By KERRY POTTER FOR YOU MAGAZINE
From floor-sweeping skirts and high necklines to hijab-wearing models at H&M, it’s never been cooler to cover up. Kerry Potter charts the rise of modesty dressing
Is modesty a virtue? It certainly is in the fashion world at the moment. No matter the season (or the weather), high-street stores are crammed with demure midi-skirts, culottes and billowing wide trousers.
Then there are all the ‘coatigans’, long boots and high-necked, buttoned-up blouses – with prissy ruffles, pussy bows and sweeping sleeves – allowing absolutely no hint of clavicle, let alone cleavage. And while there’s a quiet revolution occurring in retail, momentum is building online, too.
On Instagram, there are around 370,000 posts hashtagged ModestFashion, with images from stylish Muslim, Mormon and Orthodox Jewish women who cover up for religious reasons, as well as lots of nonbelievers who are simply delighted to find a nice, flattering dress with sleeves.
The world’s most photographed women are a decorous bunch – we’re unlikely to spot the Duchess of Cambridge in a crop top – and then there’s Victoria Beckham in baggy trousers, men’s shirt and flat sandals taking her bow at the end of her New York Fashion Week catwalk show, a world away from her LBD Spice Girls days. Ditto actress of the moment, ITV’s Victoria star Jenna Coleman and her style evolution from bodycon red-carpet frocks a decade ago to today’s sophisticated, understated blouse/skirt combos. And Rihanna’s most shocking outfit in recent times? Her oversized yellow tea dress by super-hip brand Vêtements.
Even this year’s stars of Strictly Come Dancing are covering up, with singer Louise Redknapp insisting on costumes – traditionally as skimpy as they are sequined – that don’t flash too much flesh. ‘I’m the boring one. I need to feel comfortable. You take your age into consideration, and your family,’ said 42-year-old mother of two Louise on her desire for minimal cleavage and thigh exposure.
The trend for modest style has trickled down from high fashion – and the powerful female designers who helm the most influential labels. ‘The prevailing silhouette of this decade has been that voluminous, cocooning look,’ says Navaz Batliwalla, fashion editor and author of style book The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman. ‘Stella McCartney, Victoria Beckham and especially Phoebe Philo at Céline have all championed that style. These women are in their 40s and they’re running around working and looking after children, so they design functional, practical pieces; clothes for getting things done in.’
The idea of what constitutes ‘sexy’ has changed, too. ‘There’s not one prescriptive look any more. It used to be all about that Jordan/Barbie/Wag look, and to feel like a desirable woman you had to wear towering heels and a tight, short skirt,’ says Batliwalla. YOU fashion editor Philippa Bloom agrees. ‘The new sexy isn’t about revealing your legs or chest – it’s about feeling powerful and being comfortable in what you’re wearing. That exudes confidence.’
New York fashion blogger Man Repeller, aka Leandra Medine, has built a media empire from this sea change: her site began covering ‘trends that women love and men hate’ – such as jumpsuits or culottes – before championing the notion that women should primarily dress for themselves. ‘It’s about empowering a woman to make a choice about how she presents herself to the world,’ says Medine, who has 1.5 million Instagram followers.
Social media has played a large part in the rise of modest styles because it has allowed us unprecedented access to fashion editors (glossy magazine stalwarts as well as newer bloggers such as Medine) and their wardrobes – those cool-as-a-cucumber women who believe that less is more when it comes to dressing for the front row.
‘Social media has democratised fashion. We see how fashion editors really dress – and it isn’t in an overtly glamorous way. There’s nothing more Amish than a fashion editor in full flight!’ says fashion journalist Sasha Wilkins, founder of Libertylondongirl.com.
‘They don’t wear five-inch heels to work, they don’t have their boobs and legs out. They go for classic, functional pieces: jeans, a white shirt, trainers, a cashmere jumper.’
This way of dressing has filtered down to the high street: Cos is the fashion editors’ favourite with its simple maxi dresses and shirts and a million different spins on a plain grey jumper, while John Lewis recently launched its new fashion-forward brand Modern Rarity: a collection of comfortable, loose, layering pieces in sludgy shades.
What’s more, retailers have belatedly realised that women who love fashion tend to do so way beyond their 20s – and this woman typically likes a sleeve on her dress and has no intention of showing her midriff. ‘These older women have the money to spend, and they are increasingly recognised by the high street,’ says Batliwalla. ‘In the past five years we’ve seen the rise of fashion for older women – as well as Cos we have & Other Stories, Whistles and Jigsaw catering for this demographic.’
Dovetailing with fashion’s fancy for modest style is the rise of women who cover up for religious reasons. Again, social media has made these women more visible as they strive to bust the myth that having faith and loving fashion are mutually exclusive. There are Orthodox Jewish style sites such as Fabologie – run by super-sleek New Yorker Adi Heyman – and blogs, such as Wearing It On My Sleeves and Days Of Chandler, which detail where Mormons can find appropriate swimwear or shoulder-covering tops.
But the biggest drivers for modest dressing are the Muslim women whose love of fashion extends beyond black headscarves and abayas. ‘We’re seeing the rise of Generation M: young Muslims who see fashion as a way to assert their faith. Part of their expression of being Muslim is to show that they are beautifully turned out,’ says Shelina Janmohamed, author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing The World. ‘Globally, two-thirds of Muslims are under 30, they are very brand-conscious and see consumption as a way to express who they are.’
It’s a market that brands and retailers will ignore at their peril as Muslim spending on clothing globally is set to double from £174 billion in 2015 to £367 billion by 2019, according to a Reuters/Dinar Standard report. Coco Chan of online designer fashion boutique Stylebop.com says, ‘There’s been the emergence of a more covered-up, understated luxury aesthetic. The Middle Eastern market is increasingly important – it’s a small part of our business but it’s growing. These women are definitely on our radar and they want to look as stylish as everybody else.’
Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, concurs: ‘We have a wide cross-section of international female customers so we are always mindful about clothing that appeals for many different occasions, destinations and purposes. We don’t specifically buy for a modest woman, but we carefully consider the many lifestyles and needs of our global clients.’
In September, hijab-wearing models appeared on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week for the first time, courtesy of Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan, while earlier this year Dolce & Gabbana designed a range of bejewelled, embroidered abayas and scarves specifically for its Middle Eastern customers.
And then there’s the burkini, the most controversial of modest pieces. It may have been banned in various French seaside towns over the summer (those bans have since been deemed unlawful), but its sales continue to rise. The Lebanese-Australian inventor of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, reports a spike in sales since the adverse publicity. She has sold 700,000 of them since launching her line in 2008, with Nigella Lawson among her customers – the TV chef was photographed in 2011 wearing one on a beach in Australia (she didn’t want the faff of repeatedly reapplying sunscreen, she said).
Zanetti points out that the demand for modest swimwear extends beyond Muslim women, with 40 per cent of her customers being ‘Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, women with various body issues [including] survivors of cancer’. M&S’s first full burkini collection sold out this summer, while House of Fraser stocks Shorso, a range of modest swim- and sportswear, all year round.
H&M and Uniqlo have been forward-thinking in their approaches to catering for the modest market: the former was the first to cast a hijab-wearing Muslim model in an ad campaign, when it used Mariah Idrissi in autumn 2015, while the latter employed British/Japanese Muslim convert Hana Tajima to design a range of modestwear for spring/summer 2016, which offered headscarves, robes, tops and tapered trousers.
What’s interesting about Tajima’s line is its crossover appeal: in Uniqlo’s Oxford Street store I watched as a Scandinavian girl dressed in tiny denim cut-offs excitedly grabbed a chic floor-length, silky rust dress from the Hana Tajima rail, the last of its kind and reduced in the sale. These clothes may have been designed with cultural considerations, but any woman can appreciate a nice frock.
In the future, we’re likely to see more faith-inspired modest fashion in our high-street stores, but we may not even notice. ‘These capsule collections will become integrated into normal collections, rather than stand alone,’ predicts Sasha Wilkins. ‘And there will be more and more modest wear – fashion always follows the money. Ours is a multicultural society, so it would be strange if our high street didn’t reflect the needs of all the women shopping on it.’
Shelina Janmohamed agrees: ‘Plenty of Muslim consumers aren’t happy about having one corner of a store with signposting saying “this is for you”. They worry that they will be treated as second best. They don’t need that blatant signposting; they’re sensitive to subtle cues – a scarf hanging on an arm, longer-length skirts on display, higher necklines, lower hems…’ she says.
‘In the past 12 months we’ve seen brands thinking about how to engage with Muslim customers. And for brands thinking about where growth is going to come from, it’s not just the United States or Europe, it’s countries with young Muslim populations and rising economies, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and India.’
As for wider fashion trends, the recent round of shows in September suggested that change is afoot, with the pendulum swinging back from the current demure aesthetic. There was an abundance of – oh, goodness! – crop tops and miniskirts on the catwalks for the first time in years. Fashion is cyclical of course, and even if designers are keen on bringing sexy (or at least the traditional notion of sexy) back, it won’t appeal to everyone.
There will always be a huge cohort of women who – for reasons of faith, age, lifestyle or just because they’d prefer to cover their upper arms, thank you very much – will continue to make a virtue of modest dressing.
From micro-minis to cool cover-ups
The Duchess of Cambridge Once often papped clubbing in thigh-grazing mini-skirts, since Kate became a duchess she has also become the patron saint of modest dressing.
Victoria Beckham Formerly known for her Wag cantilevered cleavage and lots of leg, the Spice Girl-turned-fashion designer’s style has evolved into a cool, covered-up aesthetic.
Ivanka Trump Donald Trump’s former fashion model daughter left her barely there tops and skirts behind after she converted to Judaism before marrying businessman Jared Kushner. Now, her elegant, demure wardrobe reflects her beliefs.
Olivia Palermo She may have started her career as a reality TV star with a fondness for a low neckline (in US series The City) but now New Yorker Olivia is an impeccably turned-out front-row regular, favouring high necklines and floor-skimming hemlines.
Jenna Coleman The star of hit ITV period drama Victoria has come a long way since her Emmerdale days – as has her style, which has evolved from C-list to A-list. She currently has a thing for midi-dresses by cool British labels such as Erdem and Burberry.