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Looks and poses pinned to a wall at the headquarters of Turkish brand Modanisa.
Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

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What Luxury Modest Clothing Brands Forget

The sumptuary laws of many cultures are as much about extravagance as exposure.

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Once a niche subculture battling the increasingly exposed mainstream, modest fashion has officially gone viral. New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman declared last spring that long sleeves and even-longer skirts are “[t]he defining sartorial style of the 2010s.” Brands new and old have cashed in on the trend, while Mormon women, bound by their faith’s aesthetic guidelines, are the hottest fashion bloggers going. In the past year or so, modest fashion has integrated seamlessly with the broader industry. Retailers like Shabby Apple and Mikarose mimic the mainstream in almost every aspect — even price point.

Women of all faiths, and even some who lack it, have hopped aboard. “When you have [a] very rare and expensive jewel[,] you keep its beauty hidden in order to keep its value,” writes Orthodox Jewish fashion blogger Rachelle Yadegar. “That’s why I think dressing modestly is so beautiful.” HuffPost quotes Muslim blogger Hanan Tehaili, who agrees: “Modest fashion is a way of expressing your style parallel to your way of life. It is beautiful because of the varying styles and beliefs that are intertwined to create this phenomenon.” Hannah Hoffmann, who claims no religious affiliation, states that modest dressing allows her to project a “rigor and intellectual thoughtfulness” that she feels more conventional presentations lack.

In the words of Yadegar, Tehaili, Hoffmann, and their fellows, a few themes begin to surface. Modest fashion allows women to control their visual affect and their interactions with the world. “God didn’t reveal woman all at once,” says Catholic blogger Carolyn Shields; “likewise, we shouldn’t reveal ourselves in one glance.” It boosts self-confidence by keeping their values tangible, close to the chest. And, perhaps most interestingly, contrary to its traditionally stodgy reputation, today’s modest fashions are all about individuality. Mormon artist Rebekah Webb Norman enjoys “get[ting] creative with layering clothes and adding accessories. It is a lot of fun exploring new trends and looks to fit your needs.” Muslim writer Zahra Said calls modesty “unique, and it is being fearless in the sense [that] no matter what people say you will stay true to yourself.” Hindu blogger Sonu Bohra sums it up: “Fully clothed or in shorts, it doesn’t matter as long as [you’re] true to yourself.”

The world of modest fashion is Instagram-perfect: stylish, diverse, and relentlessly positive. Its denizens candidly articulate their beliefs and the ways they manifest aesthetically. The modest fashion ethos is seductively inclusive: women of all sizes, colors, and creeds accessing fashion on their own terms and though their own lenses. The rise of sartorial modesty, write Fatima Kasu and Romanna Bint-Abubaker for HuffPost, has enabled women of many backgrounds to “[indulge] in fashion without sacrificing their values.”

It is also, of course, fashion. As the modesty movement has descended on haute couture, their worlds have increasingly commingled. The top modest-fashion blogs are as slick and sharply photographed as their skimpier counterparts, ripe with sponsorships and affiliate links. Mormon clothier Shabby Apple sells crisp, chic work dresses for $130 a pop, and that’s the lower end — Creatures of Comfort’s infamous Sequoia dress went for $450 last year. Fact is, in everything but silhouette, 21st-century modest fashion bears little resemblance to its original iteration, which had as much to do with extravagance as exhibition.

Creatures of Comfort’s Sequoia dress.
Photo: Creatures of Comfort

As a close reading of sumptuary laws (legislation governing consumption of luxury goods) both ancient and more recent shows, reducing “modesty” to the absence of exposed skin is rather recent. While bikinis and miniskirts have been condemned and even banned, so too have pearls, hobble skirts, and — strangely enough — stripes. Ancient Rome forbade commoners from wearing purple; Puritans declared an “utter detestation or dislike that men or women of mean condition, educations and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by the wearing of gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, to walk in great boots.”

Historically, modesty standards have been about visually distinguishing the haves from the have-nots. Through this lens, its modern iterations smack of counter-signaling. The Puritans warned against dressing above one’s station; we in 2018 are doing the opposite. The fashions of today are more democratized than ever before. “Get the look for less!” crows every fashion magazine ever. Trying to look rich is not only no longer frowned upon; it’s actively encouraged by even the modest cohort. Modest fashionistas cover their hair, their knees, their elbows — while donning $200 name brands. Online aggregator The Modist offers the tagline “luxury modest fashion for extraordinary women” — which, for much of history, was an inherent contradiction in terms.

Katherine L. French writes in The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe:

Because clothing spoke to status and respectability, sumptuary legislation also tried to distinguish prostitutes from respectable women. In Pisa, prostitutes had to wear a yellow filet around their foreheads, while in Florence, prostitutes affixed bells to their hoods or shawls. … London’s regulations for prostitutes’ clothing were less specific, but driven by the same concerns. They could not dress like “good or noble dames or damsels”; they were later told not to wear furred hoods; and by 1351, they were required to wear unlined “rayed” or striped hoods (an example of the lingering negative connotations of parti-colored clothing). By forcing prostitutes to dress identifiably, governments sought to define such women as publicly dissolute.

It’s absurd to think that stripes and furred hoods might have ever carried such explosive meaning, but to 14th-century Europeans, they were every bit the scandal. One wonders what a respectable woman of the 1350s would think of this striped dress from Shabby Apple or these faux-fur toppers. And therein lies what many iterations of the modesty movement forget: what’s considered immodest is both culturally determined and entirely subjective.

Consider 1 Timothy 2:9, the Bible verse cited by many women as the underpinning of Christian modesty. God commands “that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array” (King James Version). The “costly array” is by far the most relevant to our 21st-century milieu, yet it’s the area least explored by sites like The Modist, whose designer duds fetch typical designer prices. Amber Fillerup of Barefoot Blonde, the gold standard of Mormon fashion blogs, hawks hair extensions for $200. This is the underside of the modesty movement’s ostensible inclusivity. It’s an unequivocal step forward that women of all faiths can participate in sartorial joys. But what, then, is there for those of leaner means?

This disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Refinery29’s Connie Wang opines: “while some of these clothes are ‘modest’ in hue as well as length and cut, there may be pieces that would look at home on an exhibitionist. … You could argue that, in a way, there’s nothing modest about them.” Some women within the modesty subculture share her concerns. Kashmira Gander, in an otherwise complimentary article, writes that “if you go to iftar [the breaking of the fast during Ramadan] … and … it becomes a fashion parade that might be unwelcome and oppressive to some.”

Still, Gandar concludes that the modesty movement is overall an “exciting new frontier. … for women who have felt ignored by the mainstream for decades.” Mormon artist Eowyn Wilcox McComb correctly points out that “[although] modesty is more of a struggle for low-income women, I think the sartorial income gap applies to all women seeking self-expression in clothing.” She mentions that LDS-run thrift stores, popular in the Mormon Southwest, stock a wide variety of modest options for those lower on funds. At church, she says, her coreligionists occasionally debate whether “modestly covered dresses that are sumptuous still count as modest (most women I’ve heard say yes, generally), or whether it is appropriate to wear an ostentatiously expensive designer purse to a church meeting.” Despite what fashion’s upper echelons say, everyday women are still injecting their own perspectives.

And, to be clear, there’s not a damn thing wrong with showing as much or as little skin as you please. There’s also nothing wrong with reconciling style and spirituality in whatever way best suits you. This isn’t a “gotcha” moment for the fashionable faithful. It’s a question: How did we as a society decide that naked wealth is less immodest than naked flesh? What does that say for our collective values? Standards of modesty, more often than not, have been about dividing the bad — haughty, impious, materialistic — from the good. Sometime since the Puritans, it seems, we’ve decided that badness lives not in extravagance but in exposure.

Modesty, as its adherents claim, is highly personal. It takes as many forms as there are women embodying it, and that’s okay. Being subjective and culturally determined isn’t the same as being wrong. It is, though, an invitation to humility. To remembering that collective values shape expressions of faith perhaps more than we realize. In a culture that carried no stigma about undress but abhorred conspicuous consumption, “modest” clothing might look very different.

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