Modesty is having a fashion moment. A code of dressing including raised necklines and falling hemlines has reached the high street through brands like Cos and Zara. Certain celebrities (think Adele, Amal Clooney) are showing less flesh, designers are celebrating sleeves. There is more choice than ever for women who want to cover up.
“Pop into Instagram #mipster (Muslim hipster), #hijabista (hijab-wearing fashionistas — don’t roll your eyes at me, I don’t make these words up) or simply #modestfashion and thousands of images of young women will appear,” Cosmopolitan editor Farah Storr wrote in the Times recently, in a piece explaining her own decision to opt for long sleeves and flowing dresses.
“Some wear hijabs with adidas track pants and neon heels; others are western women in flowing robes and trainers. They are all declaring not only that they have a globalised sense of style, but that they have an open, inclusive frame of mind.”
Orthodox Jewish women may get less press. But some were fashion trail-blazers, blogging and designing for women like them who combine modesty and style.
Adi Heyman was working for a fashion magazine when she started her modest fashion blog Fabologie back in 2010. She watched as modest dressing started influencing runways, led by designers like Valentino, Céline and The Row by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. She reported anonymously — “mod-spotting”— as well as posting lifestyle and reflection pieces about Shabbat and festivals.
She points out that, outside the fashion world, modest dressers can be seen as “good girls.” For insiders, it is different.“In the fashion world, the concept of modesty is a little bit rebellious which is what makes it an intriguing trend.
“This new age of feminism lends itself to the idea of modesty,” Heyman argues. “‘Pluri-empowerment’ is the idea that the empowered woman is free to define how she wants to dress.”
“For years before the blog, I was just ripping pages out of Vogue and recreating the looks. I was just finding things that really appealed to me, through the filter of Judaism.” She was working as a fashion editor’s assistant when she converted to Orthodox Judaism. “I found it quite easy to be fashionable and wear skirts and wigs, and there was a lot of interest in how I juggled both the world of fashion and Orthodox Judaism and made it cohesive.” By the time she launched her Fabologie website in 2012, she’d been featured on websites Page Six and vogue.com.
She put her name on her blog as “a lot of people realised it was me anyway.” She was bowing out of work because she had a baby and wanted to run fabologie.com as a creative outlet from home.
“Fabologie had a very neutral stance,” she tells me. “It reviewed anything that covered the knees, elbows and collar bone — it wasn’t my point of view. I like some trends; I don’t necessarily like all of them. I felt a responsibility to report everything but at this point I don’t think there is that void anymore. It’s empowering and exciting that so many other people are now running with it.”
Later this month she’s launching adiheyman.com, her personal spin on modest fashion and Jewish lifestyle. “It was almost like I needed to prove modesty was ‘fabulous.’ Now it’s more like — how do we create an industry and look to our own communities to uphold this? I actually didn’t want to get into retail but I knew that had to be done eventually.”
“When I started, design in the modest world was very limited, and now we have Jewish designers popping up, and I love to support them,” Heyman adds. She’s also working with the Fashion Institute of Technology in her native New York, to help other women who dress modestly train to work in the fashion industry and join the designers already working within that niche market.
One such designer is Hannah Lancry Surfin, whose London-based brand is called House Of Lancry. “Adi came to London to style my photo-shoot,” Lancry Surfin tells me over coffee. “We spent the whole day shooting. She wears my clothes, which is a big deal because she’s very picky.”
Growing up in Brazil, within the Lubavitch community, she would spend all of her time after school helping out in her mother’s atelier. “I used to take spare fabric and sew dresses for my Barbie dolls,” she reminisces. “Also, in Brazil, it was very hard to find modest clothes, so whenever a festival was coming up, my mother would say: ‘OK let’s go get fabric.’ I would look in magazines and make little sketches of what I wanted to make.”
She went on to study interior design in the US, but when she moved to London, people begged her to take them clothes shopping. “After I designed a few dresses for friends, I’m like, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
House of Lancry is a year old, and features simple and elegant clothes that can be layered and mixed. “I like to be able to wear my dresses with sandals and skinny jeans underneath, or with a blazer and heels.
“I want to show people that you can look stunning and feel good without having to wear things too tight or show a lot of skin.”
The mother-of-three, who still belongs to the Lubavitch community, is on Instagram. Are there boundaries to what is shared? “Absolutely! I don’t do Instastories, because people don’t need to know what I’m doing all the time. I believe family time is family time, and I put my phone down. My girls actually love being in pictures, and they always ask me ‘Mummy, when are we having our next photo-shoot?’
“We recently went to Morocco, and it really inspired me. I was captivated by the architecture and warm colours in Marrakesh.” She took her children, believing they should not stay in “their own little bubble.”
“I get stopped a lot by Muslim women in the mall or on the street because they love my clothes. I give them my card and they’ll start liking my page and I love that. I’d love to do interfaith collaborations one day.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Jewish designer Joyce Azria uses social media to “connect to people who are maybe inspired by my message.” The daughter of design impresario Max Azria, she recently launched her own label Avec Les Filles, a brand geared towards millennials.
“It’s probably one of the most satisfying things in the world to share and have people relate,” says Azria. “No one has the key to everything, but connecting with others helps you feel like you’re creating something greater.
“I love public speaking to women’s organisations and I wish it’s something I could do more often. That’s why I named my brand Avec Les Filles — with the girls. I think we all have some sort of commonality regardless of religion or race.”
Describing the brand as “French inspired with a casual Californian attitude”, she insists that telling the tale of the millennial girl doesn’t pose a conflict for her:
“There is always something someone modest can pull together from the collection… I consider it like modesty is my body type,” she laughs.
In the world of social media, there’s the conundrum of how much is enough or not enough to post, and how often.
“Most people say that I don’t share enough,” admits Azria, “but I’m not going to take a picture with my friend and post it just because they’re a celebrity. I feel that it’s offensive.
“So I only really post when I’m making something for my kids and I feel like it’s cute or something other women would love to see,” says the working mother-of-five. “Being able to have a career in the fashion world as a modest woman is something that can be appreciated.”
She always loved modest women icons of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Audrey Hepburn, seeing their style “as more of a trend and not as a value.”
After struggling with emotional difficulties, she decided to become religious. That included dressing modestly.
“Breathing classes, yoga and therapy might work for others but it didn’t work for me.
“By taking away that pressure of being immodest, it’s opened a way for people to get to know me beyond externalities and really add value to my day-to-day actions.”
It seems that modesty can be revealing after all.