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Unveiling modest fashion

The Sunday supps are full of key fashion looks for Autumn 2011, but there's one, says Debbie Lemon, that won't make the front page of Vogue.

Look out for the trend that is indisputably growing in awareness, consumer following and commercial clout: modest fashion.

This rapidly expanding market is become less niche, less "modest" and generating more word of mouth — all thanks to the Internet. All it takes is a quick Google search and hundreds of modest fashion brands, blogs and magazines are at your fingertips. And it it's not all about the hijab or burka.

Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion, conducted a qualitative study into modest fashion during 2010, as she believes the industry should take note of this vastly under catered for movement.

Her findings were interesting: research not only confirmed that this market is flourishing due to ecommerce, but that the online "world" within which the movement operates is starting to cross religious boundaries and create dialogue between consumers of different faith groups (and non-faith groups) in ways never seen before.

Conversely, this year also saw an emergence of extreme dressing or "slutism" with the Slut Walk taking place in London, and around the globe, in June 2011. Women (and some men) marched in their underwear to make a statement against women bearing any responsibility for sexual attacks.

So how do the motivations of modest dressers differ from those taking part in movements such as the Slut Walk? Is this about male oppression, religious conformity or a new kind of feminism? And what impact could this once niche market make on fashion retailing and ecommerce today?

Do you have to have faith?

Traditionally, when we think of modest dressing, we think of certain religious groups that require this of female devotees, namely Islamic religions, Judaism and some forms of Christianity. Hotly debated items of clothing spring to mind, such as the hijab, burka or veil — or more lately, the burkini (thanks Nigella).

While many women are dressing in this way to support their religious beliefs, they're doing it their own way. Each new generation wants to look distinct and different from the last, and this can result in the younger generations actually dressing MORE modestly than their parents.

Many of the new designers and brands that have emerged in this area have been created out of necessity as consumers struggled to find vibrant, fashionable options, rejecting the older more "passive" styles. The UK in particular has been seen as a hub for Muslim designers, leading the way in modest fashion. In the US, many of the modest fashion brands and bloggers are from Christian or orthodox Jewish backgrounds.

However, modest fashion is starting to move beyond the boundaries of religion. If you check out the hottest blogs and brands in the world of modest fashion, they often fail to mention religion all together, in order to cater for wider groups of consumers from different religious faiths.

What's more, there is a fast growing group of non-faith consumers who are choosing to dress modestly, simply because they want to. They may feel they are dressing "appropriately" for their age or life-stage, and claim that the way they dress is not influenced by any religious beliefs.

Age-old debate

Interestingly, even back in the 1800s women were raising eyebrows with modest fashion. Back then, this had little to do with modesty or religion, and everything to do with functionality. During the era of boned corsets (and even pregnancy corsets), health and wellbeing were a key concern for the Rational Dress Society, which was founded with the mission "to protest against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health."

The society battled for women to be dressed healthily, comfortably and beautifully, prompting the creation of controversial items such as the bloomer. Current US fashion brand, Society For Rational Dress, was inspired by this movement and creates premium clothing collections that drape and flatter the female form, without restricting the wearer — this is all about beauty and functionality, and nothing to do with religion.

Power of e-commerce

So why is e-commerce driving such growth in modest fashion? Reina Lewis puts it down to the anonymity provided online and the fact that brands and blogs are less territorialized. Women are also more empowered online, outside of what can be more male dominated religious authority structures. These factors are uniting women from all over to world in an unprecedented manner to create a strong consumer group that demands to be catered for.

Modesty demands attention

Just like mainstream fashion, there are a number of rising stars in the world of modest fashion blogging. It's clear the moment you start looking at these blogs that "modest" is almost a completely incorrect descriptor. Certainly, the outfits are lacking in low necklines and high hemlines, but they're oozing "look at me" factor. They celebrate style and individuality, as high fashion as style bubble and with fashionistas to match. This isn't about blending into the background, this is about standing out.

So when will modest fashion stand up and be counted in the offline world? Reina Lewis feels the fashion industry is "missing a trick" by not taking note. It does feel like modesty is taking steps towards the more mainstream. In the US, Eliza Magazine, the first modest fashion magazine, was launched in 2007. It exists online and offline, and focuses on mainstream fashion trends, using high fashion models from Ford and Elite.

Modest fashion blogs are already attracting mainstream fashion advertising and the savviest bloggers are using their sites as affiliates, directing consumers to high fashion retailers such as ASOS. Perhaps it's time for mainstream fashion to take note of this movement, and for modest fashion to stop being so, well, modest.

 

Debbie Lemon
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011