This is my first piece for the New York Times. See the article in its original form here.
A Muslim, an Orthodox Jew and a religious Christian walked into a room, but it wasn’t a bar and this was no joke. On the contrary, representatives from each of the Abrahamic religions had gathered during fashion month at New York University for the Meeting Through Modesty fashion symposium to discuss something they take very seriously: modest style.
A generous smattering of hijabs, skullcaps and discreet wigs were spread throughout the room, along with Proenza Schouler skirts and Rachel Comey shoes.
“There’s a general misconception that modest clothing is inherently oppressive,” said Michelle Honig, the keynote speaker and an Orthodox Jewish fashion journalist. “But if women in so-called ‘liberated countries’ still choose to cover their bodies, then they have made a choice. They have agency.”
Ms. Honig had layered a Tanya Taylor top and Marc by Marc Jacobs skirt under a striped Prada dress to keep her elbows and knees concealed, in addition to wearing a wig to keep her head covered, per Orthodox custom.
The symposium was just one of a growing number of modest-fashion events in recent months at universities like Fordham, Princeton and the London College of Fashion. The trend in academic settings reflects a broader movement on the internet as devout women use social media to discuss, celebrate and experiment with modest fashion.
Interpretations of modesty differ across religious boundaries and even within them. “Modesty” in a Muslim context may be expressed by wearing loose-fitting pants and covering one’s head with a hijab, while an Orthodox Jewish woman may wear skirts or dresses only and cover her head with a wig.
Christian women, like the swimwear designer Jessica Rey, may express their vision of modesty by eschewing bikinis in favor of bathing suits that expose their legs but cover their midriffs.
Still, the shared interest in staying relatively covered up while still looking stylish is enough to connect women across religious, racial and cultural boundaries. Many of them cite devotion to God and a desire to present themselves as “more than a collection of body parts,” in Ms. Rey’s words, as the motivation behind their affinity for modest dress.
“Making connections with other Christians, as well as Muslim and Jewish women, has probably been the most exciting benefit of blogging,” says Liz Roy, a Christian who runs the personal style blog Downtown Demure. “We all have different standards for modesty, but we share this common goal, which can be a bit contradictory to secular standards.”
These connections have the potential to yield more than just warm, fuzzy feelings, according to the Jewish Orthodox sisters Simi and Chaya Gestetner of the modest indie label the Frock. While they enjoy the personal connections they build with customers of any faith (including their Orthodox neighbors in Brooklyn and their Mormon fans in Salt Lake City), they also see the mobilization of the modest-fashion community as a real boon for business.
The sisters report seeing a significant increase in sales every time the Jewish Orthodox street style star Adi Heyman posts Instagram images of herself wearing their pieces, often mixed with separates from brands like Gucci or Chanel. Since Ms. Heyman’s blog, Fabologie, flows from her desire to find more modest options in mainstream fashion, the continued success of brands like the Frock is something she is deeply invested in.
And while linking commerce and religion may seem distasteful to some, modest-fashion entrepreneurs like Melanie Elturk see it as a natural way to live out their faith and serve their communities. Ms. Elturk, a former lawyer who founded the online retailer Haute Hijab in 2010, uses her online following to offer style inspiration and practical resources to young Muslim women who are seeking to honor the tradition of wearing hijabs in the face of cultural pushback.
“I have a whole network of psychiatrists, therapists, social workers and community leaders who I put in touch with girls who are struggling so they can hash out any issues,” said Ms. Elturk, whose responsive social media presence engages many younger followers. “I want to see a thriving community of girls who are proud to wear hijab.”
Like many of her peers across religious lines, she would argue that modesty is required of both men and women, and that it’s as much about how one carries oneself as how one dresses. And like Ms. Rey, whose line is made in America, Ms. Elturk would assert that her religious beliefs have made her as committed to ethical production as she is to modesty in fashion.
But perhaps the greatest point of consensus about modest fashion across a range of faiths is that it need not be experienced as a limiting factor in style or in life.
At the NYU panel, the Indonesian designer Dian Pelangi showed a video by Hijup, a Muslim fashion store, that showcased herself, a member of a hard-core band known for social critique and a martial artist who all pursue their passions while wearing the hijab. Ms. Honig chimed in with anecdotes about her experiences sky diving, rock-climbing and rappelling while wearing a skirt, asserting that while it may not be easy to participate in certain activities while honoring strict modesty dictates, “it’s possible.”
“You want to experience life,” Ms. Honig said. “Modesty shouldn’t hold you back.”