'Modest Wear' Gaining Attention In St. Louis — And Globally | St. Louis Public Radio

'Modest Wear' Gaining Attention In St. Louis — And Globally

Apr 22, 2019

Mojda Sidiqi wants every woman to feel like a work of art.

But that can be a challenge — particularly for those who want less revealing clothing that fits their personal and religious beliefs.

Sidiqi is among a small group of St. Louis fashion designers working to create more modest clothing options for women. They held their first Modest Muslim Women’s fashion show over the weekend as part of the Council on American-Islam Relations in Missouri’s third-annual art exhibition. The show featured various types of “modest wear” — a style of clothing for which demand is growing worldwide.

Friends Najma Sidiqi (center left) and Asmae Bouziane (center right) laugh backstage before the start of the Modest Muslim Women's Fashion Show.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The fashion show, held Saturday at the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries, included more than a dozen local models hailing from a range of countries, from India to Sudan.

Rwandan fashion designer Salma Uwimana designed several outfits worn in the fashion show, including a belted white suit with a high neck.

For Uwimana, it was an opportunity to showcase the wide diversity of modest Muslim styles across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

“Even if we’re from different countries, different continents — we’re one,” she said. “As women, we have to support each other.”

Naba Yas, right, helps Faheema Hassan prepare for the Modest Muslim Women's Fashion Show.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

‘The world thinks Muslim women don’t have style’

Sidiqi, who spearheaded the event, traces her career in fashion design back to the first time she visited an Afghan bazaar at age 15.

When she saw the stacks of richly textured fabrics in the market stalls, it felt like she was “waking up on the inside.”

“That was the moment that I realized I don’t ever have to buy clothes that are ready-made again,” Sidiqi said.

More than a decade later, she has racks of clothing that she’s designed herself — from ornately decorated dresses to traditional shalwar kameez, tunics with matching pants.  

In her closet, next to rows of bejeweled slippers, she keeps a bag full of chunky rings and costume jewelry from the Kabul bazaar.

Aisha Ravshanova models an outfit from Uzbekistan in the Modest Muslim Women's Fashion Show. The show, which was part of the Council on American-Islam Relations in Missouri's third annual art exhibition, featured modest outfits from more than a half dozen countries.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“The world thinks Muslim women don’t have style,” said Sidiqi. “They think we have allowed our men to oppress us to the point where we’ve given up our personality and desires, but that’s not true.”

Sidiqi said a big part of what inspired her to create her own clothes was the lack of ready-to-wear options at stores in the U.S.

Everything was too tight, too sheer or too short.

“My mom and I used to go shopping, and I’d say, ‘Well, this is a beautiful dress,’” Sidiqi said. “‘But I’m going to have to cover the chest area and add sleeves and wear something underneath it.’”

Her friend Yusra Ali remembers having a similar issue in high school.

Just 10 years ago, she said, it was hard to find modest clothing that felt stylish.

“I wore giant, stretched-out old T-shirts and baggy clothes,” Ali said. “Every time I’d go to the mall, it was just really tight-fitted clothes. It was so hard for me to find anything that was decent for me to wear.”

Sidiqi adorns her outfits with costume jewelry from an Afghan bazaar.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Higher demand, more options

But that’s changing, driven in part by increasing demand.

Muslim consumers spent more than $250 billion on clothing in 2016, according to the latest State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.

The report predicts the market value could reach nearly $375 billion by 2023.

The fashion industry has been slow to respond to increasing demand, and, in some cases, designers have inadvertently offended Muslim consumers — such as Karl Lagerfeld’s now-infamous Chanel dresses embroidered with passages from the Quran.

But Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan said high-end fashion designers are gradually beginning to pay attention to these markets.

“The areas of growth for the fashion industry [are] in places like the Middle East and Asia,” Givhan said. “You have to be able to create clothes that they want to wear, that they feel comfortable wearing.”

Models check their phones while waiting for the start of the Modest Muslim Women's Fashion Show.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

This isn’t solely a Muslim-driven trend, she said, but rather a larger shift in the fashion world toward less revealing clothing.

For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, designers focused on “broken adolescent attire that was short and sheer and low-cut.”

High-end designers, such as Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, are now incorporating modest styles that feel sophisticated and powerful.

“You could make the argument that a sparkly mini-dress might be empowering on some level, but it doesn’t necessarily evoke authority,” Givhan said.

Syrian-American fashion blogger Summer Albarcha said the definition of modest wear is up for interpretation, depending on individual preference.
Credit Summer Albarcha

Syrian-American fashion blogger Summer Albarcha agrees that the desire to dress modestly is not exclusive to Muslim women.

People of other faiths, such as Orthodox Jewish and Mormon women, have certain dress codes, said Albarcha — and women who aren’t religious may prefer less revealing clothing simply because “it reflects them and their personality.”

Modest wear can be interpreted in any number of ways, she said, from a one-piece bathing suit to a long-sleeve tunic and a hijab.

“At the end of the day, it’s about choice and wanting to wear more clothes or less clothes,” said Albarcha, who grew up in St. Louis. “The discussion should be more about women’s freedom and not about judgment for wanting to cover or not.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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