Author Q&A: Hafsa Lodi, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox
Author Q&A: Hafsa Lodi, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox
03 March 2020
“… The women on set with me today, who choose to cover their skin in outfits that are both modest and on-trend, and in garments that are shown on European runways and are found in North American high-street stores, are helping to polish the image of ‘Islamic’ fashion. Whether they wear headscarves or not, their sartorial choices have led to the emergence of a global modest fashion movement – one that has inspired even non-religious women of all types of backgrounds to use clothing to conceal, rather than reveal.”
Does covering up empower women or is it reflective of a repressive culture?
Why are major fashion labels like Gucci and H&M embracing the modest fashion revolution?
And how do women of faith (or no faith) feel about modest fashion’s foray into the mainstream?
We caught up with Hafsa Lodi, author of Modest: A Fashion Paradox, ahead of her publication day on 19 March 2020.
Before you began covering modest fashion, you were a journalist reporting on a range of social issues from honour killings and rape to religion. What finally attracted you to the world of modest fashion?
Before turning to the fashion journalism beat I was researching and reporting on social issues, particularly those involving themes of culture and modernity – like how honour killings were being portrayed in the Canadian media as “Muslim” community issues, or how rape cases with DNA evidence were being tried under Pakistan’s “version” of Islamic law. One story was about how the traditional “keffiyeh” Palestinian scarf was being portrayed as a symbol of “terrorism” in the mainstream media but was also attracting modern, millennial shoppers, and another was how the “abaya”, though often emblemising the “oppressed” Muslim woman in the Western media, was influencing luxury European fashion designers. We always hear about the Westernisation of the East, but never about how the East is influencing the West – and that, coupled with my personal struggles in finding mainstream modest fashion as a child in the United States, is where my fascination with the modest fashion movement began.
You’ve acknowledged that modesty sometimes holds “certain unfashionable connotations”. Why do you think these connotations have developed/where do they stem from?
The mainstream fashion industry has always been responsible for dictating what’s “trendy” and what isn’t. Even the most hideous and bizarre of trends – like clumpy, Velcro “tourist” sandals, for instance, can become coveted fashion items when stamped with luxury designer trends. And these luxury designers have historically kept their distance from the realm of modesty. Models covered up in head to toe don’t make for entertaining, headline-making runway shows – fashion weeks often rely on titillating imagery, and in both the fashion and film industry’s, a woman’s attractiveness is often measured by the amount of skin she shows. There’s a reason why viewers worldwide tune into the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: to ogle at near-naked models. Ironically this show was cancelled in 2019 – the year when modesty-themed fashion weeks were flourishing in countries like Istanbul, Dubai, Amsterdam and Miami.
When did the modest fashion trend come about and how has it transformed the lives of women in the Middle East (and other parts of the world, such as Asia)?
Modesty has been gaining momentum in the mainstream industry for the past five years, and this mainstream stamp of approval on conservative silhouettes has not only transformed the lives of modesty-conscious women in the West (whose sartorial choices may now be deemed stylish and fashionable, rather than dowdy and drab) but also in the Middle East, where women are seeing an abundance of alternatives to the traditional abaya.
Though the movement hasn’t picked up as strongly in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, where designers, for the most part, remain focused on contemporary ethnic wear, modesty culture is ingrained in South Asian cultures, and this is why women from the region have mixed feelings when it comes to modest fashion’s foray into the mainstream. While those who choose to dress modestly embrace the entry of modest cuts in Western fashion, those who have experience with enforced dress codes, in patriarchal families, aren’t too thrilled about a mainstream celebration of modest fashion, fearing that it may reinforce traditional stipulations about women, purity and honour, which often put the onus of being modest, on the women in the community, rather than on the men.
Is modest fashion catering mostly to Muslim communities? Which are the countries that have most adopted the trend?
Although mainstream designers who are now experimenting with modesty may be doing so to attract Muslim spending power, modest styles are attracted many different types of women – not just Muslims! Other women who follow dress codes influenced by their faiths, be it Christianity or Judaism, are embracing the mainstream turn towards modesty, and many women who hold no religious ties whatsoever are also attracted to the ideals behind the modest fashion movement. The fact that looking “stylish” or “attractive” no longer requires you to bare your body and skin is a new reality that all kinds of women are celebrating.
The trend has naturally taken off in Gulf countries where modest fashion is an integral part of the culture and society, but what’s remarkable about the modest fashion movement, is that it has spread to the West – luxury brands and high street retailers in Europe and North America are now making, selling and marketing modesty.
Historically we have seen men adopting modest fashion as well. Are we seeing that in modern times too?
Though the modest fashion movement we’re witnessing right now is primarily relevant to females, there’s a budding male modest fashion movement too. There are a number of young millennial Muslim males, in places like the United States and United Kingdom, who are eschewing low-riding jeans and muscle tees, and instead championing more conservative, traditional-inspired styles, pairing them with contemporary street wear trends. You could argue that elements of the hipster men’s style movement (such as long beards and long, loose tees, for instance) are also influenced by cultural interpretations of modesty.
How are Western fashion designers responding to the modest fashion trend? Are we seeing the big brands getting on board?
Yes! And this is the most exciting thing about the modest fashion movement. Italian designer Dolce & Gabbana, known for making pretty little dresses with vibrant, Sicilian prints, made an entire collection of abayas in 2016. Following this, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors created modest collections for their Middle East stores during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Big brands are certainly getting on board with modest fashion, and one of the criticisms of this has been that they’re only catering to Middle East countries, during Ramadan, when it would be more lucrative – not to mention inclusive – to provide these styles year-round, to their clients world-wide.
Ending with the title of one of your chapters – is modest fashion here to stay? And what message do you hope people will take away from your new book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox?
If there’s anything this movement has proved, it’s that there is a huge demographic of women who like dressing modestly, whether it’s for faith, fashion or feminist-influenced reasons. Those who dress modestly for faith-based reasons often have an unwavering commitment to a modest fashion lifestyle – and as long as they have money to spend on clothing, modest fashion is a retail sector that will continue to thrive.
I hope that people will leave the book having learned that modesty is not a black-and-white descriptor of fashion, and that when it comes to female Muslims, fashion is much more colourful, and full of character, than what the mainstream media often paints a picture of – namely, a black, abaya, that’s meant to stand as an all-encompassing image of Muslim women.
Modesty: A Fashion Paradox is published by Neem Tree Press on 19 March 2020. Find out more and buy a copy here.
The author will be discussing her book at an event in London 20 April. Find out more here.
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