How covering up became the new cool: why fashion has gone wild for modest dressing

The recent autumn/winter 2019 shows confirmed a trend that may be the defining look of the decade.

Dressing demurely – even modestly – is now the most directional style for women, and after years of body-con athleisure and ‘barely there’ dress codes, adopting a decorous approach to your wardrobe has become a mark of real style.

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Sophisticated yet conservative fashion has been asserting itself gradually as a backlash has begun against sexualised dressing and competitive body display. British Vogue has eulogised the “precise silhouettes of the new elegance” and the stars have taken note: In recent weeks, US actress Elle Fanning’s Cannes wardrobe showcased an exquisite array of ladylike style with Dior New Look, dirndl skirts, ethereal Valentino couture and prim two-pieces.

Lady Amelia Windsor also championed a demure midi dress with a sweetheart neckline, voluminous sleeves and a floral print at a recent British royal wedding. Fanning and Windsor’s style choices are emblematic of fashion’s paradigm shift: Ultra-short minis are out. Sweeping hemlines are in.

This new refined mood has also been endorsed by ex-Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s assessment that anything “overtly sexy… is out the window” for summer 2019. In a post #MeToo era, the way women dress has changed. While some tweenies and twenty-somethings may still default to body-con dresses and crop tops, many women have moved towards longer hemlines, looser silhouettes and higher necklines.

Sexy clothes as decreed by Wintour, now seem out of tune with the zeitgeist, while modest dressing is dramatically more appropriate. Dresses with sleeves, once as rare as hen’s teeth, are available everywhere. Stilettos have been usurped by sneakers or brogues, and women are generally prioritising ease of movement and personal comfort over “look at me” style.

Gucci, one of fashion’s most influential labels, is indicative of this transformation with its aesthetic now driven more by quirky eccentricity rather than steamy sexiness.

The popularity of collections aimed at women who want to dress modestly has been expressed through events such as London’s first Modest Fashion Week in February 2017 and online with the launch of The Modist, a fashion site “for the woman who dresses to express her style in a contemporary, feminine and modest way”. Both developments illustrate that many women are looking to opt out of clichéd standards of female beauty by simply side-stepping the male gaze.

There is also money to be made from modest style: Muslim spending on clothing globally is set to double from €197bn in 2015 to €415bn by 2019, according to a Reuters/Dinar Standard report. Middle Eastern clients have traditionally been important customers of Parisian Couture and European luxury brands, and their influence has now infiltrated mainstream fashion.

As hemlines have dropped and necklines have risen, garments such as midi-skirts, dramatically sleeved blouses and covered-up polo necks have become increasingly popular. This may be a gut reaction to the physical and literal over-exposure indulged in by celebrities such as the Kardashians, or even a response to a climate of political uncertainty and morally dubious leadership. When the President of the US endorses the ‘pussy grab’ and mocks victims of sexual assault, choosing to defy that kind of misogyny through covering your body is a defiant statement. Chaste chic has evolved as a retort to a digital culture that encourages over-sharing – when reality TV stars constantly trade flesh for followers, the most radical form of rejection is to simply cover up.

Harking back to past eras of elegance has also emerged as a means of asserting individuality among a sea of homogeneous over-exposed flesh – when Meghan Markle chose to wed in a dress reminiscent of 1950s couture she was not only establishing a link to Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, but also to the demure glamour and graceful etiquette of that decade. The current Dior show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has been influential in reviving interest in an era when fashion was prim and proper, handbags ladylike, hemlines conservative and grooming ultra-sleek. Dolce and Gabbana championed this direction in its autumn/winter 2019 show which was inspired by ‘Eleganza’ and included multiple references to old Hollywood.

The other era which has been referenced widely by designers championing conventional bourgeois style is the 1970s. The decade was reproduced devotedly at Celine for autumn/winter 2019, where Hedi Slimane sent out a model army of conservative Right Bank chic dressed in tweed blazers, culottes, pussy-bow blouses and knee-high boots.

From a designer who has consistently championed rock ‘n’ roll decadence, miniscule minis and monochrome black, the change of direction was dramatic. It seems as the world gets increasingly chaotic and Brexit drags on interminably, society is seeking reassurance in the certainty of conservative couture.

Other significant expressions of the trend were seen in the revival of cardigans at Miu Miu and Christopher Kane, polo necks at Tom Ford and Alexa Chung and brooches (to close necklines) at Erdem and Versace. The prevalence of shades of camel, toffee, cinnamon and chestnut for A/W also celebrated the comfort of safe choices in uncertain times.

Fashion is all about action and reaction. Channelling your gran is not only a subversive style statement when the Kardashians have made nudity ubiquitous – boring even – but also reflects the cultural shift in women’s sense of identity and self-image fostered by the resurgence in feminism. Covering up is cool, easy and even a little ironic – a message that will become abundantly clear next autumn when we are all dressed like 1970s suburban housewives. Covered up clothes are also a proverbial armour – they express the distrust between the sexes after recent revelations of predatory male sexual behaviour.

The patriarchy has attempted through history to control women’s morality through the imposition of restrictions on their dress. Orthodox Jewish women adhere to laws of tzniut (“modesty” in Hebrew) while observant Muslim women may wear the hijab and conservative Christian groups such as the Amish maintain a rigid sobriety and plainness in their clothing.

However, our current relationship with modesty is very different, in that women are choosing to opt for a covered up aesthetic themselves. One striking champion of this discreet style is Victoria Beckham, who has morphed from abbreviated minis with amplified cleavage to a wardrobe of crisp shirt collars, Audrey-esque polos, and below-the-knee dresses with flowing silhouettes.

Her entire wardrobe now consists of loose fluid styles that hint at her svelte figure rather than clinging to it. Beckham’s style evolution is a clear expression of the current fashion mood. Other modest fashion muses include Alexa Chung, the Duchess of Cambridge and Olivia Palermo.

Beckham has designers competing to dress women who want to conceal rather than reveal: including Erdem, Emilia Wickstead, Simone Rocha, Stella McCartney and Dries Van Noten. All draw on a more cerebral approach to style and there is a romantic, bohemian, even demure aura about their clothes. There is also a gentle waft of nostalgia attached to their longer hemlines.

If most fashion is about nuance and subtle difference then the shift from over-exposure to modest dressing is a profound change. While women will always love fashion, it is apparent they are increasingly dressing for comfort, confidence and a sense of self-celebration rather than male approval. Balzac said that “Modesty is the conscience of the body”, and non-provocative dressing may be a comforting self-salve to the sleaze of contemporary culture.

Alternatively, rejecting body scrutiny by covering up, could just be women expressing their weariness at the constant state of being scrutinised 24/7 on social media platforms.

If women are choosing to conceal rather than reveal, it not only tells us something about their psyche but also about the wider world. For those discovering the potency of female empowerment, the idea that personal identity doesn’t depend on body measurements can be semaphored in a more understated dress style. Who cares if some are perplexed by the trend: fashion fiends will embrace it with joy – and their mums will love it too.

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