The Very Modern Fits of the Modest Crowd

14 September 2020
Fashion, Style, Modest fashion, Subhi Taha, Muslim, Culture, Millenial, Zaahid Ahmad
Modest fashion is gaining momentum among millennial men – and it isn’t sacrificing any style along the way

Take a dive into #modestfashion on Instagram, and you will scroll endlessly through more than 2.6 million images, mostly of floral dresses and contemporary abayas. But though it may be a female-centric retail category, modest fashion is a burgeoning market for men, fronted by a group of Muslim males who are promoting modesty through design, wild styling and big social media fits.

It’s a buzzword in womenswear, but modesty is rarely discussed when it comes to men’s clothing – likely because Muslim cultures tend to place the onus of honour and chastity on women, rather than men.

“Most people don’t associate men with modesty – it’s still, unfortunately, seen more as a feminine quality to ‘cover up’. But I certainly see that changing, especially within the male Muslim community,” says Texas-based designer Subhi Taha. “It was actually seeing the female Muslim fashion bloggers on social media share their modest style that inspired me to do so myself as a Muslim guy.”

Taha’s go-to outfits usually feature denim with hems cuffed at the ankles, paired with loose-fitting shirts, capes and ghutra scarves worn as shawls. His aesthetic – from silhouettes to patterns and textiles – is shaped by his Palestinian-Filipino heritage. He says his religious beliefs are what motivate his personal style.

“Mainstream styles project unrealistic and unhealthy body ideals. Countering these trends is a positive development.”

“That’s really the first lens I look through when designing pieces or wearing a garment –  does it align with my faith? When I started working corporate after college, I had a hard time fulfilling my five daily prayers in standard Western clothing – fitted pants and a slim top. That’s when I started making my own pants that were easier to bow in, and long, looser tops that didn’t ride up.”

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In Islam, haya is the term used to denote modesty, with the word awrah describing the “intimate” body parts that should be covered. For men, tradition says this to be the area between the naval and the knee. Mainstream style pieces that reveal skin when bending over or raising your arms may conflict with this traditional interpretation of awrah, and further notions say that clothing for men – like women – should be loose-fitting. Gladly, the menswear mood du jour is gravitating towards more oversized style.

Men who champion modesty don’t view these guidelines to be restrictive – like the women who have helped popularise modest fashion, their sartorial flair is flourishing within this framework of faith.

“Anything within these parameters is up to us to be as creative as we want. It is all halal,” says UK-based designer Zaahid Ahmad, whose East-meets-West ensembles combine traditional thobes and topis (fitted, woven skullcaps) with Nike Air Max and Adidas Y-3 sneakers.

“Islam is a lifestyle, and the way that we dress has to be adjusted accordingly. The really great thing about streetwear is that it can adapt to other fashion styles – and so transitioning to dressing more modestly was seamless,” he says.

While the women’s modest fashion movement often appropriates Western silhouettes, a bright, culturally-influenced aesthetic of the East is a central theme of the male modest fashion sphere. In fact, it’s become the basis of numerous labels in Europe and North America. Philadelphia-based Aneeq Apparel creates custom thobes in pastel pinstripes and punchy shades like sky blue and salmon, while UK-based offers a range of pleated and patterned kandooras – including one style called “bling diamante jubba,” which is decorated with a strip of crystals. Meanwhile, Toronto brand Shab Sheek uses replica designer logo fabrics on its thobe silhouettes, promoting them on TikTok through rap videos, with lyrics like “praying my salaat in a Fendi thobe”.

Oversized streetwear and cultural silhouettes aren’t the only factors in play – just as burkinis are a thriving market when it comes to modest fashion for Muslim females, there is also growing demand for men’s swimwear.

“Mainstream men’s swimwear does not take a holistic view of meeting Islamic dress requirement for men,” says Amir Latifi. He and his wife have just launched Zusaura – a luxury modest swimwear label for men, specialising in below-the-knee boardshorts and colour-drenched rash vests.

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As with women’s modest fashion, there is a wide diversity of interpretations when it comes to covering – or not covering – one’s body. While Latifi emphasises that haya is a “defining characteristic of Islam,” he admits that approaches differ from man to man. “Ultimately, any opinion on the importance for men to be modest is a personal one. For us, our opinion is based on our understanding of our faith but should in no way be taken to be authoritative,” he says.

And, just as modest fashion for females has gained traction even among non-religious women, the styles showcased on Instagram by Muslim males could inspire an unexpected audience of consumers. Trends like hipster beards and oversized apparel, arguably rooted in Middle Eastern cultures, have already gone mainstream, and men who are uncomfortable baring their bodies in muscle tees and spray-on-skinny trousers may find solace in the prospect of modesty.

“The concept of haya can be equated to encouraging the development of a positive body image,” says Latifi. “With the current mainstream fashion often projecting unrealistic and downright unhealthy body ideals…developing modest styles of dress to counter these trends should be viewed as a positive development.”

While this retail niche may have some catching up to do, the men pioneering modesty are optimistic about its potential to upend societal style norms.

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“Women’s modest fashion has definitely displayed how scalable the industry is, but I think modest menswear fashion is still finding its footing,” says Ahmad.

For these men, modesty is more of a lifestyle than a trend, and they hope to enlighten and inspire younger males.

“If I had social media growing up, where I could’ve been exposed to male fashion bloggers promoting modesty, I definitely would’ve been able to make it a part of my life much sooner,” says Taha.

“More so than the actual movement of men’s modest fashion, I’m really excited to see where the style goes after the trend fades – where we’re left with the men who have made modest fashion a part of their day-to-day. Because to me, that’s where I foresee great things happening: creatives using their genuine passion for modest fashion as their guide and paving the permanent path for those who follow.”