Grl Talk: With Hafsa Lodi, Author Of ‘Modesty: A Fashion Paradox’

Hafsa Lodi is a fashion and lifestyle journalist with a BA in journalism and MA in Islamic Law. Her debut non-fiction book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox was released over the summer, and explores the rise of modest fashion from cultural, religious, political, and feminist lenses, with the voices of over 40 female pioneers of the modest fashion movement. 

While researching and gathering interviews for your book, why was it important to talk to women who had different interpretations and experiences of modest fashion?

Modest fashion has no singular definition – for some women, it means covering from head to toe in loose-fitting clothing, for others, it means making sure their shoulders and knees are covered in potentially figure-hugging attire. For many women, modest fashion is synonymous with hijabs and for many other women, modesty does not necessarily mandate covering your hair. Some “modest” models will walk in runway shows, while others believe it’s contrary to being modest. I felt it was extremely important to give a well-rounded, balanced picture of modest fashion, including its various interpretations, and the diverse women from across the globe who have been pioneers of the movement. Within this, it was also important for me to get the perspectives of Christian and Jewish women who identify with modest fashion, because even though many of the mainstream faces of the movement are hijabi, Muslim women, modesty is rooted in all three Abrahamic faiths. 

You describe how designers and retailers have begun making more conservative clothing to cater to modesty-seeking consumers. Why do you think modest fashion is a trend that’s attracting non-religious women too?

One of the biggest selling points of modest fashion is that it’s comfortable. Floaty dresses, oversized streetwear, and loose, cosy sets are far more comfortable than skin-tight jeans and bandage dresses layered over Spanx, constantly being tugged down while bending over, or possibly making the wearer feel uncomfortable due to not-enough-fabric or see-through textiles. Women who simply enjoy the easy, effortless, and comfortable nature of this sort of clothing, often naturally gravitate towards modest fashion (whether or not it’s labelled as “modest”). Many women also see modest clothing as a sort of “protection” – with clothing that offers more coverage, their bodies can’t be scrutinised and judged by others. Style trends like “cottage-core”, “granny-chic”, Victorian-inspired fashion, pyjama suits, and co-ord loungewear are currently all the rage. Many of these styles can be categorised as “modest”, and appeal to both religious and non-religious women. 

In what way can choosing to “cover up” be empowering for women?

From a young age, the idea that attractive women wear tight, revealing clothes, high heels and makeup, is ingrained into us – it’s what we see in movies, on television, in advertisements and in music videos. It’s also what we’ve historically seen on runways – fashion has been typically created by men, for the male gaze. And while there’s nothing wrong with sort of dressing, it doesn’t appeal to every woman, nor does every woman find it comfortable – yet still, these women who tend to cover up are “othered,” from their teen years onwards. To choose this path, and go against the grain of societal expectations of beauty and attractiveness, is definitely empowering, and for a woman to dress for herself, and make the profound decision to cover up her skin, rather than show it, sort of frees her from these social norms.

How do you hope that the book might help counter stereotypes of women who dress modestly?

People often assume that women who dress modestly wear drab, unflattering, unstylish clothing. But if you search the hashtag #modestfashion on Instagram, the opposite is instantly proven true. Modest fashion can be colourful, embellished, loud, bold and even flamboyant and eye-catching. The assumption is that these women, who choose to cover their bodies, do so out of submission to men, and are oppressed. While this may be true of those patriarchal communities and families where modesty is “enforced”, this is not at all the case with women who choose modest fashion lifestyles for themselves. Most of us love fashion, and enjoy the challenge of layering and experimenting with mainstream trends to put together skin-covering outfits. So many of these women are motivated by the very prospect of debunking the myth that modesty is drab or unfashionable, or that women “cover-up” to hide from society. 

Why is there controversy among women about using the word “modest” to describe fashion, and what’s your personal opinion? 

I didn’t anticipate facing resistance to the word “modest” when writing my book, so I was surprised to learn that many women are very against the use of this term, especially when modest fashion is being celebrated and embraced on a mainstream level. Some women believe that describing some fashion as “modest” implies negative things about women who don’t dress in “modest” fashion. Others believe that it feeds into a religious, cult-like, or oppressive dogma that enforces modesty upon women. But the fact of the matter is that many, many women, choose to dress more conservatively and have struggled for decades to find stylish modest wear. Labelling this category as “modest” helps validate their fashion choices and can make it easier for them to shop for clothing. Personally, I don’t think there’s any need to over-read into the word “modest.” It’s a way to describe a particular genre of clothing, like sportswear, or maternity wear, or evening wear, or even petite or plus-sized, and these categories all overlap in many ways. We don’t need “opposite” words for each of these and we don’t need to analyse those who choose not to buy into any of these retail categories. Women who dress modestly have been ostracised from mainstream fashion for years, and I think they deserve to be recognised by the industry. 

Throughout your journey writing the book, did you find your own views of modesty evolve or change?

I definitely did! When I set out to write this book I was excited about being a part of the movement that was helping paint modest fashion in a new, positive light, and definitely brought my own perspective and voice to the text. I came to this project with my own set of “modesty codes” and have undergone waves of different definitions of what’s modest for my body. But after two years of being immersed in the world of modest fashion, I’ve come to the conclusion that modesty is about so much more than making sure your shoulders are covered, or hair all in place and invisible under tight-fitting hijabs. I feel like an intense focus and scrutiny on the “coverage” of women’s clothing can ironically work to objectify them, even though dressing modesty is often a stance against the objectification of women. I thoroughly enjoyed analysing the history and modern-day applications of modest dress from a journalistic lens, but would strongly caution against any sort of fashion policing of women’s bodies. Modest fashion is subjective and highly personal, and women should not be preached to or put down regarding their clothing choices, no matter how much skin they choose to cover. 

Finally, the question we ask everybody we speak to: what advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

I would tell my 16-year-old self who was trying to dress both modestly and stylishly, but probably dismally failing, to ditch the knit shrugs. They are fashion no-nos. Instead, get a decade head-start on style trends and have fun with creative layering. Wear a turtleneck under a slip dress, and try your hand at trend-setting by pairing a crop top over a white button-down shirt. You’ll be ahead of the game!

On a more serious note, I’d tell myself to start drawing my own conclusions when it comes to the application of religious ideals, and separating them from cultural norms. I’d caution myself against judging fellow females by their appearances, I’d urge myself to do my own research instead of accepting everything I’m told as fact, and I’d tell myself to look forward to being blown away by all of the eye-opening feminist Islamic literature I’d read later in life. 

Modesty: A Fashion Paradox is out now with Neem Tree Pres


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