British-born Rifhat Qureshi is one of 43%. As a part-time enterprise officer for Cardiff University, she’s a woman of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity who was actively engaged in the UK labour market in 2019.
In the same year, she also hit the ground running her own business — Modest Trends London, a fashion brand for women looking for quality, sustainable and ethical fashion.
Qureshi tells Salaam Gateway her clientele isn’t exclusively Muslim, and recalls a non-Muslim woman who was going on business to Saudi Arabia asking for her help to pick a range of modest outfits.
“She wanted to feel included and showing her respect at the same time,” Qureshi said. “I even gave her a tutorial on how to wear the scarf.”
Qureshi’s customer experience could have been a case study for the research project that highlights a so-far ignored modest fashion consumer segment: women without religious belief or aesthetic preferences but who dress modestly to meet workplace regulations or norms.
The “Modest Fashion in UK Women’s Working Life” study found that secular women travelling to Saudi Arabia for work and agnostic women working in UK faith-based organisations encounter modest fashion as a workplace expectation or a social norm and invest extra time and expenses to develop a modest workwear wardrobe.
“Modest fashion is not only a property of the religious,” sociology professor at Coventry University Kristin Aune said at a parliamentary roundtable held online in February. At the event, she introduced the research results, packaged in two in-depth reports addressing the creative and fashion industries and employers, HR professionals, religious organisations, and policymakers.
“Achieving workplace modesty isn't simple because there's nothing inherently modest or immodest in particular garments,” said research team leader Reina Lewis, a professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, who has researched modest fashion extensively.
UK WOMEN DRESSING FOR SAUDI WORKPLACE
The study interviewed 65 women, including 21 who were UK-based and either operated in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time or travelled to the Kingdom on business.
The interviewees worked in the professional sectors, which was to be expected, as Business Services made up 69.2% of all UK services exported to Saudi Arabia, followed by Financial Services (8.1%), and Travel (7.4%).
Saudi Arabia is one of Britain’s biggest trading partners in the Middle East region, accounting for 0.7% of total UK trade in 2020, according to official data. Last year, exports amounted to £6.6 billion ($9.3 billion), representing a 10.3% increase over 2019.
The Kingdom’s work dress code is specific and applies to all women. However, interpretations vary across the country and over time, according to the study.
The British women visiting Saudi Arabia for work had mixed feelings about wearing an abaya. It was sometimes considered as “comfortable, practical, elegant, and facilitating confidence and successful work performance”. However, some women felt it was “uncomfortable or physically restrictive, undermining women’s self-confidence and individuality”.
In general, women saw the modest dress codes as the “price of doing business”.
UK FAITH-BASED WORK ENVIRONMENTS
Back in the UK, dressing modestly is also expected in faith-based organisations.
Almost a third of the 187,495 registered charities in the UK were faith-based, finds a 2016 report by think tank and social sector consultancy NPC.
2,054 charities were Islam- or Muslim-linked, making them the fourth largest behind 2,147 Jewish-focused charities.
Religious traditions typically influence a faith-based charity’s institutional policies, including modest dress codes. Compared to secular workplaces, women reported to appreciate the lack of pressure to dress in sexualised ways at these charities.
Aune talked to 22 women who work at or with British faith-based charities and recommends businesses offer training and support to their staff of different religions. Such support facilitates a better understanding and navigation of modesty requirements and dress norms, the researcher finds.
When it comes to work wear, Rifhat Qureshi feels fortunate. “I’ve never been subject to a dress code,” she said. “If I wanted to wear my abaya, I could, and I always wear my hijab.”
She believes this is because of the character and nature of educational institutions. “They tend to be a lot more diverse, understanding, and culturally aware of so many issues.”
THE STATE OF (MODEST) FASHION
The UK study reveals that modest fashion is both a temporary trend and long-term category, and Lewis expressed optimism that insights from modest fashion will become mainstream.
“There is a whole cohort of women of all different religious and secular backgrounds who want party dresses with sleeves,” said Lewis, who helped curate the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition that started in 2018 and toured for almost three years from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum to Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst, and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Her assumptions add to the growth market outlook in Dinar Standard’s 2020/2021 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report: Muslim spend on apparel and footwear (not modest fashion per se as a sector) increased by 4.2% in 2019 to $277 billion and is expected to reach $311 billion in 2024, despite a temporary COVID-19 dip. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran rank as the top countries by expenditure.
There is currently no estimate for the size of modest fashion as a sector.
However, as an indication, fashion as an industry is struggling globally.
McKinsey’s Global Fashion Index estimates the industry’s profit in 2020 plunged by a whopping 93%. The pain was already setting in pre-pandemic. In 2019, growth was an anaemic 4% and the number of industry value creators was reduced to 40% compared to 45% of the previous three years, with a further erosion to 27% expected in 2020.
E-commerce fashion retailers performed better and saw a V-shaped recovery from March 2020 as extended lockdowns pushed consumers online. Suburban retail stood out, performing well as affluent shoppers favoured malls in well-heeled residential areas of emerging market metropolises such as Moscow, Istanbul, Mumbai, Lagos and Jakarta.
McKinsey predicts greater economic success for agile fashion companies, citing quick responses to changing consumer dynamics and targeting better-performing geographies, segments or product categories as indispensable strategies.
Profits aside, modest fashion retailer Rifhat Qureshi wants her business to stand for meeting the needs of the under- and unrepresented.
“I believe modest fashion is more of a movement, which, I think, is going to stick, grow and develop.”
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