Modest fashion: A look at the rising popularity and why labels are turning to the Middle East for inspiration

Dressing in clothes that are cut to conceal rather than reveal, the focus is shifted so a glimpse of ankle becomes more potent than a bare torso paraded for all the world to see.

Models present the Bouguessa collection at Fashion Forward's fall/winter show held in Dubai in April last year. Photo by Stuart C Wilson / Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Modest dress is enjoying a renaissance. Fashion brands are increasingly embracing the long-held view shared by those in region that style does not have to equate to revealing a lot of flesh.

Building on the foundations of sensuality over sexuality, and demure over décolletage, the West is finally catching up with the Middle East in terms of tasteful dressing.

Women in the Middle East have long expressed their fashion taste through layering and soft silhouettes, with abayas that brush across the hips and catch at the wrist.

Dressing in clothes that are cut to conceal rather than reveal, the focus is shifted so a glimpse of ankle becomes more potent than a bare torso paraded for all the world to see.

Who has not gazed in awe as a woman sashays past, swathed from head to toe, as graceful as a swan? The difference now is that the runways in New York, Milan, Paris and London have caught on to the elegance such flowing lines convey.

Fashion has always acted as a barometer of attitudes in society, reflecting mood and thoughts, expressed through the length of hemlines and tightness of cut.


A model walks the runway during New York Fashion Week held last year in New York City. Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for New York Fashion Week

The severe tailoring of wartime Europe, for example, was swept away by Christian Dior and his New Look of 1948. Using yards and yards of fabric in the skirt, it was a heartfelt rebellion against European post-war rationing and austerity.

Now, as hemlines have dropped and outlines softened to the point of billowing, fashion is more gentle and more forgiving. By choosing loose-fitting and comfortable outfits, women with the busiest of lives can now get on with their day, freed from the tyranny of tight-fitting "body-con" styles.

Perhaps the timing of this is no coincidence. In an age of political division with leaders seeking to drive wedges between countries and races, the fashion industry is embracing a code of dress associated with the Islamic Middle East, and helping blur the boundaries that separate us.

“The misconception about women who cover being oppressed is being challenged,” says Gaelle Dalati, the communications manager of fashion house Symphony Style Group.

“This is a chance to explain that modest dressing is about focusing on the inside, not showing off the outside. It is about dressing beautifully and elegantly and respecting who you are.

“Instead of modest dressing being seen in a negative light, now it is very fashionable – it is so elegant. It has changed the way people think about how we dress.”

With more than half the population in the region under the age of 25, and with growing spending power, the GCC market is too large to ignore.

“International brands have picked up on this trend and have created collections catering to the modest woman – brands such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Monique Lhuillier, Zara, Mango, Uniglo,” says Bong Guerrero, the chief executive of the Dubai style platform Fashion Forward.

“Modest fashion is one of the industry’s fastest-growing sectors and the demand is increasing for this style of clothing.

“According to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, Muslims spend approximately US$230 billion (Dh844bn) annually on clothing, which is projected to grow to $327 billion by 2019.”

With such large sums at stake, it is no surprise that Italian giant Dolce & Gabbana unveiled an abaya collection last year or that sports company Nike last month announced plans to release a sports hijab.


The Nike Pro Hijab. Courtesy Nike

However, there is more to this trend than just money. Look at the genuine buzz around Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan, who set New York Fashion Week alight last September when she sent all her models down the runway in hijabs.

In addition, Spanish label Delpozo used a hijab to poetic effect at its fall/winter 2017 prêt a couture show, creating a hood worn under bold, architectural pieces. And this spring, controversial rapper-turned-designer Kayne West hired Halima Aden, a hijab-wearing Somali model, for his Yeezy Season 5 show in New York.

This new open-mindedness to what constitutes style is a welcome boost for emerging labels in the region, as a wider audience looks to the Middle East for inspiration.

“Women have been dressing modestly for a long time, but it has definitely gained much more global attention today,” says Madiyah Al Sharqi, the designer behind the eponymous Emirati label. “I think part of that is because western brands – just like Middle Eastern designers who have always been at the forefront of creating modest collections – have joined this remarkable movement.”

Given the expected growth in the market, there are real opportunities for regional names to reach a wider, global audience as women turn to modest dressing for reasons other than cultural.

“There is this other subset of women who just want to wear comfortable clothing or just have a different way to define their femininity,” says Guerrero. “Rabia Z, who is well-known in the region, and Fashion Forward designers such as Faiza Bouguessa and Amal Al Raisi are making waves in the modest category.”

This view is shared by Ghizlan Guenez, the founder and chief executive of The Modist, an online shopping portal launched this year to help women unable to find the modest clothes they want. As such, it has become is an integral part of this zeitgeist.

“Demure dressing is definitely a macro trend that we have seen recently in the streets of the fashion capitals – during fashion weeks and on the runways,” says Guenez. However, she adds that this is the preferred style of its clients and “the way our woman dresses, regardless of the trends”.

Shops and boutiques in the UAE have been working to shift perceptions of the region for some time. Since its launch in 2008, the boutique Symphony has worked closely with international labels to ensure designs are relevant to women in the Middle East.

“There are designers who have been with us from the beginning, helping amend their pieces for us,” says Dalati.

“Alexis Nabile, Antonio Barradi, Stella Jean, Delpozo, Alice Temperley, Osman, Mother of Pearl – these names have tried to understand this region and tried to work with us – because they really understood that this region is different and that they needed to amend their designs. They understood there is a reason behind modesty”.


A model walks the runway during the Delpozo Fashion Show. Courtesy Delpozo

Against the wider backdrop of raging wars, perhaps fashion offers a vital way to look beyond borders and divisions. There is a simple joy to be gained from dressing to express who we are, rather than to conform to a certain ideal.

A view that demands a woman must be half-naked to appear attractive is no less oppressive than one that demands she covers up, so ultimately any move towards promoting a headscarf or floor-length dress simply as a means of self expression is welcome.

Although it might be long overdue, full-length sleeves and high necklines are finally enjoying their well-deserved moment in the sun.

“If the industry seeks to empower women and be inclusive, modest fashion should be a significant part of the conversation, as countless women, regardless of their religion or race, practice this way of life,” says Al Sharqi.