses the book.
Women in these three cities operate within very different cultural systems and political ideologies. In Tehran, modest dress is regulated: following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, all women in the country, including non-Muslims and foreign visitors, have been required to wear hijab when appearing in public, and can be fined or even jailed for failure to do so. Further, as has often been observed, hijab remains undefined in the Iranian penal code, leaving women vulnerable to penalties based on interpretation or selective enforcement. In Yogyakarta and Istanbul, modest fashion is a choice, not the law, so in many ways it is more interesting to study why women choose modest dress in these locales.
Bucar gives readers an important assist by providing a guide to the necessary terminology, offering historical perspectives as well as contemporary understandings to clarify the many nuances of the pious wardrobe, including those that distinguish Iranian hijab from Indonesian jilbab from Turkish tessitür. This orientation is essential to a full understanding of her arguments as she moves through her case studies, which are derived from fieldwork she undertook between 2004 and 2013. Throughout this work, her methodology was largely ethnographic, focused on observing women’s clothing in public settings, going shopping with local women, and interviewing local informants about pious fashion. Young women were her primary informants, in part because she had easiest access to this group, but also because many of them held power as tastemakers and trendsetters in their communities.
The book takes the reader on a fashion-oriented journey through these cities, and the sense of encountering the young women Bucar interviewed is powerful. The personal quality of her investigation is intensified by the images included with the text, which include photographs taken from December 2016 to January 2017, all providing a visual update to the research conducted in earlier years. Shot by local photographers, these pictures add presence and a contemporary sensibility to the book, giving it a street style vibe. Each chapter is divided into two sections, the first offering “style snapshots” focusing on trends, the second describing the authorities—individual and institutional—that regulate or influence dress. This combination of anecdotal and institutional data, Bucar argues, provides a pathway to understanding what she terms “pious fashion’s political and social potency, despite its apparent superficiality.”
Saving Muslim Women
Yet for all of Bucar’s insistence on her feminist credentials and commitment to cultural analysis, her anxiety about fashion and its potential for “superficiality” suffuses the book. This apprehension comes through even in the early pages of the study, where she rehearses the iconic scene from the film The Devil Wears Prada in which Meryl Streep, playing the role of the fictional Runway Magazine editor Miranda Priestly, pointedly schools her assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) on the essence and economic power of fashion.
In the clip, Miranda and her team are choosing a belt for an editorial shoot, and while they debate the finer qualities of two possibilities—both cerulean blue—Andy laughs, commenting that she sees no difference, because she’s “just learning this stuff.” Miranda’s incisive rebuttal covers the history, meaning, and marketplace life of the cerulean belt, tracing the rise of the color in the style world to its decline and ultimate fall into the discount bins where the “lumpy” and “tragic” blue sweater Andy is wearing was found. “You’re trying to tell the world that you’re too serious to care what you put on your back,” Miranda observes, informing her assistant that in reality “that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs.”
Tellingly, Bucar distances herself from the question of fashion’s importance, instead reporting that the scene was brought to her attention by a freshman in one of her seminars after a “substantive and deeply theoretical” class discussion, which presumably covered weightier topics. Like Andy, Bucar seems naive about fashion’s rigor, complexity, and commercial aspects, as well as its social dimensions, from supply chain ethics to sustainability and transactional dynamics. It’s a missed opportunity, as the value of her study is amplified, not diminished, when her investigations are considered against the backdrop of the current expansion and reconceptualization of fashion itself, as not only a matter of personal choice but also as a significant business opportunity.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Items and prices cited as available at time of writing, mid-April 2018. ↩