More Than Just Figleaves

Why Muslim & Jewish Modest Fashion Is So Popular, But Christian Fashion Week Failed

For the month of October, Bustle's #blessed series will explore how young women are searching for meaning, finding connections to a higher power and navigating spirituality in 2017.

When Mayra Gomez and her husband, Jose, organized the first Christian Fashion Week in 2013, they thought they knew what "modesty" meant: clothes that cover the female body and don't accent sexuality. But by the time they mounted the biggest, most controversial — and final — Christian Fashion Week two years later, their understanding of what constitutes modesty had radically changed.

When the Gomezes considered what God would actually care about when it came to fashion, Jose tells Bustle, “We came to the conclusion that God is probably more concerned with human trafficking and the destruction of [the] planet [that] fashion is responsible for, rather than how short a skirt is and how much cleavage is showing.”

“It’s not just about the clothing,” Mayra adds. “It’s about what you are doing with the power of being noticed.”

Inside the world of modest fashion, this kind of spiritual inquiry isn't altogether unusual. Retailers, bloggers, and designers who got started designing modest clothes for themselves and their religious communities have all had to figure out a way of reconciling ideals of modesty with a decidedly worldly industry — and, for some, that challenge has led to changing their ideas about what modesty actually means.

You won’t see anything that would look even slightly out of place on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a Thursday night.

Although clothes that aren't revealing or that fit specific religious requirements have always been available, the modesty fashion movement — which produces hip and fashionable clothes for women who dress modestly — has been growing in recent years. The movement really broke into the secular world around 2015, when Racked declared “Modest fashion hits the mainstream” and the Atlantic opined that, “For plugged-in, religious Millennials, stylishness and faith have never been more compatible.” (It helped that the secular fashion world was having a low-hemline moment, in which $400 maxi shirtdresses were a very big thing).

Financially, its biggest engine is the global Muslim market, particularly in wealthy but devout Gulf nations with money to spend and religious standards to keep up. A 2015 Thomson Reuters report identified “modest fashion” as a growth sector and predicted that by 2019, Muslims would spend $484 billion on fashion. But alongside Muslim-centric brands, there are also brands created by and for Orthodox Jewish and Christian women, and they often share customers and ideals — in common.

More Than Just Figleaves

Click around today on modesty blogs, such as downtowndemure.com or fabologie, check out the wares at labels like Mimu Maxi, Sweet Salt, or retailers like Modli, and you won’t see anything that would look even slightly out of place on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a Thursday night. The fact that you could also wear these outfits to synagogue on a Friday is just a bonus.

Fashion historian Daniel Cole sees the rise of modesty in fashion as part of the pendulum swing of cultural globalization. “It’s reflective of the fact that during the second half of the twentieth century, after World War II, in both Judaism and Islam we saw a decrease in the modesty customs,” he tells Bustle. “There was less adherence to it. I’ve seen pictures of women in Iran and Iraq in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and no one is wearing a headscarf. You see women in dresses that are not [considered] 'vulgar'...but they’re Westernized.”

Now, he says, those cultures are going back to religious modesty, but they aren’t willing to relinquish the stylishness they absorbed during their sojourn in secularity. “To have modest fashion being something that is being sent down the runway, I think, it’s a relatively new thing,” Cole says. “I don’t think we have a cultural precedent for that.”

She liked having an outward sign of her faith, but there was a problem: her fashion sense.

But as the modest fashion movement has matured, it has also become more complex. For some, “modesty” simply means adhering to a dress code that doesn’t show skin. But for most of the women involved, it implies a host of deeper values about how a woman interacts with the world. Trying to reconcile those values with the distinctly secular world of the fashion industry can be clarifying or frustrating, depending on who you ask.

Take Melanie Elturk. For her, being fashionable and being devout have always been intertwined. At 13, she put on hijab, the headcovering many Muslim women wear. She liked having an outward sign of her faith, but there was a problem: Her fashion sense, highly developed even then, rebelled.

“By sophomore year, I was done with the two hijabs I had access to,” she tells Bustle. One was black, one was ivory, and both were boring. “My outfits would be ruined by this really ugly hijab,” Elturk says.

This was the early 2000s, and there was no easy way to buy hijabs in Detroit. She took to searching thrift shops for vintage scarves. The first day she wore one to school wrapped around her head — it was a long ombre olive affair — “It was like the biggest deal,” she says. “It was like the first time anyone had seen anything like that.” The next day her best friend showed up wearing a bright pink scarf as a hijab. They never went back to ivory and black.

Melanie Elturk/Haute Hijab

Today, Elturk is the founder and CEO of Haute Hijab, a New York-based international business specializing in fashionable headscarves for Muslim women across the world. “For me, modesty is how I live my life,” Elturk says. “It’s much more than modesty in dress — it’s modesty in actions, modesty in speech. It’s the way you deal with people, being a human being, being aware of something bigger than you, that you are not the end-all and be-all. It’s controlling your ego.”

Modesty, she says, “is what keeps you in line.”

Elturk draws a distinction between “frivolous fashion” and modest fashion stemming from obedience to God. “I don’t see a contraction between being a humble person and expressing yourself through style in a beautiful way,” she says. “Our beloved prophet taught us always to be presentable in front of people — don’t go outside in your pajamas."

“There’s a saying in our religion: God is beautiful and he loves beauty,” Elturk adds. “I don’t buy into, ‘To be modest means you can’t be stylish, to be humble means you can’t look good.’ I think by looking beautiful and feeling beautiful — again, within the boundaries of Islam  — does more of a service to yourself and others around you than not.”

Melanie Elturk/Haute Hijab

Elturk keeps her prices modest, too: Most of her hijabs cost about $20. But the modesty fashion world also contains sites like The Modist, a "luxury style destination dedicated to dressing modestly,” which offers personal shopping appointments within the United Arab Emirates where you can pick up a exquisite studded leather jacket by Nour Hammour for $2,780.

For some designers, it’s hard to reconcile that kind of consumption with the concept of modesty.

“To me this relentless materialism does not go with what modesty is, which is being able to focus on other issues,” Eve Emanuel tells Bustle.

Emanuel is the designer behind More than Just Figleaves, a New York-based brand for “chic, modest clothing designed with style and usability.”

At 50, she’s a generation or two older than Elturk, but was also raised in religious traditions: Emanuel grew up Orthodox Jewish in London. Like Elturk, Emanuel had a sense of style from a young age (“I had innate taste for good things,” Emanuel says. “It was in my blood as an artist.”) and got her start because she wanted more options for fashionable-but-frum clothing. “The primary motivation was to increase the choices, to make people happy within their spirituality so that they would be able to express themselves in another creative way,” she says. “I wanted to be creative and provide beautiful clothing that just was modest — I wasn’t trying to prove a point.”

At first, she would come to church dressed stylishly, with her hair and makeup done. It didn’t go over well.

Emanuel designs her tailored skirts, blouses, and jackets to last. They’re not luxury items, but at a few hundred dollars per piece, they are investments. That’s part of their value, she says — they free the women who wear them from having to think about appearance and acquisition.

“I feel that by making what the world calls ‘good quality clothing,’ you’re actually helping a person to deflect from the constant need to shop and look good,” Emanuel says. “They can wear it for a while because it has a good cut, and it’s versatile…that actually eases the whole narcissistic, relentless search of having to find something new.”

Working with modest fashion can lead to a deeper understanding of modesty — but that doesn’t mean the conclusions you reach will necessarily be echoed by those around you. Which brings us back to the demise of Christian Fashion Week.

Melanie Elturk/Haute Hijab

Christian Fashion Week was started in 2013, just as the modesty movement was picking up speed. Its founders — married couples Jose and Mayra Gomez and Tamy and Wil Lugo — had all worked in fashion, and they wanted to combine that world with their faith.

Mayra, in particular, felt a tension between her work as a model and the Christian world in which she and her husband served as pastors.

“I was coming in from the modeling industry to a church environment, and there’s women in the church environment that don’t necessarily lift you up if they don’t see you as the same as they are,” she tells Bustle. At first, she would come to church dressed stylishly, with her hair and makeup done: “I wanted to look sharp,” she recalls. It didn’t go over well. “By end of our ministry years, I was dressing down, wearing less makeup, my hair in a bun,” she says. “I remember walking into church feeling that the way I looked was a sin because I was prettier and attractive, as if that was a bad thing.”

She and her husband felt there must be a way to maintain the modesty expected of them by their community while also looking good. So they created Christian Fashion Week, or what Jose Gomez now calls “an interesting monster." The idea, Mayra says, was to ask mainstream designers to make clothes that modest Christian women could wear without riling church sensibilities.

Melanie Elturk/Haute Hijab

“The Christian part makes it conservative, but the fashion thing makes it a bit liberal,” Jose says. “And what we found was it was too fashion for Christians and too Christian for fashion people.”

That wasn’t the only problem. When they started the event, which included a week of runways, parties, and panels, the four conceptualized modesty as a set of rules about covering the female body. But as the years passed, their views changed. “We were all very much at a crossroads in our own faith,” he says. “Christian Fashion Week was one of the things we’ve done to push the boundaries and really test the theory of our faith, and really see if there’s a substance to it.

“What we found,” he adds, “was the arguments fell apart for modesty.”

It turned out, Jose says, that Christianity doesn’t have any texts on dressing modestly, unlike Islam or Judaism, which both have explicit written laws addressing the subject. “As we did more of our own exploring of this topic, we found very little basis for pushing modesty from a covering standpoint nor pushing it from a righteous standpoint,” he says. “There’s literally nowhere in the Bible that tells a woman how to dress.”

The last straw came at CFW 2015, when Gomez heard a fellow Christian make a homophobic comment.

On their website, the four set out their new definitions of modesty. To be modest, they wrote, means dressing appropriately for a given social context: no bikinis in the office, but also no power suits on the beach. It means affordable clothing made ethically and sustainably. And it means not wearing clothes produced through exploitation of people or the environment.

The Christian community applauded these values, but Gomez says that the pastors he invited to Christian Fashion Week were still worried about hemlines. Arguments erupted when a garment coming down the runway wasn’t opaque enough. The last straw came at CFW 2015, when Gomez heard a fellow Christian make a homophobic comment in front of Marcia Alvarado, a butch lesbian and rising-star menswear model, a woman who had become a friend despite her wariness of religious Christians.

Jose is still strong in his faith, but that moment broke his heart.

“To have that happen at the event,“ he says, “you could see how dangerous and destructive the mindset of this modesty was, how judgmental the bar was that they set based on their own interpretations, something that isn’t even written in scripture.”

After that, CFW was put on hiatus.

Mayra says that she and her husband still host fashion shows for charity. “I love fashion and I love helping people,” she says. “I’ve done more outside of the church than I ever did when I was inside the church. I think God uses us more now than he ever did when we were in the church. You can’t put God in a box, you can’t put him in a building — your vision has to be the size of his hand, not your hand."

Like Elturk and Emanuel, Jose and Mayra still believe in the power of fashion to free the spirit. “I think modesty in general does have a wonderful place in fashion,” Jose says. “Women in general don’t really want to be immodest. They want to be comfortable.”

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