Opinion: Why modest fashion reflects our current feminist mood more than you realise

23 December 2019
By Fashion Quarterly


The literal difference between a mini or ankle-length skirt may be a few inches of fabric, but the symbolic meaning behind short and long is much more complex.

The baring of skin, particularly when it comes to women, is a debate that’s omnipresent: it straddles political, religious and social realms; it looms in the workplace and at the beach; it fluctuates with age and dress size.

Whether it should or not, how much or how little women bare their skin reflects changes in society. So what does the current trend for modest fashion tell us about today?

By definition, modest fashion is clothing that covers the body. In theory, that could contradict the ideas brought to light by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and beyond – that women who bared their midriffs, legs and breasts were liberated from the societal constraints that had previously forced them to cover up.

But during the ensuing decades, the more women have stripped off, the more their bodies and sexuality have been capitalised on. As Ariel Levy outlined in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, by the turn of the 20th century, we had reached peak raunch culture – and the male gaze was winning out.

In the context of that old adage “What goes up must come down”, today’s penchant for covering up could have been an easy turn of events to predict, given the crotch-grazing skirts and push-up bras that came to define 2000s fashion. The dramatic sleeves, buttoned-up necks, calf-grazing dresses and billowing blouses now ubiquitous on runways, red carpets and streets are a direct contrast to this, which is how the fashion world tends to operate.

But given the growing political and social awareness around sexual harassment and workplace misogyny, it seems too convenient to brush off today’s movement as merely a foreseeable fluctuation.

The swathes of clothes women are now wearing are a fashionable kind of armour. Covering up is a way to shun the male gaze – it’s a refusal to be defined by one’s body.

It’s opting out of the convention that, for woman, being thin and toned and flaunting it is the ultimate measure of success.


There are certain designers who have been extolling the virtues of conservative dress for years and who have, in part, helped to usher in this new mood.

At Céline, under the guidance of Phoebe Philo, it manifested in minimalist knits, cocoon coats and proportion play; at The Row, it’s seen in copious amounts of fabric, roomy tailoring and long shifts; at Emilia Wickstead, it’s in demure high-necked dresses, full skirts and puffy sleeves.

Now there’s no limit to the brands offering figure-concealing fashion, and they’re catering to women who don’t want to be noticed, first and foremost, for their breasts or legs.

One such local label is Mahsa, which specialises in high-neck, fluid shirts with a distinct Victorian feel. Designer Mahsa Willis says she developed the concept out of a desire for simplicity, utility and romanticism.

“I like my designs to work confidently in every setting, and discretion helps this,” she says. “I like the tension and beauty created by juxtaposing two different elements: long sleeves with a short crop, a bow with big sleeves, a high neck with the subtle reveal of a low back.”

Compared to many other Western countries, New Zealand’s dress sense is, on the whole, relatively conservative. Fashion historian Doris de Pont puts this down to our colonial past, as well as a need for practicality.

“I see this having its origins in our British ancestry, where the dress code was perhaps a little more buttoned-up than elsewhere – less flamboyant, perhaps,” she says.

“But another historical determinant is the need for practicality. The legacy of an immigrant culture is that we need to work hard to ‘make it’, and that means we need clothes we can do stuff in, clothes that are practical and don’t have to be fussed with.”

As both Doris and Mahsa point out, modest fashion isn’t just about covering up – there’s also an inherently utilitarian and comfortable nature to it. Not having to tug or pull at a low-cut top or figure-hugging dress is not only convenient but liberating.

Similarly, today’s inclination for sneakers or low heels go hand in hand with this trend for comfort over traditionally ‘sexy’ stilettos. There are those, of course, for whom modest fashion doesn’t fluctuate with the prevailing trends of the time and covering the body is a matter of faith.

In that sense, the current mood is for a specifically secular segment of society. But a large part of today’s trend is also a growing acknowledgement and acceptance of the requirements of religious dress codes.

Designers such as New York-based Batsheva, with its prairie-style dresses that cater to those of Orthodox Jewish faith, have been embraced by a fashion community that isn’t necessarily religious.

Fashion website The Modist, founded in 2017, sells only designer pieces that cover the arms, knees and collarbones, and has a mission statement to change the perception of covering up. Even retail behemoth Net-a-Porter now has a ‘Modest’ shopping category. Far from dowdy or boring, this new era of fashion is variable, expressive and, if it wants to be, feminine.

That’s not to say that if a woman wants to wear six-inch heels, a low-cut top or a body-con dress, and her values allow it, she can’t. Much of the criticism of modest fashion is that the onus is on the woman to dress ‘appropriately’ so as to not attract unwanted attention, rather than being able to bare it all with no repercussions.

The main point of this decade’s modesty is that women feel empowered to dress in as little or as much as they please. As Mahsa puts it, a woman who wears her clothes is saying: “I want to be comfortable, mysterious and confident, and when I feel like removing a layer, I’ll decide that. No rules, just a good feeling.”

The most important trend here is a woman’s right to choose.

Words: Jessica Beresford
Photos: Guy Coombes

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