'Modesty: A Fashion Paradox' is the book I didn't know I needed

Hafsa Lodi. Image c/o The SOAS Spirit. Credit: Ushma Dhakan

Written by Shahed Ezaydi

Hafsa Lodi is a name we should all know. A journalist and writer, 'Modesty: A Fashion Paradox', is Lodi's first book; a deep dive into the fast-growing world of modest fashion and how this industry intrinsically links to factors such as religion, feminism, politics, and economics. It discusses everything from the subjectivity of modesty, how and why it entered into the mainstream, the rise of ‘Generation M’, and the controversies surrounding modesty in fashion.

It’s a book that I honestly didn’t know I needed, and which I now consider an absolute staple on my bookshelf. The world of modest fashion is something I’ve become quite familiar with over the years. As a Muslim woman, dressing modestly is very much linked to our faith. So, I’ve become very used to layering, midi skirts, and oversized shirts.

But like Lodi, growing up in a Western environment, modest fashion wasn’t cool or trendy. People weren’t wearing turtle necks underneath dresses yet. Midi skirts weren’t all that popular. And looser fitting jeans automatically made you less feminine. I definitely found it tricky to find clothes that suited my style but were also modest and passed the ‘mum approval’. This is also why I always preferred the winter season - because my clothes and I didn’t stick out as much then as they did during the summer’s abundance of strappy tops and denim shorts. Lodi also writes of similar experiences, dreading ‘…pool parties or beach excursions with friends, wearing a black plain Speedo one piece while they donned frilly, feminine two pieces.’

Although, she goes on to write, ‘shopping for modest fashion has never been easier’. Not only is the Middle East paving the way in the modest fashion world, but this is also being reverberated in the West too. There’s not a single shop on the high street now that doesn’t sell some sort of modest clothing. What’s interesting about this, as Lodi acknowledges, is how when the West also incorporates modesty into clothing lines, it’s suddenly got this ‘rubber stamp of approval’.

This is also connected to the fact that modest dressing is often conflated with hijab-wearing women, ‘while the veil, or hijab, may not be a fixed part of every Muslim woman’s wardrobe, it has nonetheless come to symbolise modest fashion on a global scale.’ And the hijab has become quite the divisive political symbol, especially in the West. From France banning the niqab (a veil that also covers the face) to feminist movements claiming the veil is oppressive, modest dressing hasn’t exactly always been trendy.

Yet as Lodi rightly suggests, ‘if a woman makes a choice to dress modestly, that seems more empowering than anything else...’

People have long thought of Muslim women as oppressed and in desperate need of liberating. But what people seem to forget is that most Muslim women make the choice to wear the hijab and dress modestly, so all your ‘liberation’ discourse is really doing is taking away this choice and effectively silencing these women.

Modesty is of course not just a central feature in Islam, but for other religions too. And modesty doesn’t even have to be religiously prescribed; some people just enjoy dressing that way! Lodi also talks about modest fashion in relation to men too – an area I’ve rarely seen talked about.

Something that Lodi achieves so brilliantly with her book is that she approaches topics from a number of angles and perspectives, giving the reader a wide range of views, without sacrificing depth. Lodi uses her own experiences and talks to a range of people in the industry, to really immerse the reader in these nuanced discussions. And as someone who dresses modestly, these are discussions I really saw myself in and could really relate to. 

Ultimately though, her book isn’t just for those who dress modestly; it’s for anyone who is interested in knowing more about how the way we dress and present ourselves is perceived, and then how this intersects with different factors. Fashion is how we choose to express ourselves to the world, but that expression is also subjective and open to interpretations. 

‘Modesty: A Fashion Paradox’ gives the reader a much needed look into the world of modest fashion and helps in furthering our understanding in why some make the choice to dress modestly. It’s a book I so desperately wish I had read when I was a teenager, as it would have helped in articulating why I dress the way I do. It would have made me feel less alone. It’s truly a refreshing read and one I shall definitely be recommending to all.

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