The Steady—But Slow—Rise of Modest Fashion

Muslim women are calling for better representation in the world of fashion

Sarah Marie Bashir shops at The Brass Owl in Queens (Samantha McDonald)

Sarah Marie Bashir shops at The Brass Owl in Queens (Samantha McDonald)

Sarah Marie Bashir wears her hijab like a turban—its textured, apple-colored fabric elegantly wrapped around her hair. She adheres to the customs of her Muslim faith, covered in a long-sleeved, white chiffon blouse, and black trousers that stretch down to her ankles.

She is undoubtedly stylish. But it’s not easy for somebody with her taste, religious restrictions, and aesthetic to find clothes in the world of fashion.

As a product developer for Ralph Lauren, Bashir considers fashion a major part of her job and her life. She is one of many young women who are pushing the industry to be more inclusive, by building a community for Muslims interested in fashion and hoping to catch the attention of major brands. “One of my biggest motivations is helping women feel strong, beautiful, and confident in what they believe and in everyday wear without having to compromise their values,” said Bashir, who is Polish-Pakistani.

Bashir is hoping to soon develop a lifestyle brand of clothing and accessories aimed at women who want modest fashion, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs. She said she wants to urge Muslim women to be part of a bigger cause by finding creative expression through modest dress. “If they want to do something more, I want them to know that it’s possible,” Bashir said. “You can still have faith, and you can still have fashion.”

Combining faith with fashion has pit Muslim consumers against haute couture designers, although the industry in the past few years has made attempts at inclusion. Companies such as DKNY and Mango have released their Ramadan collections. Luxury e-tailers Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi also made the jump, with campaigns in 2015 to court the Muslim shopper with caftans and maxi dresses. And this spring, Dolce & Gabbana began offering its range of hijabs and abayas in Paris, London, and Middle Eastern countries.

Yet many women feel the industry is not doing enough. According to a Thomson Reuters report, Muslims globally spent $266 billion on apparel in 2013, with estimates for 2019 at $484 billion. Fashion brands may be extending their reach to modest fashion, but by catering to a market only one month out of the year and in limited locations, the industry is largely excluding a significant portion of Muslim consumers, said Daisy Khan, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality.

“I think the most important thing to understand is that this is a huge consumer industry, and the fashion designers who are not catering to this industry are missing an opportunity,” Khan said. “We’re all struggling with how to find contemporary modest clothing for ourselves that is fashionable, so we just rely on creating our own ensembles.”

Nzinga Knight's Twareg dress (Courtesy of Nzinga Knight)

Nzinga Knight’s Twareg dress (Courtesy of Nzinga Knight)

Some Muslim American designers have started releasing their own collections to show that modesty and fashion can coexist in the U.S. despite the marginalization of Islam. In 2008, noticing the lack of choices for Muslim women, Nzinga Knight, a Pratt Institute graduate  launched her capsule collection with a little over a dozen pieces that she said combine spirituality with aesthetic. One of her bestsellers is the Twareg dress, made of silk jersey with a shawl draped at the back that can be used as a hijab.

“People are growing their businesses in any way that they can,” Knight said. “It’s not just a moneymaking opportunity; it’s also a matter of understanding what modesty is about.”

As the first Muslim American hijabi contestant on Project Runway in 2014, Knight understands the challenges that women face in acquiring modest fashion, including access and affordability. She is working on a collection to be released online in the summer as well as the Ramadan holiday in June, selling pieces at a price range of about $200 per dress.

With rising costs, consumers often resort to fast fashion retailers or low-cost clothing stores, which has shown a promising start for inclusivity through such efforts as Uniqlo’s and H&M’s hijab-wearing models in advertisements. But some fashion leaders are critical that these hijabs are worn by white models instead of Muslims, said Stephanie Khalil AlGhani, editor of Covertime, an e-magazine for modest fashion. Muslim women “don’t want a non-Muslim wearing a hijab,” she said. “They want that person to actually be someone who wears a hijab. We’re tired of seeing puppets up there as models.”

AlGhani released Covertime’s first issue this spring, explaining that women pictured in established fashion magazines are not as diverse as today’s American culture. Muslim women, as well as Jewish and Christian women who want to dress modestly, are increasingly demanding more options. “If we work together with inclusiveness and sit at the same table, we can really change things instead of having to build an industry by ourselves, which is exhausting,” said AlGhani, an American and former model who converted to Islam at the age of 21.

Sana Rashid, blogger at ModHijabi (Courtesy of Sana Rashid)

Sana Rashid, blogger at ModHijabi (Courtesy of Sana Rashid)

The past few years have also seen Muslim bloggers promoting modest fashion among their followers, showing that their manners of dressing are not much different from the average American woman. One of them is Sana Rashid, who blogs under the name Mod Hijabi and wears everything from denim jeans and lace-up sneakers to long dresses and platform pumps. Her faith has not stifled her fashion; for instance, she simply adds a blazer over a short-sleeved shirt to dress according to her lifestyle, she said.

“There are so many things I do that is just like you, and by putting out a blog, that’s exposing how normal I am—for people that think Muslim women are not—to you,” Rashid said. “The only difference is I cover my hair, or I don’t wear figure-revealing clothes.”

The Muslim American mother of two started her blog in 2013 after hearing that modest yet fashionable women were seeking a community for inspiration. Since then, she has continued to advocate for breaking stereotypes that surround hijab-wearing women.

“There needs to be more Muslim women in the fashion industry and even on the runway,” Rashid said. “You’re not going to see a woman wearing a hijab going down the runway, and I don’t know why she couldn’t be. There’s no reason why she can’t.“

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