Why Has Modest Fashion Become a Movement? Savoir Flair Investigates

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The age-old advertising adage “sex sells” is dead, and may it never be resurrected again. As far back as 1885, when W. Duke and Sons packaged its facial soap with illicit trading cards of popular female stars, erotic imagery has been used to sell products. However, what brands are finding today is that sex no longer attracts consumers, many of whom are inundated with tawdry images and messages that have become easy to ignore.

Instead, activism and social justice are being used to market consumer goods – and with fantastic results. Just take a look at 2017’s Super Bowl ads and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. Even when brands attempt to sell sex, they are met with resistance. Take, for instance, Saint Laurent’s recent advertisement and the swift backlash from the Autorité de Régulation Professionnelle de la Publicité (ARPP) that resulted in a ban.

If we rewind back to 1885, when W. Duke and Sons first sold its soap-and-trading-card bundle, we’ll find that men dominated the market. For centuries, they have predominantly been the sole breadwinners in their families, while women stayed home to tend to the household and offspring. Under the patriarchy, men held the purse strings and, as such, advertisements were geared towards the male eye. Advertisers assumed they could bait male shoppers with suggestive imagery – and they were right. This is how products like alcohol and cars were sold to a traditionally male consumer base.

However, over the past several decades, women have flooded the workplace, thanks in large part to the global women’s movement. Now a powerful economic force, women not only work alongside their significant others to achieve familial financial goals, but they also have their own disposable income to spend on things like luxury handbags, beauty treatments, and clothing. Female empowerment in the Middle East has also shifted consumer expectations in the region, as women are now allowed to work even in the stricter and more traditional countries.

Hijab street style
Photo: Courtesy of The Trendy Tale

When women emerged as a market force, advertisers had to change their tactics, no longer able to rely on suggestive appeal. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where modest garb is adopted by many women for religious and personal reasons. Brands were forced to accept somewhat-traditional standards in advertising to the Arab woman, but instead of encouraging this growing market, they largely ignored it – until now.

In 2014, DKNY was the first major luxury apparel brand to offer modest fashion for Arab women, and dozens of brands quickly followed. In 2015, Uniqlo launched the ‘Tajima’ collection in collaboration with Hana Tajima, which is now in its fourth release for Spring/Summer 2017. In 2016, Dolce & Gabbana released a line of abayas for Ramadan, while H&M used a model wearing a hijab to promote its sustainable fashion line. Moda Operandi and Net-a-Porter now regularly supply Ramadan edits for their Muslim shoppers, and Symphony curates a capsule collection of kaftans by well-known fashion designers every year for the Holy Month.

High-end fashion brands are finally cluing in to how vastly underserved the Arab market is.

At Milan Fashion Week for Fall/Winter 2017, Alberta Ferretti and Max Mara both booked the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden to walk in their shows, sparking worldwide attention, while Ascia Al Faraj partnered with Net-a-Porter for a series of styling masterclasses that teach demure dressing techniques. Most recently, Nike released the ‘Pro Hijab’ for female athletes, which stays in place despite vigorous movements. Even more mainstream brands like Balmain have started covering up, showing collections filled with long hemlines and high necklines. This extends to many collections for 2017, which are brimming with modest lengths and plenty of covered-up options like the languid pant suit.

The reason for this shift in the fashion industry? High-end fashion brands are finally cluing in to how vastly underserved the Arab market is. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2016/17 report by Thomson Reuters, Muslim consumers spend roughly $243 billion dollars annually on clothing, which makes up 11 percent of the global total. This figure is predicted to swell to $484 billion by 2019.

halima aden
Photo: Courtesy of CR Fashion Book

The modest-fashion movement sweeping the globe is more than just a marketing attempt to grab Arab dollars and establish a financially beneficial niche in the market.

In addition to major brands launching modest collections geared towards Muslim shoppers, Ghizlan Guenez had the good fortune to strike while the iron is hot, launching luxury modest-fashion platform The Modist earlier this year, just as the trend began to coalesce. The e-commerce site offers contemporary labels like Mary Katrantzou and Marni, but the selection is edited for a cross-cultural section of women who prefer to dress modestly.

The modest-fashion movement sweeping the globe is more than just a marketing attempt to grab Arab dollars and establish a financially beneficial niche in the market. Instead, it appeals to women worldwide who have stopped dressing for the male gaze – which objectifies women – and have started dressing for themselves. A fourth wave of feminism, ushered in by social media and entering the mainstream because of celebrities like Emma Watson and Beyoncé, has awoken women to the fact that they are a market force to be reckoned with. This means that centuries of being taught to dress in order to appeal to men now seems horribly outmoded, while dressing modestly has begun to look downright radical.

There are women of all faiths who prefer to dress modestly because they feel more comfortable in clothes that cover up, rather than reveal, but modest fashion and traditional clothing – like the burka and hijab – should not be confused. Traditional clothing is always modest, but modest clothing is not always traditional. This means that Arab women can enjoy the modest-clothing movement alongside the Western woman, who is more likely to reach for a long, figure-obscuring dress than a headscarf.

Here’s the bottom line: when we all became globally connected, we realized that it was no longer necessary to dress for men. Think about it; if men didn’t exist, would high heels? Bodycon dresses? Plunging necklines? When you’re getting dressed, who are you getting dressed for? If the answer isn’t you, then you might want to take a moment and consider why.

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