Modest fashion is rising in popularity — a look at the multi-billion dollar industry

WATCH: The rise of modest fashion, explained

Longer sleeves, higher necklines and looser fits are the clothing styles several women across cultural and religious backgrounds have opted to wear for years.

But now, catering to those needs is a multi-billion dollar industry.

According to one estimate, in 2016, the modest fashion industry raked in $250 billion. By 2022, according to The Washington Post, it’s slotted to make $373 billion.

But what is it about modest fashion that makes it such a hit with consumers and creators alike?

Models walk the ramp at the 2019 IMFDF show in Toronto. Maham Abedi/Global News

For Nateka Pitter, the Canadian co-founder of the International Modesty Fashion & Designs Festival, it’s a summation of many of her passions.

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Pitter told Global News that the clothing caters to her needs a Muslim woman who chooses to dress modesty. But more than that, it gives her a way to express her passion for fashion.

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“When I first became a Muslim, one of the things I could not find was just a long skirt and a cardigan,” she said.

That’s what prompted Pitter to start her own fashion company, and then eventually, an international festival based in Toronto.

“There’s a need here, there’s a niche market,” said, noting that even beyond the Muslim community, the events’ attendees have included Christian, Jewish and atheist women from around the world.

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Pitter has been in the modest fashion industry for years — others are newer.

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Nike waded into modest fashion in 2017 with a hijab for athletic wear.

Stores such as H&M, Banana Republic, Macy’s and many others have experimented with modest collections, headscarves and have hired visibly Muslim models.

Serving those who prefer modest fashion is also something luxury brands have tried out.

Dolce & Gabbana also debuted a line of hijabs and abayas, while Oscar de la Renta introduced a line of clothing for the month of Ramadan.

But what exactly is modest fashion?

Modest fashion is something Romana Mirza has been studying at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion, with a project titled Women Undercover.

“What makes them modest is just a very subtle difference, so higher necklines, longer hemlines, longer sleeve lengths, looser cuts through the hips for pants, and skirts [with] opaque materials,” Mirza told Global News.

While much of modest fashion is geared toward women of faith, it extends to those who prefer it for other reasons, as well — often as simple as comfort.

Mirza explained that many women who choose to dress modestly are doing so to reject “unrealistic beauty ideals,” and refusing to be controlled by brands and advertising that denote you have to show skin in order to be free.

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“There’s another kind of liberation that women feel by covering their bodies, because they’re rejecting what a patriarchal or hegemonic society is telling them [they] should look like.”

Mirza noted there are several factors driving the growth of modest fashion. Among them is a growing and increasingly younger Muslim population. According to Pew Research, there were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world in 2015. The religion has the youngest median age of any major religion in the world.

Other big contributors to the rise of modest fashion include social media and fashion bloggers.

Many modest fashion bloggers have been taking to YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to embrace and promote their style.

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The path was paved by some early starters, such as British YouTuber Dina Torkia, who released a book called Modestly in 2018.

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Canadians bloggers and entrepreneurs have also made their mark on the modest fashion landscape, creating brands such as Balbea, Hayah Collection and Nourka.

Modest fashion and politics

But as part of Mirza’s research notes, there is a “dark side” the modest fashion industry grapples with — the discrimination faced by those who choose to dress modestly.

Mirza pointed to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public sector workers from wearing religious apparel such as hijabs, kippahs and turbans to work.

She said lawmakers need to step away from “legislating women’s bodies,” and women should be allowed to present themselves to the world as they please.

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But the issue of what women can or cannot wear is one that has cropped up not just in Canada, but around the world.

In France, for example, several cities have implemented a burkini ban — to stop women from wearing modest swimsuits while at the beach or pools.

Countries in Europe, such as Denmark, Latvia and Belgium, have instituted various bans on niqabs and other religious clothing worn by Muslim women.

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“I think really what this is about is about choice — as it is with all other women’s bodies issues, like abortion,” Mirza said.

“It’s really about women having agency and a choice.”

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