Sometimes, Basra Ajeh will forget that modest fashion is hard to shop for in Australia. She’ll be sifting through racks of clothes looking for a simple dress, only to put them back on their hangers after spotting that they’re backless or short or form-fitting or sheer. That realisation that a garment was close to being perfect is a feeling that Ajeh is all too familiar with.
In fact, for many of the content creator’s peers, it takes shopping at multiple stores to put together one outfit. “I don’t think [modest fashion is] accessible like most fashion… I just try to make it work for me by shopping at different places and layering,” Ajeh tells Refinery29 Australia.
21-year-old Melbourne-based student designer Ikram Shabah echoes this pain point. “In order for me to dress modestly and also show my own aesthetic, I have to shop at two or three different stores to make a complete outfit,” she tells Refinery29 Australia, recognising that a “non-modest person [only needs to] go into one store”.
Modest fashion is, for the most part, a fringe talking point in Australia’s fashion industry. As stereotypes will have you believe, we’re a nation of barefoot, sun-kissed and scantily clad beachgoers. With that in mind, modest fashion is positioned as a subset of fashion that’s there to serve a ‘minority’ — a minority of women who cover up for religious, cultural or personal reasons.
"It’s not to say that there isn’t a woman that might be being forced to cover, but there’s also a woman who is choosing to cover."
As entrepreneur Ghizlan Guenez previously told R29, “It’s not to say that there isn’t a woman that might be being forced to cover, but there’s also a woman who is choosing to cover. The issue is that you then start stereotyping a whole religion and a whole population of women [based on extreme circumstance].”
Australian-born fashion designer Yasmin Jay has experienced this complicated push and pulls of cultural identity, a tale old as time for children of immigrants. Her dad was born in Lebanon and her Lebanese mum was born here. Existing in this liminal space between two cultures pushed her to fill a gap, further motivated by the fact that she “never was able to identify with someone who was in the media or who had a label that [she] could see [herself] in”.
And so, she decided to create her eponymous label, a love letter to the pride and strength of her culture. “I tell the story of Lebanon through my clothing. A lot of my collections have a background story of how, no matter how many times Lebanon is knocked down, people always rise… no matter how many times before, no matter how many times we get lost, we'll always find each other again.”
It’s an inspiring image that reflects the perseverance of the Muslim community today. Studying fashion in Melbourne, Jay recalls having to back her own belief in modest fashion in front of a panel of educators and directors who didn’t see the market or vision behind it (it’s been reported that the modest fashion industry is valued at $277 USD billion and is estimated to reach $311 USD billion by 2024).
“Post-converting, I really fell in love with streetwear."
According to four Muslim women in the fashion industry I spoke to for this piece, the definition of modest fashion varies from person to person and can be deeply personal.
“Modest fashion has honestly become a huge part of my identity. It’s something I hold so close to my heart. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that being modest isn’t all about fashion, but more a mindset [and about] the way you hold yourself and treat others,” Sydney-based content creator Kishama Meridian tells Refinery29 Australia.
The 23-year-old revert grew up on the Northern Beaches and shares that she “lived in shorts, bikinis, mini dresses [that were] nothing out of the ordinary for [her] environment.” As an influencer, her penchant for summer clothes was part of her brand image online. A couple of years ago, she reverted to Islam. It was then she traded her summer uniform for modest clothes.
“Post-converting, I really fell in love with streetwear. To me, streetwear was the easiest aesthetic to turn modest. I lived in oversized tracksuits and Jordans. Now I’ve definitely ventured out [and wear] different styles”.
While fashion is cyclical, streetwear remains a fixture. You only need to look at the style of global celebrities like Billie Eilish, A$AP Rocky and Justin Bieber, or the growth of loungewear brands like Mr Winston to notice.
“Growing up, I didn’t see modest streetwear stores around me. It was an issue for me as someone who was into streetwear and loved wearing long jackets, oversized tees and wide-legged pants."
Ajeh agrees that streetwear’s loose and baggy fit means that it usually falls under modest fashion, but pushes back when I suggest that this trend could point to an uptake of mainstream modesty.
“That kind of style can be seasonal; for someone like me who dresses modestly all year round, [streetwear is] not accessible, especially in the summertime in Australia when people don't tend to layer. But especially in the wintertime, I'd say styles tend to get more modest.”
It’s something that designer Shabah wanted to focus on with her own label, Byshabah. “Growing up, I didn’t see modest streetwear stores around me. It was an issue for me as someone who was into streetwear and loved wearing long jackets, oversized tees and wide-legged pants,” she says.
“I never saw my own aesthetic in the modest stores my mum and I would shop at. Back then, [all they] had was maxi floral print dresses, formal tops with balloon sleeves, and pants would be made from pinkie linen fabrics which I wasn’t into and couldn’t see myself wearing.”
Her avant-garde and experimental pieces feel at home on a runway and are a far cry from the traditional pieces of her youth. But is that enough to make modest fashion part of mainstream fashion?
“Modest fashion has just started getting recognised worldwide and I believe that in the next few years, the modest industry will be well-known in streetwear, bridal wear, casual wear and evening wear,” Shabah says.
“I definitely think Australian clothing brands have a long way to go. I’ve seen little effort in the industry to be inclusive of modest women and hijabis,” Meridian says. "Very rarely do I see a hijabi as part of a campaign, but even when they do include them, often we are misrepresented.”
“I don't know if we [will] fully be included. I feel like there’s a space for [modest fashion], but I don't know if it'll ever be that huge,” Ajeh says.
“My goal is that it's not labelled as modest fashion. My goal is to assimilate into being just part of fashion,” Jay says. “Why is modest fashion labelled as its own section? Why can't it be a part of mainstream fashion just like every other genre of fashion? Actually, just give designers who label themselves as modest fashion designers a chance… I promise you, you won't be disappointed.”