Fashion is in its essence a reflection of social, economic, political and cultural changes. It exists to symbolise the zeitgeist at any particular time, and works to capture the essence of any given era. When creating collections, designers look to the world around them and are inspired by the cultures they are immersed in.
A new way of dressing that has before now predominantly been favoured for religious or lifestyle reasons has become a trend and ‘modestwear’ has become the latest buzzword in fashion. Modest dressing is now in vogue, as conservative, covered-up fashions were spotted on the SS18 runways of brands including Valentino, The Row, Céline and Victoria Beckham.
At Céline the trend came in the form of a white roll-neck long sleeved maxi dress, paired with loafer/trainer hybrid and ladylike drop pearl earrings. At Valentino, high necks and long sleeves were the order of the day, in distinct colour palettes of striking violet and crimson red. Victoria Beckham paired her oversized menswear-inspired suits with a Victorian-style ruffle high neck blouse, covering her models up from top to toe.
A direct antithesis to the overt sexiness of seasons past, this non-provocative style sees the use of longer hemlines, higher necklines and voluminous shapes that cloak the body. Could this perhaps be a backlash led by women who oppose the overtly sexualised look that was often prescribed for male appreciation rather than female?
This trend has not only been seen on the catwalks, but also in popular culture and has been trickling down to the streets too. The Handmaid’s Tale, one of 2017’s most popular television series, saw the use of cloaks and bonnets as a visual marker of oppression. A number of SS18 designer collections referenced the costumes in The Handmaid’s Tale, from The Row’s fluid satin red dress to Vera Wang’s covered-up ensembles complete with peaked bonnet, reminiscent of those Ofred and co wear in the show.
In The Handmaid’s Tale modest dressing is used as a form of patriarchal oppression, designed to conceal the female body as a form of power and control. This stems from the religious or cultural enforcement of covering the female body when in the public sphere that remains present in certain cultures to this day.
Now, with the current trend sweeping across the catwalks, it could be argued that the act of modest dressing is becoming a form of female liberation. Women have subverted the oppressive nature of these clothes and reclaimed them, and with that added a new sense of meaning. Such women (designers, editors, consumers…) are collectively rejecting the male gaze, and the clothes that they wear are putting the power in the hands (and voluminous long sleeves) of the wearer, rather than the observer.
In contemporary fashion, trends blossom on Instagram as much as they do on catwalks, and at the time of writing #ModestFashion has over 800,000 posts on Instagram. Ganni’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ style dresses from last season’s collection have been popping up repeatedly on influencers and editors feeds. The trend is dominating, and it is ever growing. In March 2017 The Modist, launched by Ghizlan Guenez, became the first e-commerce platform solely dedicated to modest clothing. Net-a-porter have introduced a ‘modest’ tab which when you click into it, returns results of covered-up clothing including floor length day dresses, high-collared tops and voluminous trousers. Halima Aden became the first model to wear a hijab on the international catwalks when she walked in Max Mara’s AW18 show, and Nike brought out a hijab for sportswear.
For so long, emphasis in clothing choices for women has been placed on ‘sexy’ or provocative clothing. Who is that appealing to? And more importantly, who is it damaging? For girls to grow up in a world where equal weight is placed on every type of dressing, from provocative to demure, it produces a more supportive all-encompassing environment that encourages them to dress only for themselves.
Is it really so surprising that at a time when women, perhaps more than ever, are speaking out about misogynistic abuse and sexual harassment are now also dressing for themselves rather than for men? Clothes are a form of armour and perhaps in this politically and socially turbulent time, covering up is our own subliminal act of sheltering ourselves from the outside forces that continue to close in around us.