Lee Suckling: Why 'revealing' fashion is coming to an end

By Lee Suckling, New Zealand Herald

This past weekend, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia hosted the first ever Arab Fashion Week.

A model on the runway at Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh

A model on the runway at Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh

Designers from the Arab world (that most of us have never heard of) made their showcase, alongside esteemed international labels such as Jean Paul Gaultier– which showed for the first time outside Paris.

This fashion week, held in the uber-conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, featured a bevy of what's known as "modest" designs. Many of the models weren't wearing hijabs, but rather, they had suitably covered shoulders and arms, and most gowns were floor-length, showing minimal skin.

Across the Western world, modest fashion is trending, too. It's not just the big designers of Paris and Milan that have realised the Middle Eastern market for high-end womenswear will only continue to grow; we're actually seeing that influence Western tastes as well. It's quite the change, considering the lock Western styling has historically had on international fashion culture.

This isn't to say that Western women aren't about to become hijabis for style reasons. Instead, it's showing how covering up can be just as fashionable and sexy as baring all.


The Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Markle actually have a lot to do with this. It's no secret that everything they wear sells out on the high street as soon as they wear it in public. What's pertinent about their style is shared modesty: shoulders and arms always covered, no cleavage, longer hem lengths than Western society traditionally expects. Layers are common and colours are muted, as is a general look of being "buttoned up".

Yet their chicness prevails, and modest styling is sought-after across the West. It's even thought that The Meghan Effect boosted fashion sales by more than US$250 million ahead of the wedding between Markle and Prince Harry in May (and The Kate Effect is thought to be worth £1 billion to the UK economy).


I welcome modest fashion, but – like some hijabi fashion insiders – take issue with the word "modest". In the current issue of British Vogue, Somalian American model Halima Aden is called the poster girl for modest fashion. She doesn't like that term, however: "It immediately implies something derogatory about other women," she told Vogue.

It's a fair point. Calling non-skin-exposing fashion "modest" is to say that anything else is immodest. It infers that women that aren't wholly covered are – to put it bluntly – sluts. Yet "we shouldn't be judging people on their wardrobes," added Aden.

I'd thus like to see the fashion industry refer to such styles as "covered" fashion, because this term isn't loaded. It's a realistic description rather than something that carries potentially negative connotations.

Why am I such a fan of covered fashion? Because I think it's elegant. Lines are clean and structured, and garments are an undeniable expression of female empowerment. The shoulder pads, the cinched waists, the emphasis on the neck... it reads as strong and salient.

Yet I must address what the Western critics of covered fashion will be saying. It's curious that the first Arab Fashion Week, which is to represent the clothing of 22 Arab nations, was held in Riyadh rather than a more liberal city such as Dubai. In Saudi Arabia, women usually wear an abaya: a black, loose-fitting robe-like dress worn with headscarf. One of the main markets for the clothing shown at Arab Fashion Week is therefore probably women who will only wear other designs in private (if you recall that particular scene in the awful film Sex and The City 2, you'll know what I'm talking about).

As Westerners, however, what we fail to comprehend is that covering is done voluntarily by many women of Islamic background. To wear a hijab or undertake another form of covering can be a choice. Syrian American singer Mona Haydar, for example, told Glamour magazine in an interview about her hijabi anthem 'Wrap My Hijab': "I wake up, put on my scarf, I go to work or school and, for me, I'm walking out into the world with the full consciousness that it's my decision and my choice. I feel so empowered by that. It's about liberating myself from standards that people want to put on women."

I hope that's how the rest of us can see the proliferation of covered fashion, which shows no sign of abating in the Western industry. It's one way for women to dress – not the only way, and not something dictated by men. It's dressing as a woman on women's terms. That is something to celebrate, I believe, whether we're talking about fashion or anything else.