It’s clear that the implications of modest dressing reach far beyond both fashion and Muslim dress codes. Guenez, of The Modist, defines the current universal appeal of modest fashion as a “macrotrend”—a trend that goes beyond fashion. As Jess Cartner-Morley writes in her September 2017 Guardian article, “The Great Cover Up: Why We’re All Dressing Modestly Now”: “Clothes can express what society values in women—and what it fears.” Susan Michelman, in her 2003 article “Reveal or Conceal? American Religious Discourse with Fashion,” connects modest dressing with the conservative bent of the 2000s. Writing in the years of the George W. Bush presidency (2001–2009), she observes that:
"America is in a politically conservative period, including an increased interest in more fundamental religious beliefs, which are linked to modesty. In the current social environment, the interest in modesty is much more than a shift in fashion from immodest to modest or a predictable change in the continuous cycle of fashion that discards something old for something new and trendy."
Within the context of Michelman’s thesis, we can then understand the end of the naked look that typified the 1990s through recent years as a reflection of a new age of feminism in which women are empowering themselves by choosing styles that prioritize the individual and their needs over entrenched notions of female sexuality and desirability. The move away from body-conscious fashions, which some women associate with ideas of liberation and empowerment, provides a wider context for the new market interest in modest coverage. Guenez reflects upon this shift:
"I believe there was a point in time when women associated empowerment with baring all. If you’re strong, you’re out there with 'it’s my body' and 'I should be able to show it.' And we’ve gone through that phase. I think that maybe we’re becoming a little smarter and understanding empowerment for what it truly is, which is whatever makes you happy and comfortable—and whatever your choice is, exercising it is empowerment, whether it’s covering or baring."
In the political landscape that has now taken hold in the United States—with issues of gender equality and sexual harassment at the forefront—modest fashion is also seen by some advocates as a tool to fight gender inequality. From oversized power suits, floor-length coats, and long-sleeved flowing gowns to gender-neutral clothing and swaddling layers, these fashions are being showcased in magazines and on runways worldwide in both the mainstream and modest fashion realms. It is intriguing to note that the sartorial inclinations of women in pantsuits and maxi-dresses are akin to clothing choices women made in the late 1960s, a time when issues of female equality were also at the forefront, and similarly such clothing choices were a site of social discourse.
It’s worth noting that it is the identity of the young, professional Muslim woman that has captured the zeitgeist of modest dressing. As they have gained more prominence, these women have demanded and created both a platform that suits their own faith-based needs and a market for stylish modest fashion that serves the needs of a diverse spectrum of women. Hence, their impact goes beyond fashion trends. Anthropologists and sociologists have been following the trend for at least a decade longer than the fashion press, further suggesting this is a cultural and societal shift that will not go away with the next season—certainly, not for the Muslim consumer.
Jill D'Alessandro is curator in charge of costume and textile arts in The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. This text was adapted from her essay "Global Style: Muslim Modest Fashion Today," published in Contemporary Muslim Fashions (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco / Delmonico Books ● Prestel, 2018).