Young Breton woman wearing a traditional lace veil in Plougenast, Brittany, photographed by Charles Fréger for National Geographic
This week I walked past what appears to be a new Korean church in my neighbourhood. The doors were open, a man was preaching in a soft gold satin robe and the women - for the congregation appeared to be exclusively black women - were all wearing white lace veils over their hair.It reminded me of that great scene from the movie Angel Heart when private detective Harry Angel climbs the stairs of an African-American church in Harlem and the door swings open to show two young black girls, apparently demure novices in their sect, dressed in ivory dresses and lace-trimmed wimples.
In 2014, National Geographic - my favourite journal; I boast a collection going back to 1915 - ran a photo-feature by Charles Fréger on the traditional lace head-dresses and silk bonnets of Breton women. Unlike South Africa where the wearing of the Voortrekker bonnet is pretty much reserved for your wizened octogenarian maiden aunt whose mother survived the British concentration camps, what struck me about Fréger's work was how young so many of his models were.
Now, there is a complex relationship - in which I confess I am not expert - between young people and traditionalist dress, particularly in regions with separatist aspirations such as Brittany, or Basque Country, or Kurdistan for that matter. In Brittany, I am aware of the anarchist organisation called Unsubdued! (Desuj!) which was founded 16 years ago, but which presumably has a primarily young membership, but I have no idea what their political-sartorial perspectives are; most likely, their idea of covering the face is with a black balaclava!
And yet, whether it is in allegorical form - as with the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, in which de facto brood-mares for the ruling neo-Calvinist elite all wear body-length scarlet dresses and white bonnets - or in real life, on the street, what is termed "modest fashion" is making somewhat of a comeback.
In June, Vogue featured 19-year-old Somali model Halima Aden as its first-ever hijab-wearing cover model, driving her Instagram account up to 182,000 followers, while the mainstreaming of modest fashion stores like Ajmaan in Rosebank indicate that a sea-change is occurring in high-street style.
In February, London hosted its first Modest Fashion Week at the Saatchi Gallery, featuring more than 40 labels. In March, Nike announced its sleek Pro Hijab athletics-wear for Muslim sportswomen will be available next autumn. Even Forbes took notice, writing that luxury brands such as “DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta… have produced special collections for the Ramadan holiday… In January, Dolce & Gabbana released a collection of hijabs and abayas.”
This shift is not driven by fashionista fancy, however, but largely by the dramatic emergence of wealthy Muslim youth: as Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian last year, “Muslim minorities in Britain, Europe and North America are young, affluent and growing… the Muslim pound, like the pink pound before it, will force soft cultural change by means of hard economics.”
Thomson Reuters’ State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/2017 noted that Muslim spending on clothing and footwear soared to US$243bn – benchmarked against a US spend of US$406bn – with US$56bn spent on cosmetics; and expenditure is projected to hit US$368bn and US$132bn respectively by 2021. At the core of Muslim spend is the US$44bn spent in 2015 by women aged 15 and above on fashion excluding footwear.
“Modest Fashion is gaining mainstream interest,” the report said, “with several retailers and brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Uniqlo and Burberry entering the industry and several notable investments driving the sector forward...” The industry, it noted, is centred on the United Arab Emirates, but key producers include Turkey, China, India, Italy, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, France, Singapore, and Togo.
The rise of Muslim – and more broadly conservative – fashion has been apparent to rag-trade observers for some time, not only in its core markets such Turkey, the largest consumer of Muslim fashion in the world at US$25,7bn in 2015, and Nigeria which purchased US$16,1bn the same year, but also perhaps counter-intuitively, in countries such as the USA, though Thompson Reuters notes that the Western market is underserviced, and is threatened by hijab bans such as that in France.
Modest fashion appeals to conservative Christians and other traditionalists too, but it was sassy, tech-savvy young bloggers of “Generation M” – the almost one third of the world’s Muslim 1.8bn population aged 15 to 29 – who over the past few years have ensured that modest fashion lighted up on the radar of global haute couture.
So says Shelina Janmohamed, London-born author of the book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, who singled out Muslim bloggers like the British-Japanese Hana Tajima and the Kuwaiti-American who goes by the handle Ascia AKF who “built loyal followings among young Muslim women. As such bloggers grew in popularity they started their own labels, and the modest fashion industry was born.”
Thomson Reuters’ report backs this up, noting that Muslim Millennials’ primary social media engagement with the global Islamic economy were in finance, media and entertainment – and modest fashion, the latter with 101,000 Facebook interactions per year.
Much of the trade itself occurs online, as via the UK’s 250-designer modest fashion portal Haute-Elan, while in South Africa, My Online Souk, founded four years ago by Sabeena Khonat, now 40, digitally showcases funky modest styles in everything from swimwear to corporate dress, 85% of its brands sourced locally.
Her sister and partner Jehan Ara Khonat, 26, told me that the core of their client base was women aged 25-35 – and that it was growing beyond the Muslim community, “appealing to every type of modest dresser.”
“I follow quite a few global modest fashion figures, mainly on Instagram and YouTube, but there’s some great local talent too such as Nabilah Kariem and Aqeelah Harron of Fashion Breed. They inspire me, just as they inspire others of creative ways to look great without compromising your values.”
And modest fashion’s potential market is only growing: the latest Pew Research Center figures suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa alone will account for almost a quarter – 24,3% – of the world’s projected 2,76bn Muslim population by 2050.
And yet, not all modest fashion is restricted to the Muslim world: my Catholic wife of many years back loved the idea of the Spanish mantilla, a lace veil held high over the head with an elaborate comb often carved out of mother-of-pearl, though she was happiest in a bikini top and camo shorts; and of course one recalls denominations like the Amish with their emphasis on "plain" clothing - though Vogue hopped on that horse-cart too, running an Amish-inspired Stephen Meisel fashion series in 2009.
I had quite a debate with a friend while writing this piece as she views the term "modest fashion" as pure code for restrictive burkas and niqabs imposed on women by Salafist fascists. But that reminds me more of the reactionary British tabloids freaking out over celebrity chef Nigella Lawson wearing a "burkini" to the beach in 2011; her choice as a woman became totally irrelevant in that shit-storm.
As an atheist man from a society where "liberated" women are highly sexualised, I am at somewhat of a disadvantage in this discussion, especially as I have Muslim women friends who are definitely, totally anti-Salafist and very progressively minded but yet who wear the hijab, either because it is simply the cultural norm in countries like Morocco where they live, or because it actually does express the convergence of their faith with fashion. Surely we can be happy with what makes them comfortable in their own self-expression?