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The new modesty: a new age of fashion is dawning


With both designers and high street brands waking up to the power of the Muslim pound, a new age in ‘modestwear’ is dawning. Stylist investigates

Words: Remona Aly

If you saw me walking down the street in the late Nineties, you might have dubbed me a fashion disaster. Sporting a gypsy skirt from Camden market, an oversized top, clumpy black shoes and a drab scarf, I was not fly. Fashion wasn’t on my radar, but I wasn’t on its either.

As a Muslim girl who wanted to wear more modest clothing than the often skimpy Miss Selfridge dresses many school friends were wearing, I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice. When I decided to wear a hijab aged 18 in accordance with my faith, I only had two headscarves; both were black and boring. A few years later, I managed to find a printed one from Tie Rack, but it resembled something the Queen would wear while driving a Defender, rather than a 21-year-old girl trying to look cool. But I’ve come a long way since, and more to the point, so has the entire fashion market.

Market like never before. Last month, Dolce & Gabbana launched a range of luxury hijabs and abayas [long loose robe-like dresses], made from the same fabrics as the rest of its collection, which ellicited praise from many (along with criticism from a few for showcasing the range using a Caucasian model). Labels such as DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, Mango and Monique Lhuillier have produced one-off collections featuring flowing gowns and wide-leg trousers to coincide with the celebrations of Eid and Ramadan. And it’s not just high-end labels. Uniqlo teamed up with Mipster (Muslim hipster) and Brit-Japanese fashion designer Hana Tajima to launch their LifeWear collection including “breezy dresses” and “iconic hijabs”.

Now, as a 37-year-old, I have more options to be both faith and fashion conscious and have developed a wardrobe that is ‘cover-up chic’. Today, I can wear sleek blouses from Topshop, pleather skirts from Zara or a long, flowing dress from Mango. It’s the dawning of a new fashion age and it has a name: ‘modestwear’.

The Abaya Collection by Dolce & Gabbana

The Abaya Collection by Dolce & Gabbana

Modestwear has even appeared on the celebrity red carpet when Lady Gaga wore an elegantly draped hood from Donatella Versace’s s/s 2014 collection. At this year’s Golden Globes, Cate Blanchett appeared in a flowing, fringed dress by Givenchy and Game Of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke rocked a high-necked, full length Valentino gown.

“With the growing presence and influence of the young Muslim demographic, who are proud to uphold faith values in clothing, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we’ve seen the proliferation of pashminas, scarves, maxi dresses and even Islamic geometric patterns in designer and high street collections,” says Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Islamic branding agency Ogilvy Noor. “We’ve already seen the industry welcoming in Muslim fashion talent, whether that’s Muslim American designers at New York Fashion Week, British Muslim designers at London Fashion Week or Indonesian designers in Milan. Muslim fashion is undoubtedly one of the biggest trends to come, not as a replacement but as an addition to current ranges and fashion events.”

After years in the fashion wilderness, suddenly we Muslims seem almost spoilt for choice. What’s the reason for this major change? Well, according to a recent report from Thomson Reuters and Dinar Standard globally, Muslims spent £185 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013. That tops the total fashion spend of Japan and Italy combined. In the UK alone, the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2013 report estimates the Muslim fashion market to be worth £100m and is expected to double by 2018. With such major spending power, it’s no wonder the fashion industry is starting to take us seriously.

Like me, you may be wondering why this has taken so long. Well, a major reason is the false notion that women of my faith don’t care about fashion. And of course, some don’t, just like other women. But you only need to type ‘Muslim women’ into Google images to see why the myth perpetuates: it’s like black is the new black, over and over again. Muslim women who enjoy wearing colour and patterns don’t make the stereotypical grade. In fact, wearing black isn’t even a religious requirement, it’s more to do with the desire to avoid attention that is prevalent in certain countries.

Generally, the basics of modest dress for Muslim women are that many of us choose not to show our bodies – our legs, full arms, shoulders etc – in front of men we aren’t related to. Clothes should not be tight or transparent and some women also cover their hair with a hijab. In front of other women or male relatives, we can be more relaxed about things.

Personally, I cover every part of my body apart from my face and hands in mixed company. As long as clothes aren’t too tight, transparent or reveal parts of me I don’t want to inflict on the public, it’s all good. I search for light undertops to wear with sleeveless dresses, ensure necklines aren’t too scooped, and skirts not too clingy. I don’t wear my hijab at home, or when I’m sleeping or when I’m in the shower (I have been asked). I’d only wear it at home if we were having a party and there were men around who weren’t from my immediate family. When it’s ladies only, I can go a bit wild.

The variations on these basics among women of different ages, countries and backgrounds are multiple. For example, I don’t feel the need to wear an abaya because I have found other ways to cover my body. But for those women who do, many develop their own trends and identities to work within the conservative parameters of our faith. There are abayas trimmed with lace, decorated with beaded embroidery – some even have cuffs adorned with crystals. With ladies of the UAE in particular, you might even get a sneak peek of what lies beneath the abaya: stunning designer clothes that they proudly display to their girlfriends.

Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, reiterates that we are not a homogenous group: “Muslim women come in a variety of religio-ethnic identities and in a range of aesthetics. That includes women who wear hijabs to women who don’t, young mums to skater girls, entrepreneurs to office workers.” But the basic demands we make of our clothing are the same, and that is how modest chic is becoming mainstream.

Remona Aly

Today, Remona Aly has found her own style appropriate for her faith

It is this interest in modestwear and making it work for your personal style that has fuelled the recent rise in hijabi-fashion bloggers such as British Muslim, Dina Torkia. Torkia set up her blog (dinatorkia.co.uk) to address the challenges of combining modesty with style and has played a significant role in the modesty revolution. “I think of dressing smartly as a way to represent myself and my religion,” she has said. “I don’t understand why you can’t be interested in fashion and be a Muslim.”

Since the blog’s launch five years ago, Torkia has collaborated with Liberty on a range of scarves, launched her own fashion and jewellery line, and she now attracts a following of over 1.4m across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, often posing in outfits such as Nike trainers, J Brand jeans, an Asos duster coat and a headscarf from her own range. Her ‘turban’ tutorial’ has already gained more than a million views.

Lewis, who has spent a decade researching Muslim fashion for her book, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style And Culture, says during that time she frequently noted how the mainstream fashion industry was missing a trick. “It’s only in the last two years that brands are waking up to the Muslim market,” she tells me. “This is partly due to the lively and attractive hijabi fashion blogosphere as well as social media, which has given rise to a variety of voices.”

Another clue to the increase in Muslim influence is the rise of Muslim models. Mariah Idrissi, who last September featured in an H&M advertising campaign (the first time the brand had used a Muslim model in a hijab), shook up the fashion scene. The 23-year-old Londoner who aspires to create a “bridge between modesty and fashion” stars in a 30-second video, alongside a boxer with a prosthetic leg, a man in drag, and a guy wearing socks with sandals – all united under the maxim: “There are no rules in fashion.”

The H&M video prompted wide media coverage – and while some criticism came, often disappointingly from Muslim men – on the whole, Idrissi reported overwhelming messages of thanks from Muslim women around the world. When I saw her in the video oozing cool confidence, I felt proud and welcomed the inevitable feather ruffling.

Muslim women are driving the market forward, pushing boundaries in innovation. We’re living in the age of the ‘New Muslim Cool’ – a term coined by a documentary of the same name about a rap artist who converts to Islam. We are on trend. And brands – both high end and high street – are reaching out to us.

Influence doesn’t stop at clothes. One of the biggest trends in beauty this year is the rise in halal (‘lawful’ in Arabic) beauty. I’ll elaborate: some mainstream beauty products contain ingredients like alcohol and pig-derived collagen, which are forbidden (‘haram’ in Arabic) by the Qu’ran.  I’ve stayed well away from cosmetics in the past for fear of what they might contain, so it’s no wonder that Muslim entrepreneurs are now producing their own formulations that cater for modern tastes without compromising faith values.

“Halal cosmetics is a lucrative business –  it is expected to grow 50% by 2018,”  says Theresa Yee, senior beauty editor at WGSN, the global trend authority. This  growth is likely to be fuelled not only by Muslim consumers but also by health-conscious buyers. Yee predicts that, “Consumers are now more concerned with what they put onto their skin, so I think this  will help drive halal beauty into the mainstream as halal cosmetics contain no pesticides, alcohol, fermented animal ingredients or cruelty-free processes, which means they  may appeal to the eco-conscious and  ethical consumer.”

Market leaders are probably brands you haven’t heard of yet – like Amara Halal Cosmetics, One Pure Beauty and Glow by Claudia Nour, founded by American Muslim convert, Claudia Cruz. But that’s about to change. “Some multi-national brands are beginning to tap into this market,” adds Yee. “Schwarzkopf has launched products [specifically developed to strengthen hair follicles damaged by veil wear] and Nails Inc offer wash-off nail polishes that can be removed before the daily prayer.” This is quite the game changer for women like me, as the ritual of washing before prayer says you should allow water to reach your nails.

Even Tesco, who already appeal to the Muslim market with Ramadan food campaigns and halal meat, are opening up their beauty range to the faithful. They are now working with a new halal personal care brand, Tamese & Jackson (tameseandjackson.com) – which has sleek packaging not dissimilar to Cowshed products – to expand their existing range of hair and skincare products.

So it’s exciting times in the fashion and beauty industry. My wardrobe and cosmetic cabinet are ready to welcome major brands wanting to style out my world. Personally I’ve never felt so connected to fashion – I’ve gone from style apathy to consulting a personal shopper to channel my passion.

The spotlight is on modestwear and it’s now more in touch with my lifestyle. And as long as brands continue to connect authentically, the Muslim market is very much open for business.

  • More than 50% of the world’s Muslim population are under 25 – and in the “spending group”.
  • The Muslim Council of Britain estimated Muslim spending power at £20.5bn per year in the UK.
  • Globally Muslims are expected to spend £336bn a year on fashion by 2019.
  • In August 2013, Middle Eastern visitors to the UK spent an average of £152.40 per transaction – meaning UK retailers saw an influx of 25% in summer spend*.
  • The Islamic Fashion Festival, which has been held 17 times around the world since 2006, brings together designers from around the world for consumers and industry alike.
  • The world’s second most expensive dress is a diamond abaya, by Debbie Wingham, costing almost £12million.
  • The Muslim population in England and Wales rose from 1.5m to 2.7m over a decade**.

*According to data from the UK payment service Worldpay  
**According to the 2011 census



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