At the end of 2020, groundbreaking model Halima Aden announced that she was stepping down from the catwalk. In a series of Instagram stories, the 23-year-old wrote about how her job made her feel detached from her identity and religion. "I’m taking a stand for myself, but I’m also taking a stand for all the people who lost their soul to fashion." The industry did not respect her hijab, and her success story – and ultimate retirement – is reflective of the complex role modesty plays in the wider fashion industry.
Hijabi fashion, also known as modest fashion, can be interpreted in many different ways but, simply put, it is clothing which conceals rather than accentuates the body. It includes hijabs and burkas but also loose-fitting tops or jackets and dresses with high necks and ankle-skimming hems. While modesty in fashion can be seen as an aesthetic choice, wearing a hijab is a religious or cultural decision. For too long, fashion and faith have been seen as incompatible; now, a new generation are using social media to promote their beliefs and find creative ways to incorporate their faith into their personal style.
Salma Djlal (@salma.sah), whose videos about modest fashion and Islam have garnered over 2 million views on TikTok, explains that her faith and her personal style have always been linked. "Growing up, I would look at magazines and see clothes that I wanted to wear but weren't catered for me. I got into streetwear and was still able to practise modesty, which was and still is my top priority. Recently, modest fashion has blown up and hijabis took a big part in paving the way for that," she says.
Similarly, hijabi Instagrammer Nashita Sultan (@nashitasultanana) tells Refinery29: "My fashion style and inspiration are solely based around the rules of my religion, coinciding with the way I choose to style myself modestly, without having to erase my fashion identity as well." For a long time, hijabis interested in fashion had to balance their faith with their self-expression. These Gen Zers are proving they can choose both.
Journalist and author Hafsa Lodi calls this new wave "the influx of 'Generation M'" in her book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox. She writes: "Modest fashion bloggers on social media, the emergence of an all-new hijabi model on mainstream runways, and the proliferation of faith-based fashion brands all occurred simultaneously over the past decade and catapulted modest fashion into the mainstream." We are seeing a new wave of hijabi fashion, promoted in part by social media, and as long as its influence grows, the fashion world will seek more ways to be inclusive.
Much has changed since the early days of blogging, before the catwalks and the magazine covers, when hijabis were simply trying to carve out their place in the fashion world. According to Lodi, part of this progress is down to commercialisation. "There’s a strong movement that’s campaigning for modest fashion to be 'de-labelled' and instead, be more seamlessly integrated into brands’ mainstream collections, though I personally think we’re still at least a few years away from that," she notes in her book. Before we can get into de-labelling, the industry needs to be comfortable with showing modest fashion as it is.
Fashion has always been a helpful marker of our cultural values. What we see in the pages of magazines and on the catwalks at fashion month tell us what society deems acceptable so when the industry moves towards inclusivity, progress – no matter how slow – is surely being made. This new generation of young, fashion-obsessed hijabis have witnessed firsthand the long journey their community has been on. The market has always been there – Muslim consumer spending on apparel surpassed $243 billion in 2015 and is expected to increase to over $368 billion by 2021 – yet only recently have brands become willing to tap into its potential.
In 2015, H&M featured its first hijab-wearing model, Mariah Idrissi, in a campaign. Three years later, in 2018, Somali-American model Halima Aden became the first hijabi woman to grace the cover of British Vogue. Net-A-Porter has curated a selection of modest apparel known as "the Ramadan edit" since 2015, and brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Marks & Spencer now cater to modest dressers through specialised collections. Hijabis who have felt invisible for too long are finally seeing themselves represented in new and exciting ways. "For so long, we only saw one type of fashion or one type of model," Salma says. "So when we see hijabis use fashion to creatively express themselves while not playing into what is normalised in the fashion industry, it's inspiring."
However, this representation rarely comes easily. Marks and Spencer’s inclusion of headscarves in its schoolwear line was heavily criticised by parents and campaigners who said it is a form of oppression. Nike faced similar backlash when it dropped its Pro Hijab sportswear but has continued to feature diverse athletes in its campaigns. While some customers have threatened to boycott brands as they become more inclusive, ongoing marketing suggests that the financial benefits of tapping into the growing Muslim market outweigh the backlash. Yet even as we see more brands performing diversity, not every brand is willing to make the moves towards true inclusivity. Diversity, it is clear, is a good business model and the hijab is the latest prop being utilised to signify representation.
The hijab has significant religious resonance and merely replicating it in the service of a new trend is unlikely to go down well with the Muslim demographic – yet that didn’t stop Banana Republic using pictures of models in short sleeves to advertise its hijabs on its website. In the last few years, hijabs and headscarves have graced multiple catwalks, featured by the likes of Gucci, Versace and Yeezy, while in September 2017, every model on the Marc Jacobs catwalk wore a silk headscarf. Despite all these examples of 'inclusivity', not one designer employed a Muslim woman to walk the show, referred to the garment as a hijab or indeed referenced Muslim women at all. Instead, they used terms like 'sculptural headpiece' and 'hooded headscarf', divorcing the item from any Islamic roots and showing indifference to the surrounding politics. If this is the de-labelling Lodi speaks of, how can brands truly represent Muslim consumers while appealing to wider audiences looking to embrace modesty?
With such complexities pervading the modest fashion industry, it’s understandable that Aden would step away from the catwalk. "Muslim women know how hard it is to just exist, let alone having to work hard for one’s dreams while staying true to oneself," Nashita says. "For Halima to really 'make it' was a win for Muslims and when she decided to leave, it was also a proud moment for Muslims, because she single-handedly stood up to the fashion industry."
The future of modest fashion remains uncertain but hopeful. There have been some momentous milestones, like London’s first ever Modest Fashion Week in 2017. "Modest fashion will continue to be more and more accessible," says Nashita, as democratic social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok allow those outside the industry to set their own agenda and represent themselves. "Modest fashion is finally having its moment in the limelight," Lodi says. "Historically underrepresented demographics are now being catered to, and these voices deserve to be heard and celebrated." For years, young women proudly wearing their headscarves and embracing modest style have been claiming their rightful place in fashion – whether the industry decides to keep up and recognise them is another story.