Given the overwhelming rule of liberal fashion, modesty would seem a lost cause. Nonetheless, major fashion designers are returning to what was once considered a modern taboo: clothing that leaves more to the imagination, keeps hemlines down and little skin exposed.
When you hear the term “modest fashion,” you think of clothing linked to religious convictions. The term usually applies to women’s fashions since they were much more affected by the liberalization of the sixties. In America, it conjures up images of those courageous women who have long braved the wave of miniskirts, shorts, and tank tops to make a principled and Christian stand against the sexual revolution.
For many, however, modesty is a modern taboo. It is the object of ridicule and scorn. Those who insist upon modest fashion risk being branded hopelessly backward. Modesty inhibits freedom, they say. It is the product of centuries of “patriarchy.”
This prevailing attitude has long dominated the fashion world run by the liberal establishment—and its (curiously un-patriarchal) male fashion designers. Since the sixties, modest fashion has survived as a counter-cultural undercurrent or been ascribed to religious untouchables.
Given the overwhelming rule of liberal fashion, modesty would seem a lost cause. However, there are always surprises in the postmodern world where dominant narratives are often scrambled. Things you thought were long gone suddenly reappear. Modernity created taboos against Christian modesty, while postmodernity destroys all taboos in its mad festival of chaos.
Entering the Mainstream
Indeed, only in postmodern times can you read about non-religious modest fashion. A recent article reports that women are now drawn to that which covers. Major fashion designers are presenting some clothing that leaves more to the imagination, keeps hemlines down and little skin exposed.
This trend is not something on the fringe. The news item appeared in The New York Times that gave its stamp of validity to the new trend. The article even reported on a phenomenon called “Modest Fashion Week” that is held in major cities worldwide.
Fashion writer Yasmin Khatun Dewan reports that “There is no longer any doubt that what used to be called ‘modest’ dressing—clothes sensitive to religious requirements more than fashion—has become a part of a mainstream trend.”
The most important part of this development is that these modest clothes are worn outside of a religious context. People are no longer afraid to be seen in public in the “observant” garments they once ridiculed. Modest fashion has gained a reluctant acceptance.
Reflections About the Change
Of course, this does not mean that fashion designers are abandoning their immodest ways. Absurd and revealing creations still monopolize the runways. Nor is this trend reflected in what most people wear in daily life.
However, this slight return to modesty does give matter for reflection. The commentaries of “modest fashion” designers reveal something about the world of fashion and its tyranny.
Fashion has often reigned as a winsome tyrant dictating how one must appear in public. It can be cruel by sanctioning those who fall out of step. The tyrant does not often face resistance.
The appearance of modest fashion suggests that there is some backlash to establishment diktats that is both refreshing and telling. Some women are rebelling.
A Different Kind of Woman’s Liberation
Thus, one reoccurring theme of those involved in modest fashion is that of liberation. Women are commenting on the joy they feel because they have a bit more freedom to dress modestly.
Australian fashion photographer Nadia Krayem, for example, claims the mainstreaming of modest fashion has “made modest dressing easier” since it has been shorn of its religious context and stigma. Women feel freer to appear in these fashions.
Modest fashion blogger Marwa Biltagi characterizes modest dressing as “the adamant choice to show less skin, wear looser clothing and have the freedom to dress in a more conservative manner.” These fashions represent a desire to break out of the boundaries imposed by both the fashion world and religious contexts. Indeed, some even claim that designers have appropriated the modest fashions they once despised.
The Need for Security
A second theme found in the new modest fashion trend is the need for security. One of the primary functions of clothing is physical protection from the elements. However, clothing’s most important purpose is the more spiritual protection of a person’s dignity and privacy. In an increasingly polarized and uncertain world, many women claim a need for extra “armor” to protect them from the unforeseeable.
The cultural climate around the #MeToo movement has also created insecurity between the sexes. The tension is redefining relationships and social conventions. Thus, these fashions are reestablishing some boundaries that impose respect. Modest fashions are also appealing to those who look beyond the sexual gratification of a hook-up culture.
Reaffirming Supply and Demand
A third very relevant theme is demand. The fashion world concedes that increasing numbers of women want modest fashions.
For too long, the law of supply and demand has been suspended in the field of modest fashion. Ideology always trumps profitability in this area since there is a political and cultural agenda involved. Over the years, many women have complained bitterly about the lack of tasteful and elegant modest-wear.
Thus, minor designers have started to introduce their own tasteful lines outside of the establishment boxes. Some have Islamic motifs. Others, however, reflect Western tastes. Now, it appears a few major designers are following the trend if only not to be left behind.
Making Modesty Easier
Of course, not all that is presented as modest fashion is modest. The parameters are debatable. However, what is uncontested is that the modesty market is remarkably robust.
How long this trend will last in an industry that thrives on frenetically intemperate change and immodest extravagance is not known. For now, any trend to make modesty easier is good news.
The holding of Modest Fashion Week and other events serves to unmask the fashion industry. Its designers surprisingly know what modesty is—and what it is not. Comments by designers also show they too know that it can be liberating. It can provide security in a #MeToo world.
What the Church Teaches
However, what the designers still refuse to acknowledge is the role of modesty in keeping order in society. What the Church teaches about modesty is very important. The great disorder in society today is certainly reflected in fashions without restraint.
The Church teaches that modesty in dress applies to both men and women. It is part of the natural practice of temperance. Indeed, Saint Thomas states that “Although outward attire does not come from nature, it belongs to natural reason to moderate it; so that we are naturally inclined to be the recipients of the virtue that moderates outward raiment.”
The role of modesty in dress is to temper the human passions as expressed exteriorly. In doing so, it enriches relationships and helps put the interior of souls in order.
By subjecting appearance to that which is proper to the person, modesty guards against pride and extravagance in dress. It facilitates social interaction because the person aims to be pleasing to others by following the governing norms of decorum and decency.
Far from demeaning the person, modesty favors and exalts the individual who acts in justice and truth. Above all, modesty disposes a person to be as God desires him or her to be. Modesty helps to order and sanctify society according to His designs and Providence. Thus, all might glorify God by their actions and demeanor and prepare to love Him for all eternity.
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 Yasmin Khatun Dewan, “The Co-opting of Modest Fashion,” The New York Times, October 15, 2019.
 See the Amsterdam Modest Fashion Week.
 Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920), II-II, q. 169, a. 1.
The featured image is “Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball” (1833) by William Etty (1787-1849), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.