Rabia Z. Zargarpur spent her early twenties attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, interning at women’s magazines, and working at Valentino. She knew what was trendy and how to dress herself. In the middle of 2001, the self-described “fashionista” went through a “spiritual transformation” and began to wear a hijab and dress modestly in honor of her Muslim faith. Then came 9/11.
“People started to remove their hijab,” Zargarpur recalled “But I didn’t want to do that. It was horrible to feel that something so personal, my hijab, is now a threat. I couldn’t even go out and be myself—why?”
The hate crimes and Islamophobia of that era are well-documented, but Zargarpur noticed another unseen, but still undignifying, side effect. It was the era of low-rise Guess jeans and midriff-baring tops, especially where she lived in San Francisco. She couldn’t find anything to wear.
“It was quite depressing to go back to the same stores I used to shop at [before dressing modestly] and not find things,” Zargarpur said. “Wow, how unimportant are women like myself who are wearing hijab or looking for modest fashion? Not a single brand catered to it.” So she started her own.
Rabia Z., her clothing line, first launched with an assortment of jersey veils. She was inspired by the way Donna Karan utilized the unfussy, breathable material for her dresses in the 1980s. “She introduced it into her clothing lines for that comfort,” Zargarpur, now 42, said. “I wanted to do that for the hijab. It feels like a T-shirt. You don’t need pins or to fiddle. It’s comfortable.”
Nearly two decades later, Zargarpur has become one of the most recognizable names in the modest fashion movement, the subject of Contemporary Muslim Fashions, an exhibit of over 80 outfits now on view at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. The show, which debuted at San Francisco’s de Young in 2018, tracks the rise in visibility of faith-based covering over the past decade.
As fashion houses inch closer to widening their representation of races, sizes, and ages on runways and in advertising campaigns, the higher-ups have realized that it’s not just symbolic to embrace the nearly 2 billion Muslim shoppers out there—it’s a money-making opportunity, too. According to the Global Islamic Economy Report, modest fashion for women accounted for $44 billion in sales in 2015, and was rising rapidly.
This market includes, but is not limited to, the $35 sports hijab Nike created in 2017, and tapped Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed to promote. It’s what inspired Ghizlan Guenez to launch The Modist, an online shop for demure clothing. Thirty-five percent of its customers come from the United States. Brands like Jimmy Choo, Mango, and Net-a-Porter release “capsule collections” to mark Ramadan, a month-long Muslim observance of fasting and prayer.
“Elite women from many Gulf and North African countries were significant customers for European and French fashion houses [for decades], but this wasn’t widely known outside of the couture industry partly because before social media, these clients wanted their privacy,” Reina Lewis, a professor at the London College of Fashion and consulting curator for the exhibit, told The Daily Beast.
Of course, such women are only a tiny cohort when compared to all of the world’s Muslim dressers. Still, they have sustained a symbiotic relationship with couture designers.
In 2011, Reuters reported that women from the Middle East “have become the world’s biggest buyers of high fashion.” Chalk it up to their busy, hob-nobby social calendars, and appreciation for handmade, embellished garments.
“If you’re in the Emirates and you’re at a wedding, there’s a women-only section of the party, where someone might well be wearing a more revealing dress,” Lewis said. “One of the stereotypical misapprehensions Westerners have had for centuries is that women are hidden and we can’t see them.”
The exhibit floor is packed wall-to-wall with intricate gowns or pantsuits, most devised to cover the body from neck to toe. Flesh-loving designers could see these parameters as limiting, but each garment is incredibly unique. What does “modest dressing” mean? That depends on who you ask. But after viewing the show, you wouldn’t say boring.
Take, for instance, the gilded white cape and dress from Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Spring 2011 show, originally dreamed up as sheer, but reinterpreted with some demure additions by Qatar’s Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned for a gala that year.
Or a coral pink jersey gown created by Nzinga Knight, the first hijab designer contestant on the reality show Project Runway in 2014. With a gilded trim, it is fit for a princess from any region.
“When people talk about modest fashion, a lot of the time they talk about the restrictions,” Knight said. “But it’s important to appreciate each designer’s individuality. When people come here and see the variety of work, they say, ‘I don’t understand, [the fashion] all so different.’ Yes, exactly. It’s just as different as one woman from the next.”
When planning the exhibit’s de Young opening, Lewis worked alongside Jill D’Alessandro, curator in charge of costume and textile arts, and Laura L. Camerlengo, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Fashions change,” Lewis explained. “[The show] is called Contemporary Muslim Fashions, plural. That’s important. If we curated this exhibition in 10 years time, we’d be showing different things.”
It just so happens the team put the looks on display when modest fashion is having a moment in the secular sphere, too. See: Batsheva Hay’s revival of the prairie dress. (The New York designer created the much-imitated look to satisfy her Orthodox Jewish dressing parameters, though it’s been embraced by people of all backgrounds.)
“Modest aesthetics will go-off trend, though they’re very on-trend at the moment,” Lewis admitted. “But that doesn’t mean the needs of those customers will disappear, or indeed that those styles and garment ranges will disappear.”
“Every major faith has some sort of mandate when it comes to dressing modestly,” said Alia Khan, chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion & Design Council. “This has been going on for generations, since the beginning of time, literally, so it’s nothing new. It’s not like this suddenly blew up, it’s just that the social media generation came of age and modest fashion dresses in this category were able to openly express their sense of style.”
One such influencer represented in the show includes Langston Hues, a Detroit-based photographer who earned an online following in the early-2010s as a sort of Bill Cunningham for stylish Muslim women via his blog, Modest Street Fashion. His on-the-fly photos open the Cooper Hewitt exhibit.
“There is a world of difference with modern fashion since I began blogging in 2009,” said Hassanah El-Yacoubi, a modest fashion influencer and founder of the brand PFH. “Back then, there were barely any modest options available across mainstream marketplaces, and if there were options they were so scarce that you knew if you bought that one modest dress, there would be multiple women wearing the same outfit at that event.”
El-Yacoubi said that it is still challenging to find modest swimsuits. Despite the visual feast of eveningwear present in the Cooper Hewitt’s collection, the skinny section on sportswear (centered around Nike’s hijab) leaves more to be desired.
The influencer said she’d love to see more brands cater to that need, but she can be skeptical about the commodification of religious garb. “Corporate brands seeking to cater to modest fashion, particularly those who release hijab collections, should thoughtfully engage the Muslim community to get their feedback and input,” El-Yacoubi said. “I recognize that not all modest fashion seekers are Muslim, but a large part of them are. Had it not been for the unrelenting efforts of Muslims to get the global fashion industry to wake up to the lucrative opportunity modest fashion presents, I don’t think modest fashion would be as trending as it is.”
Last year, Artnet reported that both right-wing and feminist groups protested the San Francisco opening of the exhibit, calling a show which includes hijabs a “glorification of an oppressive tool.”
Such complaints completely ignore the work that’s on display. Seventy percent of the clothes included in the exhibit were created by female designers under 40—women showcasing agency and power, running their own businesses, and choosing to cover up despite the continued politicization of their faith.
“This is a very difficult topic,” Lewis, the consulting curator, admitted. “We know that around the world, women have little choice about if, how, and when to cover. Women everywhere, including those who see themselves as secular, are subject to surveillance and appraisal about how they look.”
“What I appreciate most about modest fashion is that it gives women the opportunity to show that they are more than what meets the eye by covering up,” El-Yacoubi explained. “It gives them the power to show their bodies when they want and how they want to.”
Contemporary Muslim Fashions is at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, NYC, until Aug. 23, 2020.