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Modest Fashion and the Power of Choice

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

By Myra Khan

In the 1960s, a social movement known as the sexual revolution took the nation by storm. Fighting for issues like contraception, gay marriage, and the ability of women to make their own decisions about their sexuality. The movement was transformative and the fashion world saw these social changes impact clothing dramatically. Hemlines went up and necklines went down; fabrics became sheerer, cuts tighter, as women began to escape from the previously ultra-conservative status quo of the 1950s. American women were no longer trapped in the gilded cage of domestic goddesshood.

Since the sexual revolution, a different social norm has emerged. In 2021, American women find themselves in a similar situation as at the beginning of the sexual revolution. In the age of Kim Kardashian’ Paper Magazine cover, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” music video, and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s Grammy Awards “WAP” performance, the hypersexualization of women has become the new norm, both in and out of the fashion world.

While women’s freedom to express their own sexuality is a definite sign of progress and something to celebrate, the current moment has all but forgotten the primary objective of the sexual revolution: choice.

In response to the increasing pressures on women to be hypersexual in public to be considered attractive, many women have begun exploring modest fashion to take back that need for autonomy.

The definition of modest fashion varies from woman to woman, depending largely on her motivations behind her manner of dress. Generally, modest fashion is thought of as clothing that emphasizes the physical body less and the clothing or individual’s personality more.

Modest garments are usually defined by higher necklines, lower hems, midsection coverage, opaqueness, and loose-fitting.

While modest fashion is most often associated with Muslim women, many traditional Jewish and Christian women also follow modesty codes in accordance with their faiths. Additionally, many secular women choose to dress modestly out of utility, as modest clothes are often more practical or comfortable.

I spoke with Risa Brumer, a Jewish woman with Jewish Arizonans on Campus, who helps facilitate a community course on dressing modestly. The course, part of a program called Rebel With a Cause, teaches female Jewish students about the Torah’s teachings regarding dress codes as well as how modesty can empower young women.

According to Brumer, “modesty at its core is about not letting people get so distracted by externals that they don’t see the internals.” She advocates for women dressing within their own comfort level so that they can be dignified and stylish but still seen by others as more than their physical features.

Like many women choosing modest fashion out of faith or feminism, Brumer dislikes the misconception that modest women are somehow repressed or unable to keep up with the times. Being able to choose whether or not to cover up is empowering for her, as she is able to make the conscious decision to follow her faith’s guidelines in how she presents her external face to the world.

Brumer also sees her choice to dress modestly as empowering through a feminist lens, pointing out the “skin gap” between men’s and women’s clothing.

“Walk into any trendy store and you’ll see what I’m talking about. For men, they sell shorts and T-shirts. For women, they sell short shorts and T-shirts that are cropped or cut out or missing a shoulder.” The skin gap is also a phenomenon that makes shopping for modest clothing difficult, as the norm of less conservative clothing reigns supreme in markets.

Because of the overwhelming association with Muslim women, clothing that is labeled as “modest” frequently resembles traditional Middle Eastern dress, kaftans galore.

Photo by @shirinatra

However, modest fashion exists far beyond any single culture or tradition. None of the Abrahamic religions specifically indicate that clothing of a particular cultural style must be worn, simply that the modesty guidelines be followed. As such, many modest influencers and bloggers have emerged, sharing their own innovative chic but still conservative looks.

These influencers often take inspiration from current global fashion trends and vintage fashion. Both transforming styles with their own unique flair.

These popular modest outfits often include repurposing garments found at standard clothing stores by layering and altering clothes. For example, an oversized coat can help create a shapeless silhouette when a pair of pants is more fitted or a t-shirt or turtleneck can be worn under a low-cut dress to make up for the lack of coverage.

Tights and leggings are must-have accessories for dresses and skirts. Brumer herself often shops at stores like H&M or Anthropologie, searching specifically for garments she can work into a modest outfit. She also cites Junees, a Jewish specialty boutique, as offering a wider variety of options.

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While women are usually able to innovate with daily wear, it’s often more difficult to find modest options when it comes to athletic wear and swimwear, as the skin gap becomes even more apparent here. Some brands like Nike have picked up on this need and have begun catering to the market. The price range of these alternatives is often far greater than the standard items.

Modesty in swimwear has become a topic of political contention, especially in light of many French cities banning women from wearing “burkinis” or full-body swimsuits at beaches. Going as far as having police officers require women to undress publicly if they violate these bans.

While anti-burkini and corresponding anti-veiling laws in France are motivated by Islamophobia, they reinforce the idea that women must dress revealingly to be considered progressive or empowered. By banning modest swimsuits and veils, the French government is taking the freedom of choice away from women in the very same way that governments like that of Iran do by forcing women to dress modestly.

In a society that increasingly objectifies women and young girls, challenging the beauty standards pre-prescribed by the patriarchal male gaze is no simple task. Women are both slut-shamed and prude-shamed, criticized both for being feminine and for not, and expected to fit into impossible standards.

There is no single “right” way to be a woman in 2021, though we are all too often told the opposite by anyone from Instagram influencers to our grandparents to the pages of Vogue.

Each of us should have the freedom to choose what kind of woman we want to be and how we want to experience the world. In an ideal world, it is that freedom to be different that brings us all together.

Photo by Teen Vogue

Brumer left me with the advice that every woman should dress simply to the extent of her comfort. She believes that women can choose to dress more modestly on certain occasions while choosing the alternative other times. Again, the choice is according to their own belief and comfort each day.

Instead of feeling compelled by family, popular media, or ever-changing social norms to dress in a certain way, each woman should feel empowered to make that decision for herself.

After all, at its core, fashion is about self-expression. What better way to express yourself than through your own choices?


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