The fashion of faith

Veiled woman 28 June 2011

A new market of modest fashion is emerging, driven by growing numbers of women religiously motivated to dress modestly.

Muslim headscarves and fashionable forms of hijab are well-known examples of this trend, but other faith groups are also looking for alternatives to mainstream western fashion – seen as too revealing and improper to wear for devout women.

The reduced overhead of online retail and marketing has made it possible for specialist clothing businesses to reach out to a national or international market. The increasing range of items has made it possible to shop online as an alternative to the high street.

Customers of modest fashion include Muslim women, orthodox Jews and some Christian groups like the Church of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

The research project Modest Dressing: faith-based fashion and internet retail, under the Religion and Society research programme, studies the growing market for modest clothing among faith groups within Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"The research shows that the market is growing, with new companies starting up, diversifying and segmenting even during the course of the project," says lead researcher Professor Reina Lewis at London College of Fashion.

"In the UK, Muslim designer and brands are now well-established and internationally recognised. To find a significant commercial activity online from the Christian and Jewish communities, the research project looked to Canada and the United States.

"Here we found e-retail companies in the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish communities and among Christian groups, especially but not exclusively among the Mormon community of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

For the mainly younger women in the study 'modest fashion' meant using high street fashion to achieve their own definition of modesty, rather than cover up in traditional or ethnic clothing (which they also may wear at times).

"The market for modest clothing is not limited only to religiously motivated shoppers or companies," Professor Lewis points out.

"We found that there is a significant group of modest dressers who do not identify as religious, or who, if they are religious, do not see this as the main reason why they choose to dress modestly.

"Some of these 'secular' or non-religiously motivated dressers are happy to use the term 'modest' with all its overtones, while others prefer to say they dress in ways that are appropriate to their age, occupation, or location.

"In some cases it is an expression of faith - but it is often simultaneously an expression of individuality, expression, style and generation."