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Modest fashion, or fashioning modesty?

Jonathan A. J. Wilson | July 28, 2011 | 0 Comments
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Last month, I was able to catch up with Professor Reina Lewis (Artscom Centenary Professor of Cultural Studies, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London), following her Symposium entitled: ‘Mediating Modesty – Fashioning Faithful Bodies’  at the London College of Fashion.

Prof Reina makes the following observation:

“We are already seeing a ‘second generation’ of modest dress designers who are able to combine modesty with more radical fashion forward aesthetics in ways that would have been unlikely for the first generation of companies.”

Another speaker at the event, Professor Danny Miller, from University College London, comments on the fact that “Blue Jeans represent a paradox with respect to the project on modest fashion. On the one hand there are many examples of religious organisations such as ultra orthodox Jews banning blue denim as immodest, and yet I will argue they [blue jeans] have today a greater capacity for modesty in the sense of self-effacement than any other garment in the world. As such they draw attention to two very different meanings of the word modesty. One concerns the exposure of the female body and the other concerns invisibility.”

For me, these two comments follow on nicely from my previous post. The idea that not just fashion, but also wider consumption, represents a widening of definitions and interpretations concerning words such as ‘modest’. Some would argue so much so, that it creates a paradox. For example, can you call a designer super expensive hijab with Swarovski crystals modest fashion? Or, should there be such a thing as a luxury Hajj package? Perhaps, it would be more religiously accurate and faithful to brand a luxury hajj package as an ‘Easy Hajj Package’. Also, personally I’d like to see more variety in the marketing language used – so instead of usual, ‘modest muslimah fashion’, what about ‘Arabian gothic elegance’, or anything else which is more emotive and faithful to the desires of their consumers.

I posed three questions to Prof Reina, which she kindly took the time to answer.

1.      Tell us about the research that you’ve been running over the past year or so?
The project Modest Fashion: Faith-based Fashion and Internet Retail started in March 2010 and ran for one year. A couple of us have been researching and publishing on Muslim women and dress for some time and it was clear to us that modest dressing was on the increase among women from other faiths as well – although in the UK, and elsewhere, the press and popular focus was nearly always on Muslim women wearing hijab. This project was designed to widen the frame in which modest dressing is discussed by exploring how women from different, or no, faith communities were getting involved in and sharing their ideas about modest dressing.

The project was designed specifically to focus on how the use of the internet by modest dressers and those companies that seek to supply them with clothing. It was our hypothesis that e-retail was making it possible for companies and brands to meet the needs of this niche market and that women seeking modest apparel were more likely to shop from companies outside of their faith because shopping online is de-territorialised and de-materialised – nobody sees what you look like or what you buy. It was also our contention that the internet did more than simply sell: we wanted to explore how internet discussions on blogs and in discussion fora were bringing women from different faith and secular backgrounds into discussion with each other about their varying interpretations of modesty.

2.      What have been the most significant findings resulting from your research project?
In the UK it has been Muslim designers and entrepreneurs who have led the way in the development of the niche market in modest clothing. In the US and Canada other faith groups that have dress requirements show similar developments in the commercial production and distribution of clothing. We found this most notably but not exclusively among orthodox and ultra- orthodox Jews, and among some Christian groups including the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In most cases, internet marketing allows brands to reach beyond their immediate location, serving consumers across boundaries of geography and of faith.

Modest dressing is not solely the preserve of the religious: we discovered a vocal cohort of modest dressers who define themselves as non-religious, or secular, as well as religious women who don’t identify faith as the key motivator for their modest self-presentation. As well as including ‘secular’ dressers, one of the key contributions of this research, in the European context especially, is to widen understandings of Muslim modest dress to include Muslim women who are committed to modest self-presentation but do not interpret this to include a headscarf (hijab) let along a face veil.

The research bore out our contention that the internet was bringing women from different faiths and from secular backgrounds into discussion with each other. Alongside commercial developments, we found young women on the internet in blogs, on YouTube, and in discussion fora, dispensing advice on how to achieve their varying interpretations of fashionable modesty. Our research identified how the internet is facilitating discussions about modest dressing and behaviour in commercial and non-profit online modes, involving women in forms of intra- and inter-faith dialogue that they might not enter into offline.

3.      What were the highlights of your recent event?
I was particularly pleased that we were joined by many delegates from different faith communities, education and voluntary sector organisations, employers’ organisations, and the press. Putting faith related dress in the frame of fashion has indeed proved to be a valuable way to bring diverse groups into dialogue with each other.

The symposium featured excellent papers from academics from the UK, US, and EU, which covered both specifically religious dress trends (such as ultra-orthodox Jews) and wider issues about how clothing (like the ubiquitous denim jeans or skirt) can make people conspicuous or modestly ‘invisible’ in different circumstances. We also held a wonderful industry panel, with speakers from Muslim and Christian brands talking about their design inspiration, business practices, and how they welcomed consumers from diverse and secular faith backgrounds.

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