'Modest fashion' fans are covering up - and making waves in US
Sooner or later, every American woman with an eye on fashion has to make a conscious decision, based on factors such as religion, personal preference, work rules, age or shape: Who do I want to dress like -- Bella Hadid or Kate Middleton?
Nowadays, more women are choosing to wear "modest fashion," and the always impeccably turned out -- but never exposed -- Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, 33, is one of their icons.
That's no slam against the young-and-lithe Hadid, 19, who last month at Cannes grabbed eyeballs and camera flashes "dressed" in an Alexandre Vauthier silk gown that amounted to a large red scarf artfully draped around her underwear-less frame.
If you've got it, flaunt it, right? Maybe. Now some women who've got it are saying: No way.
Their reasons vary; often it's to comply with religious traditions and laws for women to dress modestly, as among Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and conservative Protestants and Catholics. But others just don't want to walk around with so much skin exposed, even if it's summer and everyone else is.
"It takes intestinal fortitude to go against the culture," says ex-lawyer Zahra Aljabri, co-founder of Mode-sty, a multi-brand modest-fashion online boutique that has taken off in the last three years selling affordable clothes that feature longer sleeves, higher necklines and hemlines below-the-knee or to the ground. "Consciously dressing modestly every day means you really have to believe in it. And before, you weren't always happy getting dressed."
Now she and a growing community of modest-fashion bloggers, designers and retailers -- most of them young, religious and refugees from other professions -- are trying to make dressing a happier affair for modest fans by offering Western-style clothing (dresses, skirts, tops, scarves, even swimwear) that is trendy and more covered up than, say, what your average Kardashian might wear.
Despite coming from different cultures and religious traditions, modest-fashonistas share some things in common: They use social media and the Internet to channel their passion for fashion into designing and marketing the modest styles they love, and they've been successful in building businesses, ringing up sales, enlisting equally passionate followers, and living their faith traditions.
The newcomers are tapping into an old aesthetic, one that has been mined by Western fashion designers for decades, says fashion historian Patricia Mears, deputy director of the (Museum at FIT), New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
"If anything it's gaining more traction (now)," says Mears. "Many women do not want to walk around in a bandage dress or show their midriff -- the Real Housewives look that has permeated the workplace."
"It's been insane to see how popular it is, but it's not going to grow if the actual designs are not good or compelling enough for any woman to wear," say Mimi Hecht, 30, and Mushky Notik, 27, Orthodox Jewish sisters-in-law and founders of three-year-old Mimu Maxi.
They grew up religious and keeping to Jewish standards of modesty (covered elbows, knees and collarbones) but struggled to balance fashion and faith. Now they have customers who aren't religious but believe dressing modestly is a way to assert female empowerment and self-confidence.
"People are seeing that covering up can be super-fashionable," says Hecht. "It doesn't mean dowdy or your fifth-grade teacher or dressing biblically."
Charity Jewell Walter, 23, is the CEO of Dainty Jewells, the Oregon-based, Christian-oriented website where dressing modestly is seen as "bringing glory to God," and young women are encouraged to keep themselves "pure for their future husbands."
"My goal is to introduce modest fashion to as many ladies as I can," she says. "Many people think of modesty as something frumpy or ugly, but Dainty Jewells has upset this stereotype. It's amazing how many people love modest fashions and don't even realise it."
The trend is here to stay because modesty is an "enduring" style, says Jocelyn Watt, the social media manager for Mikarose, a 10-year-old Utah-based website that started out catering to Mormon women and aims to "reinvent" modesty.
"It's a way to look your best and be self-confident," Watt says. "I don't have to worry about anything showing because I know that I'm covered. I feel more comfortable and confident in who I am, knowing people are looking at me as a person, not because my skirt is too short."
Melanie Elturk, 31, the Muslim founder of Manhattan-based Haute Hijab (especially admired for headscarves) and a contributing writer for Elle, has been in business since 2010 and has made around US$700,000 (NZ$974,000)in revenue, with about 6,000 customers, she says.
"The last 10 years in fashion has been especially body-conscious, with shorter hemlines, super-tight tops," she says. "Women who prefer not to walk around looking like Kylie Jenner want something appropriate for their age, but they don't want to look like the mother-of-the-bride at a wedding."
Measuring this market for modesty is tricky; the overall US women-and-girls apparel market amounted to about $179 billion in 2015, according to Commerce Department statistics, and the modest fashion niche so far is just that -- a niche so small it's not measured by government or commercial economic analysts, at least in America.
But Muslims around the world spent US$266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013, according to a report on the global Islamic economy from Thomson Reuters, and the figure is expected to surge to US$484 billion by 2019.
There are signs of growth in the USA: Besides bloggers, retailers, and social media mavens,, there are online fashion magazines covering modest fashion, such as Jen Magazine, for young Mormon women, and Cover Magazine put out by the Islamic Fashion & Design Council.
Fashion historians, such as Reina Lewis of the London College of Fashion, have studied the trend, in her book, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. The Western-style runway extravaganza at International Modest Fashion Week in Istanbul, the first-ever, featured 70 designers and was covered in the USA.
Besides Duchess Kate, modesty fans admire the street style of actress Olivia Palermo, the chic of Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism after she married an Orthodox Jew, and the always-covered-up designing Olsen twins, Mary Kate and Ashley, and their The Row line which features loose, over-sized clothing and some dresses to ankles.
"You never see them in body-revealing (attire) and they're savvy worldly young women," says FIT's Mears. "It's a sense of strength and empowerment the other way, you can't objectify them as a sex symbol."
Couture houses have been selling luxury modest fashion to wealthy women from the Middle East for years. Now A-list designers and mass-market retailers are taking notice of this market -- such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Monique Lhuillier, Zara, Mango -- by producing one-off collections for the Islamic month of Ramadan.
H&M featured a Muslim model in a hijab in one of its video ads last September. Japanese fashion chain Uniqlo launched a line of hijabs with designer Hana Tajima this spring. Dolce & Gabbana also released a collection of hijabs and abayas in January.
Meanwhile, online retailers such as Aljabri and Mode-sty.com expect their business to continue to expand in the USA.
"There are more (online boutiques) popping up all the time because there is more demand, more women who don't want to sacrifice style to dress more conservatively," Aljabri says. "A lot more people are saying we're tired of this, we shouldn't have to choose."
- USA Today