Is the rise of modern modest fashion a sign of conservatism or liberalism... or both?

Is the rise of modern modest fashion a sign of conservatism or liberalism... or both?


Text: Jolene Khor

Image: Facebook

Can there be true freedom if women cover themselves up? In similar vein, can we call ourselves feminists for shunning the layers? We raise — and attempt to answer — one of fashion's toughest social dilemmas

Have you ever been afraid? Have you ever been afraid as a woman? I have. And my first response to fear isn't always fight or flight. My instinct is to fold my arms. Draw the shutters. Retreat. Take cover. Seek shelter. Find comfort.

Not to hide, but to go to a place of safety where I can find the strength to be the best person I need to be to rise above. Because courage, like our voice and the choice to use it, whether through clothes or through words, lies within.

Conversations about women's clothes often start with trends — what's showing on the runway, what the cool kids are wearing, how best to get their style. Rarely are they derived from emotions, politics and deep-rooted social stigmas. Conversations about modest fashion are that exception.

Skin is in... or is it?

Modest fashion. The oxford dictionary defines it as: Dressing or behaving so as to avoid impropriety or indecency, especially to avoid attracting sexual attention; not revealing or emphasizing a person's figure. Who What Wear's take on it is less absolute. In their article dated October 16, 2017 titled 'What Does Modest Fashion Really Look Like?', Editorial Director Hannah Almassi wrote after speaking to the women in her life that "there is no one definition of what modest fashion means, but it relates to having a degree of awareness when it comes to covering up parts of your body."

"Covering parts of our body" sounds basic enough; it is essentially what clothes do. But more so now than before, we are seeing that fundamental concept of the function of fashion divided.

On one hand, women are ready to show more skin than ever. First came the crop tops, then came the bra tops and sheer tops, before the all-ages embrace of athleisure — skin-tight tights with well, all of the above. Examples exist in droves; just do a quick scan of your Instagram feed or pull up a chair in any cafe in Singapore on the weekends. But look a little closer and you'll find the opposite to be equally true. Women are just as inclined to add more layers of clothing to their outfits, inherently showing less skin. Prominent figures who were once known for their unwavering bare-more 'tude have notably covered up on occasion in the last couple of years, namely Blake Lively, Rihanna and Beyoncé. Others, like Kim Kardashian and the Hadid girls, continue to straddle the lines of both.

While recently popularised in mainstream media, modest fashion is not a new notion. Depending on whom you ask, it can be said that modest fashion is as old as religion itself; precisely because it was originally tied to practices derived from religion. Many Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and even Christian women then and today embrace this tradition, albeit in different ways. While the modern modest fashion engine isn't powered by time-tested literature, it's driven by political, economical and social agenda of its own kind: Feminism.

"Modest is liking to look stylish or being more conservative; it doesn't necessarily link back to religion," said Tjin Lee, founder of Singapore Fashion Week and founder and managing director of Mercury Marketing & Communications. "There's a rising interest for more conservative wear that ties in very much with women's empowerment."

From trend to movement, and vice versa

It's often quoted within the industry that fashion is a mirror of current times. What then does modest fashion say about where we are collectively as a community, and what kind of women do we want to be in 2018? It's not hard to imagine that the women marching down streets with picket signs rallying for equality; the women standing up on international stages, conference podiums and social media platforms calling out their abusers; the women who wore black to this year's Golden Globes in "silent support" of the #metoo movement, are opting for higher necklines, longer sleeves and wider hems. Female empowerment inspire the modern modest fashion trend and in turn, the modern modest fashion trend became the unofficial uniform of women seeking to be taking seriously.

Hillary Clinton at the third presidential debate on October 2016. She wore a similar white suit to deliver her nomination acceptance speech months earlier.

With big platforms come great power. And we all know that with great power comes great responsibility. Thus, naturally, great responsibility precludes the practical need to roll up our sleeves as we put in the elbow grease in our quests. "It's a choice modern women are making," Lee deduced. "As we become more confident and more powerful, we dress for our own comfort, to please ourselves, not others." She went on to explain how covering up allows women more security as it rejects the male gaze, making women feel less objectified. "Fashion influences your mood and your personality. I don't want to feel sexy at work. So if I'm going to a meeting, why would I want to wear a low-cut blouse?"

This is not to say that the accruement of power is directly proportional to the thread count one subjects to one's body. Context matters. Lee said, "I feel powerful in a club when I'm in a sexy little dress, but I'm not going to impress a boardroom full of CEOs in it. It's about what you're communicating — what your objective is." Renowned photographer Chuck Reyes echoed Lee's sentiment. "Certain garments can evoke a certain time period, a certain feeling or a certain attitude. It's not one-dimensional," he said. "Women are making a stand. They want to seen as smart, not as someone who is one-dimensional'."

Look what we have here

The modern modesty persuasion can come from many sources; redirecting the male gaze is just the tip of the iceberg. Rayne Reed, ex-Head of Zalora Private Label argued that we dress to inspire a reaction from our audience. Should that be true, what is the reaction women wish to gain by keeping the body relatively out of sight?

"'Covering parts of our body' sounds basic enough; it is essentially what clothes do. But more so now than before, we are seeing that fundamental concept of the function of fashion divided."

"It's possible it's not limited to hiding the body from view," she began. "Think about it. Women are often judged by the shape of their bodies; the perfect counter-attack of which is fashion. Modest fashion encourages people to redirect their attention to a beautiful dress or the confidence a woman projects in her jacket. I'd say we're hardly hiding that way."

Playing the devil's advocate, Reyes questioned the conjecture of modern modesty. "If you're wearing head-to-toe Gucci — velvet tracksuit with Swarovski shades and a turban. Is that modest though?" To further illustrate his point, Reyes used Balenciaga's over-the-knee spandex boots as example. "When I see that, I see S&M. I see fetish wear. It's not skin, though it is sexy. You're covered up but I won't say that's modest. It's like you're saying, 'Look at me, but don't look at me because of my body; look at me because of what I'm wearing. This is me.'"

Balenciaga's over-the-knee spandex boots spotted at Paris Fashion Week.

Although Reyes' theory poke holes at the perception of modesty, amidst his and Reed's discussion on the employment of clothing in the deviation of the male gaze rose a vital preterm denouement. It is not the attention women inherently abhor: We don't hate being looked at. We hate being leered at. Here, intention is everything.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Discounting the white noise generated by politically incorrect chauvinists, the support towards public figures the likes of Hillary Clinton, Chimamanda Adichie and Ava DuVernay — in terms of their contribution towards and representation of the female gender — is almost unanimous.

In a way, extending respect to those women and what they aspire to, is customary to many a good-natured liberal. They're breaking the glass ceiling in a pantsuit or pantsuit equivalent; we want to break the glass ceiling in a pantsuit or pantsuit equivalent. They're shedding light to social injustices in a pantsuit or pantsuit equivalent; we want to do the same.

"Women are often judged by the shape of their bodies; the perfect counter-attack of which is fashion."

But the practice of supporting women across the modesty spectrum isn't so unconditional. Think Emma Watson, an outspoken feminist who was castigated for her revealing photoshoot for Vanity Fair. Remember Jennifer Lawrence, who was chastised for taking nude selfies meant for personal consumption (the pictures leaked in a 4chan hack targeted at high profile women). They join the ranks of generally speaking, fairly modest-dressing women, who have found themselves to be the questionable targets of slut-shaming nonetheless. Their fiercest critics — for the sake of transparency, with whom I disagree with — label them "fake feminists".

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2018 Women's March with Cameron Diaz and Adele.

But what of Kim Kardashian West? What of the Jenner girls? Or the entire Kardashian clan, come to that. And Amber Rose. And Amy Schumer. And Emily Ratajkowski. And Ariana Grande. Reyes opened Pandora's box. "When Kim Kardashian shows her ass, is that feminist or oppressive? If showing her ass is going to give her a million hits, a million dollars, is she a genius or is she a whore?" Women who thrive financially on the controversy of bias manipulation often conjure polarising reactions from the public; even inciting a heated debate within the Buro 24/7 Singapore team.

But this fashion editor's prerogative is this: The saint or sinner categorisation is misleading at best, damaging at worst. Women, like men, are dynamic creatures whose sartorial modesty (or lack thereof) is but a fractional representation of our character; the judgement of which impairs the following truth: You are not what you wear. It is who you are underneath and what you do with it that defines you.

Where modesty and sexiness meet

Facing the truth about who we are underneath the clothes can be more complicated than it seems. Because modesty — and sexiness — is a concept gaining in fluidity by the day, their associative labels no longer stand the same firm ground as they did before. Consider the futility in the following juxtapositions: One woman's partiality to mini skirts make her less of a conservative. My disdain for push-up bras make me less of a liberal. It doesn't stick.

Perhaps the answer lies beyond the neat borders of the boxes we check in official paperwork. Perhaps conservatism and modesty, liberalism and sexiness, are not mutually exclusive concepts anymore. They do not exist as opposites, and as such any one individual can be on either or both sides of the quadrant at any given moment in their lives.

"We don't hate being looked at. We hate being leered at. Intention is everything."

The idea that a woman can be all wrapped up and still be sexy shouldn't be novel. The fact that modesty and sexiness — highly contextual nouns existing on the same plane which sways with the current of popular culture — is more inclusive, shouldn't be shocking. Reyes concurred. "Speaking as a straight male, I'm never going to be tired of seeing the curves of a woman," he admitted. "But the fact that I can find other things sexy, like the male body, means that less things are taboo now. Sexiness is defined by [popular] culture, so it makes sense that it's become more inclusive."

Let freedom ring

With inclusion, choice and freedom at the heart of feminism, the temptation to equate modesty to feminism is strong. But like Reed, we wouldn't "correlate modest fashion to feminist fashion. I don't think there's such a thing as feminist fashion". Lee also chimed in: "I wouldn't pigeonhole it and say it's feminist fashion. You don't need to be a feminist to cover up."

Whether you regard modest fashion to be conservative, or liberal, or like the x-axis and y-axis that finally met; whether you feel sexier covered up or sexier baring it all; whether you look to Kim Kardashian West or Hillary Clinton for #outfitinspo, the freedom to dress as we please as an expression of ourselves, as Reyes put it, "is the most important thing."

The fear of judgement, the fear or disapproval, the fear of the male gaze, have no part to play in our decision-making in everyday dressing. Aside from professional decorum, religious propriety, and well, weather conditions, our choice in what we wear (or how we display modesty) should be for our own enjoyment.

Reyes couldn't have put it any better. "When a woman is able to choose to dress a certain way because she wants to and not because she feels like she needs to — then it is feminist. No matter if it's a lot of clothing, or very little clothing."