Fashion season is upon us. The first of the biannual fashion weeks to grace the streets of London this year, A/W 2017 has been fabulous, dahling. As usual, the big brands haven’t shied away from all things high-concept and artsy (see Molly Goddard’s tea party and Gareth Pugh’s gothic bunker for a taste of London Fashion Week extravagance). The Instagramers are out in droves and wacky outfits abound. With all these creative folks roaming around, this week London’s looked a bit like the Hunger Games.
Amidst this high-fashion hysteria, I prepared to go to a slightly different show. In case I’ve not shouted about it loud enough, I’m currently shooting a documentary project with my two gals Hayley and Lamisa. Through the lenses of fashion and media representation, we’re exploring what it means to be a Muslim woman in a Western society, dashing about the city in search of awesome ladies to interview. This quest for footage somehow, unbelievably, miraculously, landed us with media passes for London Modest Fashion Week. Safe to say we were bloody excited.
And so it came to be that us three humble chicas ended up in the media lounge of the Saatchi Gallery last Saturday. The first event of its kind in London, the Gallery was abuzz with modest fashion lovers and designers. Bloggers and journalists roamed the halls with cameras twice the size of ours, looking official and busy. By contrast we spent most of our time taking selfies and shopping. Yet we did also manage to acquire some excellent footage, speaking with some super cool people whose insightful comments and beautiful clothes provided me with opportunities for humbling reflection.
To state the obvious: I’m very white and have very purple hair. Further, I’m not used to dressing modestly. Call me a floaty creative type, but I tend to lean towards the “my body is a canvas” school of thought. As I’ve embarked on my body-positive journey, I’ve discovered my love of midriff-baring tops and high-waisted skirts. For me this is liberating. In my personal experience covering has always been a symbol of shame. Having disliked my body for a long time, to the point of harming myself in my attempts to change the way it looked, uncovering has become symbolic of a newfound comfort with my appearance – and with myself.
So when it came to dressing for London Modest Fashion Week, I was a bit stumped. Pretty much all my clothing reveals some body part or other and I struggled to find something that would be modest yet stylish. The simple act of choosing what to wear woke me up in a new way to the fashion culture I live in. Western fashion is, for the most part, geared towards the post-1960s “liberated woman”. A miniskirt or crop top is no controversial statement; a miniskirt or crop top is an expectation. To bare skin is to display your “emancipation”. A woman in a bikini is as unencumbered, and therefore as politically free, as a woman can be.
Yet this set of equations isn’t exactly “emancipatory”. In fact, the pressure to bare skin can be oppressive. I certainly used to feel this way. Crippled by body dysmorphia and horrified by the sight of my own body, many a summer was spent hiding beneath baggy clothes. I was trapped between my shame and the judgement of the girls and boys who teased me for covering up. Society said: go forth and bare your flesh, but only if that flesh looketh desirable. And since I didn’t feel my flesh was desirable, I violated part one of that commandment and buried myself in fabric.
What Modest Fashion Week reminded me of, however, is that covering doesn’t have to be an expression of A) self-consciousness, or B) oppression. You should’ve seen these girls – they were beautiful. Bright lips, patterned scarves, spangly jewellery…there was no shortage of self-confidence or free expression. Everyone we spoke to was savvy, intelligent, and passionate about fashion. They had strong views on the rights of women to cover as they choose, decrying false representations of Muslim women that lead society to associate the covered body with the smothered voice. No one cited self-doubt or social pressure as the reason for their modest dress. These were empowered, outspoken women proud to display their bodies in a manner of their free choosing – the very models, in fact, of body positive thinking.
Let’s reflect on the meaning of “body positivity” and “modest dress”. When you look at body positive blogs, there’s a lot of flesh-baring – and for valid reasons. Most body insecurities can be hidden with clothing, so abandoning coverage means embracing those parts of us we don’t like, exposing them so as to challenge the social pressure to make them invisible. I choose to show my body on social media because it empowers me; it’s a big “fuck you” to anyone who ever told me I should be ashamed. Yet the bloggers we met at Modest Fashion Week choose to cover their body on social media for the exact same reason. Modest dress for them was not about hiding away or attempting to conform to a Western standard of beauty. It was about being a thoughtful social actor. It was about self-expression, literally wearing their faith on their sleeves. And damn were they nice sleeves.
So London Modest Fashion Week: 9/10 (I say only a 9 because sadly the models were not exactly representative of the crowd!!). Would definitely go again. We need events like this to challenge stereotypes and show just how powerful modesty can be. Whilst fashion is often characterised as vapid and arbitrary, it also has a long-held association with activism and social change. Just look at Vivienne Westwood, or at these leading fashion activists, for example. Here’s hoping the trend towards understanding one another’s style continues. In a world so bright and loud and ceaseless, a little more modesty really couldn’t hurt.