Modest fashion might come across as a humblebrag: You have to be a pretty stylish, pretty good-looking woman to claim ownership of such radical dowdiness. (The style seems especially popular among women in their 20s and 30s — trumping the received wisdom that one should flaunt one’s body before it is marked by the supposed scourges of childbearing or menopause.) It can also sometimes seem like an elitist project of sociocultural self-positioning: By embracing the covered-up look, you declare yourself part of a particular psychographic tribe, one whose members don’t just dress for other women, but for a particular subset of other women — those who get it, who are sophisticated enough to understand that opting out of conventional beauty standards makes for its own kind of conceptual, better-than-thou fashion. It also, however, has the feel of a real dare. Observing this version of feminist signaling, which conflates the rebel, haphazard spirit of a Bloomsbury Group-like smockishness with traces of early ’90s grunge and a dash of post-bellum Sunday best, we might begin to ask ourselves: What happens when women start dressing in ways that are less than conventionally flattering? Why are they doing it? And what does it look like when fashion choices that might have been linked to female oppression perform in the service of liberation?
HISTORICALLY, CONSERVATIVE dressing is most frequently associated with religious adherence, which makes the most recent, trendier iteration of the phenomenon especially surprising — considering the kind of woman who is newly sheathing herself in long, baggy silhouettes is often the type of liberal nonbeliever who’d be the first to eschew any traditional strictures on her choices, sartorial or otherwise. Orthodox Jews follow the laws of tzniut (literally “modesty” in Hebrew), according to which the body of a woman — and her hair, too, if she’s married — should be substantively covered; observant Muslim women often wear a version of the hijab and loose-fitting, figure-obscuring clothing in public settings; and women in traditional Christian communities, from Amish to Mennonite, wear long dresses and, sometimes, some form of head covering. But whether one believes it’s a marker of outdated patriarchal coercion or a choice to be made by the devout woman herself, what seems clear is that this kind of dressing has until recently been seen as miles away from what a modern secular woman would want to wear.
This contradiction might be best embodied in the story of the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk — a publication that led the charge in advancing the kind of woodsy-hipster design-and-fashion aesthetic that has grown popular in America’s most liberal enclaves, from Silver Lake to Fort Greene, but that also has its roots in the Mormon upbringing of its founders, who established it in 2011 while attending Brigham Young University-Hawaii. The humble, homespun spirit usually associated with retiring, self-enclosed communities of believers has been imported, not unlike the covered-up dressing trend, to an arena that feels largely alien to it, but that embraces its tenets — the handcrafted, the natural, the rustic — at least inasmuch as they can be marketed as a kind of soothing artisanal salve to the alienations of late-capitalist life.
SPEAKING TO some nonreligious women who tend to dress modestly, however, goes a way toward clarifying the style’s utility and function, as well as some of its inherent ambiguities. Thirty-two-year-old Hannah Hoffman, who runs her own eponymous gallery in Los Angeles, says she prefers figure-enshrouding outfits, mostly from Céline, to any other look. This is a matter of being both mobile and versatile — with her low heels and wide-cut pants, Hoffman told me, she can always jump up to grab an artwork or walk clients through her space — but the roots of her choices go deeper. “Everyone who’s involved on the commercial side of the art world is transacting on desire, for an object but also for an experience,” she said. “So you have to walk a very particular line in order to not dilute it, or misrepresent it, so people won’t get confused about what you’re selling them.” As a young woman helming her own business, this is a line that Hoffman feels she has to be careful not to cross, and she told me that rather than a more conventionally feminine aura, she prefers to project a “rigor and intellectual thoughtfulness” with her clothing choices. Commenting on the body-conscious silhouette prevalent among assistant-level gallery girls when she was starting in the art world in the mid-2000s, Hoffman noted how the power of a certain breed of male gallery owner had often seemed to her to be transacted through exactly such specters of young female sexuality, “and that’s not something you want to do.” Still, sometimes she wonders why she is the one who has to police the boundaries of appropriateness: Why is it, she said, that “if you wear a short skirt and a collector hits on you, it’s your fault?”
There is something dispiriting (though perhaps not surprising, considering, for one, who America elected for president) about the ongoing need to consider such questions — after at least three waves of feminism have asserted a woman’s right to self-determination over her own body, and, by extension, her clothing choices. Haven’t we realized by now that women not only shouldn’t be held responsible for men’s misreading of their cues, but that, moreover, they might come to see their bodies and sexuality as a source of power to be reveled in rather than guarded? (Certainly, another recent leaning in fashion — that toward body positivity and acceptance — has been championing exposing rather than obscuring bodies of all sizes.)
Still, Hoffman’s perspective is familiar and understandable: Being a woman, one needs to frequently assess others’ expectations over and against one’s own. As the 21-year-old actress, writer and editor Tavi Gevinson told me, the relative modesty — or lack thereof — of her clothing choices reflects more than her own individual preferences. If she’s going on an audition, she won’t dress in what she called “a frumpy art teacher look” (a look, as she joked during our conversation, that could also be called “Brooklyn mom” or “European baby”). Rather, “I would dress in something that makes my figure look nice, because people are stupid, and most of the time when they say, ‘We want her to come in again,’ what they really mean is ‘Wear something more conventionally attractive.’ ” In the publishing world, however, when Gevinson wants to be taken more seriously, as a thinker rather than a body, a dowdier look is helpful, so she can seem, she said, “as if I’ve somehow matured past a quote unquote juvenile desire to be perceived as a woman.” The formula, then, is flipped, but not in a way that’s necessarily more freeing.
THE STATE OF wanting to be looked at is often mingled with self-consciousness about that very desire. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons the “Little House on the Prairie” books continue to be popular with tween girls, many decades after they were first published, is that their presentation of the difficulties inherent to a girl’s maturation into womanhood are mediated through the cushioning presence of yards of calico, wool and muslin. As a 10-year-old, excited but terrified at the prospect of my own encroaching puberty, reading the passages in “Little Town on the Prairie” (1941) detailing, say, Mary Ingalls’s going-away-to-college outfit, with its “gored skirt of brown cashmere,” and “overskirt … of brown-and-blue plaid” not to mention its confusingly named “flounced train” and “pleated flounce” (were those one and the same?) acted as a balm, a calming litany; covered-up fashion, it seemed, could protect you from the grenade that your body was slowly but surely becoming.
Keeping this potential explosiveness to oneself, however, could also be understood as a sign of strength. As 32-year-old Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist and the co-host of the popular podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” told me, “if you let women dress for themselves, we’d all be wearing muumuus and caftans.” Sow, who grew up Muslim in Guinea and Nigeria before moving to Europe and then the States, cited the comfort factor of these silhouettes (“anything that looks like a sack is my jam”), but also the sense of inner confidence that they foster, one that she first recognized in the women she grew up among in West Africa. “It’s part of my cultural heritage. … I don’t need to show my shoulders, I don’t need to show my back. I know what I’m carrying underneath this thing,” she said. “I really disagree with women who think walking around naked is liberation. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, too may people get to enjoy this for it to be liberation,’ ” she added, only half in jest. Instead, she cites figures like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who, first as actresses and street-style sensations and later as designers of the Row, made dressing in long, hobo-ish layers chic. “It was really jarring, and men didn’t like it,” Sow recalled to me. “But there was something disgusting and liberating about it. These were girls who didn’t care how anyone else was supposed to be dressing. It was the rejection of body politics.”
Navigating the world in a woman’s body remains a fraught proposition in the most quotidian and granular of ways. And a woman with her body de-emphasized, with her conventional calling card scrapped — what a puzzle she is! I recall a couple of years ago walking in downtown Manhattan and spotting the writer Sheila Heti across the street. It was late fall, and as far as I can recall, Heti, whom I’ve never met, was wearing a knee-length nubby coat over a long skirt and some practical lace-up shoes, all in varying shades of gray and brown. In all the more typical ways, she was looking maybe a little drab, maybe a little dowdy. And yet, there was something about her air that was enviable. There she was, walking along, her hair in a ponytail, carrying a book and swinging it at her side, as if without a care in the world. She seemed completely at home — and completely herself — in her essentially concealed body.