Feeling uncatered for in the UK’s modest clothing industry, Muslim millennials and Gen-Zers are gravitating towards the streetwear style to meet their modest fashion needs.
Imagine you are a hijabi woman and you are out in central London shopping with your friends, searching for a comfortable, practical everyday outfit. Specifically, you are looking for something modest and stylish that can take you from fun activities with your friends to prayer, in a matter of minutes.
As you filter through hangers of trendy low-rise jeans, cropped tank tops, and plunge mini dresses, your hope for an easy shopping experience is diminishing, one clothing rail at a time. In the corner of your eye, you spot a bright, beaming sign that reads “Modest Clothing.” As you draw closer, your eyes carefully brush over a hijabi mannequin in awe.
Styled in an oversized coffee brown sweatshirt, refined wide-leg trousers, with the sneakers and hijab to match, you can’t help but want to be dressed just like her. You turn to the nearest retail assistant in excitement, asking them if they will help you find the entire look in your size. After disappearing for half-an-hour, you return to your friends with a shopping bag in each hand, unable to wipe the gleaming smile off your face.
Ah, if only it were that easy.
According to the 2022 State of Global Islamic Economy Report, Muslim spending on fashion is predicted to reach $375 billion (£302 bn) in 2025, so undoubtedly the Muslim consumer is important for revenue. With Muslim representation increasing in the modeling industry, athletic hijabs being made by big sporting brands, and Ramadan-marketed product lines, the modest fashion industry is seemingly flourishing.
But it’s 2023, and young Muslim women in the UK are still struggling to shop for cool clothes, find a modest fit and participate in fashion trends, like their non-Muslim friends.
Salma Ghailane, 20, says that when she goes shopping it’s always a long-winded ordeal because there aren’t many modest lines in normal retailers. This is a common experience for Muslim women living in western countries because modesty is not as normalised as it is in south-west Asia, particularly amongst Gen-Z.
But brands in the UK are doing little to help Muslim women fit in with what’s trending. “I shouldn’t have to go shopping, and spend hours just to find one thing, when it could just be everywhere,” says Salma.
Fadumeen Ahmed, 24, also feels that retailers who claim to cater for modest dressers are still creating clothing that is very traditional and provides little edge against modest fashion stereotypes.
“There is a big misconception with modesty and fashion. Some people think the two can’t work hand-in-hand together and it’s not true,” says Fadumeen. With 3.9 million Muslim people in the UK as of 2021, and numbers on a steady incline, more young Muslim women want the opportunity to feel fashionable and modest, rather than having to sacrifice one for the other.
Modest fashion is a styling preference that focuses on wearing garments that cover up the majority of the body for cultural, religious, or personal reasons, but it is often misrepresented in the media.
Modest fashion content creator, Tahirah Folk, says that the biggest misconception around modest fashion is that women who dress modestly are brainwashed and oppressed. “It’s a misogynistic assumption that women who choose to dress differently from the majority of society aren’t smart enough to have discernment,” says Folk.
However, she admits “within the Muslim community, there is also a misconception that modesty has to look boring or look one specific way,” narrowing Muslim women into a box when it comes to style. Tahirah explains that Muslim women are creative, fashionable individuals who deserve more opportunity and inclusivity to showcase that without retailers limiting their potential.
Rather than remaking decidedly ethnic kaftans, young Muslim women, like Salma and Fadumeen, just want to wear a more modest version of what everyone else is wearing in the UK. “Even when I look at companies who cater towards Muslim women or modesty, it’s hideous and really ugly. H&M dropped their Ramadan collection and I just thought, ‘who is wearing this?’” says Fadumeen.
Fadumeen struggles to shop on the high street because she simply cannot see herself in the clothing. She feels retailers aren’t producing modest clothes for the average British young Muslim woman. “Some brands in the UK are catering to tourists and not to the average Londoner, but fashion is a reflection of where you are and where you’ve been brought up. So, there needs to be more of that element in the design process,” she says.
Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, agrees: “there were times when a modest aesthetic was very prevalent in mainstream fashion and it made it much easier for women to shop as they didn’t need to buy five different garments and layer them up in different ways–they could just buy a top and a pair of trousers or a dress and that was sufficient.”
But, in the last few years, we have re-entered what Lewis calls “the Britney years”, an era that is reimagining the skin-showing looks of nineties and noughties fashion. With Y2K style trending, Muslim women are encouraged to work around the current fashion market to stay up-to-date.
In some ways, shopping has become simpler than it was previously with the return of cargo pants and windbreakers: “I only say that because oversized and baggy clothes are on trend now; oversized bottoms, tops, T-shirts, parachute cargos. So, it makes it easier to pick out modest pieces,” says Fadumeen.
But, “it’s still very hard, because you have to do a lot more layering unfortunately. Whether that’s t-shirts underneath or a high neck vest.” So, while these trends can ease the lives of Muslim women in certain ways, there are still issues when it comes to layering and fit because they aren’t made with modesty in mind.
For example, Reina Lewis says, “while the cargo pants may be loose and may not cling to the shape of your leg, they are very likely to show your abdomen, so then women have to make styling decisions to layer it up.”
Not only does layering makes shopping as a Muslim woman much more challenging, time-consuming, and expensive, it also isn’t practical for all seasons. “It’s really hard in summer because of course you still want to be modest and cover up, but you’re working around all of the clothes currently in stores for the season,” says Fadumeen.
It is also evident that high street retailers are not taking sizing into account for curvaceous, tall, and petite body types, meaning that ‘Muslim-friendly’ clothing can still be revealing, depending on your shape.
Fadumeen explains that your body type can make or break your experience. “I feel like there is a lot of focus on one particular body shape, the ‘standard’, but what would look baggy on a petite girl would look really tight on someone who is quite curvy, so that also comes into play,” says Fadumeen.
With brands like Asos creating tall and petite clothing lines, it appears that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to inclusivity. However, as a taller woman, Fadumeen still struggles to find modest clothing that will cover her legs and hips. “There’s not really much out there. It’s either you wear a ridiculous size or it’s time to shop in the men’s section, so that makes it harder for me,” she says.
Long-distance runner and fashion enthusiast, Intisar Saeed, says that as a Muslim woman growing up you often feel excluded by fashion trends. “I’ve been wearing the hijab since I was thirteen, so growing up, I kind of felt like I was missing out. When I would go out with friends and I’d see what they’re wearing, I felt like ‘Oh, I can’t wear that skirt because it’s got a slit,'” she explains.
But after years of learning and experimenting with personal style, taste, and fit, Intisar found streetwear and her FOMO subsided. “Once I built my streetwear style, that’s when I knew what to pick, where to shop, and what would suit me,” she says.
Like Intisar, Salma felt like she didn’t really fit in, but with streetwear she was able to make space for herself in popular aesthetics. “When I first started wearing a headscarf and dressing modestly, there wasn’t a middle ground until I started delving into streetwear. There were either skinny jeans and a T-shirt, or you’re wearing abayas and long dresses, and being very modest,” she explains.
Intisar, Salma, and Fadumeen, all gravitate towards streetwear fashion, the casual clothing phenomenon that grew from California’s surfing and skating subcultures and New York’s hip-hop music scene. Pinpointing what clothing classifies as streetwear can be tricky, but it is generally regarded as “comfortable yet trendy clothing such as graphic tees, hoodies, sweatpants, and expensive sneakers”, according to Masterclass.
As Salma says, “I’m most confident in streetwear because it looks cool and you feel cool, while still being modest.” With people sprinting to the Size? store for the latest New Balance’s or fumbling frantically on the SNKRS app for the Nike X Stussy drop, it’s no wonder that Salma “feels cool” in her Vomero 5’s and cargo pants when people are constantly asking her how she got hold of them. But it’s not just the inclusivity that is drawing in Muslim women, streetwear is practical too.
Despite its laidback origins, streetwear is made up of staple pieces that are acceptable to be worn for a multitude of occasions, providing a versatility that serves the female Muslim community. Drawing inspiration particularly from American singer Aaliyah’s oversized hockey shirt and basketball jersey looks, Intisar loves that she can change her outfits from day to night.
“You can wear cargos with sneakers and then with heels, and it looks nice,” she says. Because streetwear outfits can be worn in a range of ways, Intisar can go from practicing her faith to hanging out with friends, to sitting down for a family meal without having to change.
But another thing that seems to be drawing in the female Muslim community is the men’s section of streetwear brands, like Nike and Daily Paper. Salma explains that she prefers a look that falls somewhere in the middle, something not too feminine and not too masculine, arguing that the women’s section of streetwear sometimes doesn’t quite cut it either.
“I find that women’s clothing is either tight or cropped or the colours are not up my street, so most of the streetwear I wear is men’s,” she says. Although streetwear is on the face of it more modest, even in this field, a lot of women’s clothing is made to be skin-bearing or fitted. Intisar says “Sometimes men’s T-shirts are a lot nicer than women’s; they fit nicer, they’re below the hips, and they cover me. For example, I’m a massive fan of the Nike ACG men’s section because they’re not tight, the colours are nice, they’re all long-sleeved, and the neckline is high. So it’s like immediately I’m thinking ‘Okay, hijab-friendly.'”
Lewis explains that “this may be because streetwear brands are very relaxed about consumers shopping across the range. For example, there will be some men who want to wear the skimpy tops that might be in the women’s range.”
Ultimately, Muslim women put their faith first, and streetwear allows them to go about their daily activities because of its mainstream acceptability and relaxed fit. “I will continue to wear streetwear because it’s comfortable, it’s in style, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere”, says Intisar.
Two young Muslim female designers have noticed their underrepresented demographic and are making fashionable streetwear designs in an effort to represent their culture and faith with integrity, avoiding damaging stereotypes. Saeedah Haque and Kazna Asker are mixing traditional, cultural elements of modest dress with modern, British streetwear styles, redefining what it means to be a young, Muslim woman today.
Saeedah Haque, who found fame on TikTok, is a London-based designer making streetwear more inclusive by encouraging people to try out modesty. After pitching World Cup and Maghreb-inspired designs to Nike and hearing nothing back, Haque has used her experience from her VFILES runway debut in 2021, to reimagine the traditional abaya garment, which covers everything but the head, hands, and feet. Last month, the Bengali designer dropped a line of soft, hoodie-style abayas in neutral tones and within one night, her made-to-order stock sold out.
Sheffield-based designer Kazna Asker is taking a similar route with streetwear by fusing traditional woven Middle Eastern fabrics, inspired by her Yemeni heritage, with streetwear tracksuits and windbreakers. Asker was the first hijabi designer to create pieces for UAL Central Saint Martin’s MA fashion show during London Fashion Week, and was recently featured in Kurt Geiger’s ‘People Empowered’ campaign aiming to inspire more Muslim designers to take up space in the industry.
In an interview about her collection for CSM, she says “In my local community, I would always see my grandma wearing a traditional abaya and hijab with my brother who would be in his whole tracksuit and puffer jacket, so my goal is to combine those two generations.”
With Muslim-owned streetwear brands, power is being put back into the hands of the Muslim community and the narrative that modesty can’t coincide with trendiness is changing. As Kazna Asker put it: “I just want people to know that we’re just cool people, in our tracksuits, looking cool.”
Featured image of End Clothing on Broadwick Street, Carnaby, taken by Roy Katzenberg.