Must We Wear Our Modesty on Our Long Sleeves and Hems?

H&M’s modest clothing collection: yay or nay?

4 min read
Must We Wear Our Modesty on Our Long Sleeves and Hems?
Hindi Female

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For the longest time, ideas of sharm (shame) and haya (modesty) have been associated with what one wears. More often than not, these ideas apply exclusively to women.

As a teenager studying in a convent school, I remember being chastised for the length of my skirt and the plunge of my shirt’s neckline. At the time, my reaction to these strict rules of modesty for women was defiance.

Over the years, however, the debate around modesty and clothing has acquired many shades and diverse points of view around the world. These debates were most recently reflected in people’s reactions on social media to H&M’s new ‘modest clothing’ line.


Modest Fashion as a Global Movement

H&M launched their new modest clothing collection — meant to be diverse and inclusive across the 69 counties where the brand operates — on May 3, 2018.

“Elegant and modest pieces such as long, floaty dresses and layered sets in cool, breezy fabrics for style-conscious women,” is how H&M describes the line.
Some pieces from H&M’s modest clothing collection.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@hm)

It might come as a surprise to some, but H&M is not the first to introduce modest clothing. It is, in fact, following the footsteps of global brands like Nike, American Eagle, and Macy’s.


What’s more, modest fashion is a global movement. In 2015, the British Moroccan-Pakistani model, Mariah Idrissi gained recognition as the first Muslim hijab-wearing model, after appearing in H&M’s ‘Close the Loop’ campaign.

Mariah Idrissi hailed as 'Modest Mariah' on the cover of Friday Magazine.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@MariahIdrissi)

Shortly after, she came to be recognised internationally as the face of the modest fashion movement.

Why can you not look decent and covered? You don’t need to be naked to look good. There is no restriction on having a personality if you wear a headscarf.
Mariah Idrissi (as quoted in Independent UK)
A still from the London Modest Fashion Week (LMFW) 2018.
(Photo Courtesy: London Modest Fashion Week)

In 2017, the first ever London Modest Fashion Week (LMFW) was held at the Saatchi Gallery. The 2018 edition of the LMFW was attended by Lindsay Lohan, who turned up donning a hijab.


Wearing Modesty: Baggage vs Choice

The H&M collection, which is in line with the modest fashion movement, has sparked a many-sided debate on social media, with netizens questioning the basic tenets of modest fashion itself.

Firstly, there is the very usage of the word ‘modest’. Like the Arabic haya, the English words ‘modest’ and ‘modesty’ come with (mostly negative) baggage. A word is never simply a word, it comes with meanings and associations.


There is no doubt that the modest fashion movement promotes inclusivity. However, the use of ‘modest’, as pointed out by netizens, also leads to exclusion of women who dress differently.

What about women who wear clothes with shorter sleeves and hemlines? Will they be termed as ‘immodest’ and, therefore, ‘immoral’?

The counter to this is, of course, the argument for freedom of choice, which has gained momentum in the modern feminist movement.

In simple words, some women might feel liberated in a bikini, while others might feel the same in a burqa; it is important to acknowledge their freedom of choice.

Where Is Men’s Modesty At?

A strong argument against modest fashion is that while it is inclusive of women from diverse backgrounds, it refuses to acknowledge a missing puzzle piece: where is men’s modesty at?


As a sample, here’s what H&M US has in store for men this Spring/Summer. As is expected, the mention of modesty is nowhere to be found.


Does Modesty Mean the Same for Everyone?

Some netizens have termed H&M’s new collection as a market strategy to rope in buyers during the Ramadan and Eid season.

Others find it incredible that while Muslim women have struggled long and hard to have a say in what they wear, H&M has chosen to model the clothes on white models.

Yet others feel that modest or not, H&M clothes are highly overpriced.

A picture from London Modest Fashion Week 2018.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@Amaliah_Tweets)

Here are some more questions to add to the debate: Does modesty mean the same for everyone? Must we wear our modesty (whatever it might mean to us) on our sleeves? Clothes maketh the man (or anyone), they say, but should they?


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Topics:  Lifestyle   fashion   Feminism 

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