Modest: The discreetly ascendent trend

When looking for skirts longer than 22 inches, or for a top with more than cap sleeves, I sometimes encounter the term "modest" or the tag "modest clothing". Women who seek more-covered styles for cultural or religious reasons, or simply because they don't want a short-tight effect are contributing to the rapid growth of the "modest fashion" niche.

These sites can be good resources for a woman in the Passage, too—especially if you are not soignée as Brigitte Macron in a mini.

Below, three pieces from The Modist,  whom I think of as the modest net-a-porter, and as pricey, but worth checking for inspiration. (And net-a-porter now have a "modest" label in their menu.) The Modist is packed with luxe head-turners; nobody puts Modest Baby in the corner.

Left: Zero+Maria Cornejo Aki Wave midi dress, $1, 695
Centre: Joseph Fair Isle patchwork sweater, $405
Right: Taller Marmo 8AM Tinsel Fil Coupé Midi Skirt, $970

TheModist also have an in-house line of covetable coordinates, called Layeur.

There are subsets to modest, and the term can be defined various ways, but generally means consciously choosing to not show too much skin. Reminds me of a workplace clothing policy I once read: "If you can look up it, down it, or through it, don't wear it to work."

Lady Modest: See the clothes worn by British royals for official functions, from weddings to football games. British houses like Carolyn Rose (below) have always supplied this look, for a clientele who wish to remain unacquainted with anything décolleté.

Left: Garcia coat, £995
Upper right: Black lace sweater, £395. Modest dressers wear lace over a cami.
Lower right: Orlando silk tunic, £795

Eccentric Modest

No one brings it like Batsheva, who has resurrected Laura Ashley and taught her to shoot hoops.

Batsheva Hay is a lawyer and conservative Jewish woman who could not find what she wanted, so started designing oddball pattern-mix prairie dresses which she wore with sneakers. When she took her child to the parks, all kinds of women asked where they could find her dress, and a business was born.

Below, three Batsheva styles; see web site for prices. Dresses are typically around $450 and blouses around $250. Sizing to 10 but she makes custom orders.

Batsheva's signatures are those ugly-pretty prints, big lantern sleeves, and head wraps. The dresses are so distinctive that you will know one immediately.

I saw my first Batsheva dress on a woman in a Montréal bistro, three years ago. She was in town to visit her university-student daughter (I eavesdropped.) She wore an emerald-green dress with shoulder puffs so tall and pronounced that they looked like bookends. The dress had a wide, matching sash, and an a-line skirt like the one on the far left, but was otherwise quite plain. She accessorized it with a matching head wrap, black ankle boots and black horn-rimmed glasses. In a sea of tight minis and little black dresses, she looked like a queen from another time, but also, more current than anyone else.

She kept hugging her daughter every ten minutes like a visiting parent does.

Minimalist Modest

Minimalist Modest is almost a tautology. Everlane, much of J. Crew, Vince—those clean/simple brands—make no mention of "modest" in their copy, but you will not find transparent, low-cut or tight there, except for jeans. (Modest dressers rock narrow jeans, but with a long sweater or tunic.)
Skirts are to the knee, the real anatomical knee, not the Missy knee that's a handspan north.

The new crop of "midis" range anywhere from the real knee to the calf, and there is a length that suits every woman, should she wish.

Minimalist cashmere dress: Cashmere v-neck dress by Everlane, $155.  The more modest end of the scale might fill in the vee neckline with a scarf or cami, but it's not too low for me!
Knits: Zara always offer some midi and to-the-actual-knee skirts. Knits take well to length when they drape and are not too voluminous. This skirt is under $50 and made of a washable viscose/poly.
Party: J. Crew sequinned midi skirt in melted caramel, about $185. The length is just over 27 inches, in a regular range up to 16.

Regardless of belief, there are times—and perhaps a time of life—when displaying one's charms lavishly is not what a woman wants. I put on a "little dress" last summer and thought, This is really not for me.

I'm not here to debate whether women in various faith communities should adhere to custom; I've learned from friends and colleagues that there is a range of interpretation and choice. Anyone for whom modesty is a value now has many more options, and I am thinking this is a desire for many women, given how the market is growing.


Susan said…
I have found that a skirt right below my knees is the most flattering length for me. Because I am somewhat tall, it has been hard to find dresses and skirts that are long enough. Thank you for this post!
Madame Là-bas said…
Modest suits my lifestyle. Much of what is being sold on the west coast of Canada is geared for a younger market. I find that European brands (especially German) are styled for a more mature body.
LauraH said…
Like Susan I have had trouble finding anything the right length in a skirt or dress. Thanks for this post. Those Batsheva dresses are amazing. So individual and exciting.
Abigail said…
The Carolyn Charles clothing brings back memories of how beautifully my mother and aunt dressed. How wonderful to even see such pretty clothing! Each time I try on the totally unstructured knit dresses that are usually shown, I Just look like a lumpy bag of potatoes.
JohnInWI said…
Just back from googling "soignee" and Brigitte Macron. I knew who she was, of course but I knew nothing about her style. Does she have style! She does appear in photos (not recent?) in very short dresses, but she also appears in slim fitting pants and classy jackets. She also wears color it would seem. I have to apologize here for a certain man's tasteless comment about her figure.

I am approaching a milestone birthday and thinking about how much to show. Sensual, not in you face sexy, was part of my look but I fear I am getting too old to pull that look off.
Duchesse said…
Susan: That is my problem too. For awhile I would just buy one when I found one, because they were so scarce.

Mme La-bas: it's not only on the West Coast!

LauraH: Batsheva is getting copied; lots on new entrants for the look called "Urban Prairie Girl". IMO some of it is too "jeune fille" for gown women. But the woman I saw in the green Batsheva dress did not look girlish.

Unknown: Mme Macron, like Carla Bruni in earlier times, has the cream of French design at her command, as a representative for the artistic patrimony of the country. The rest of us mortals do not get to order Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc. as we wish. If you like French women and want to keep your sensuality quotient humming along, you might enjoy looking at Juliette Binoche, 54 and Fanny Ardent, 69.
Mardel said…
Love these selections, I could wear everything here and feel physically comfortable, although some are not necessarily my style.

It has tickled me that many things called midi are what I think of as knee length, but I am also grateful, because I prefer skirts at the knee or the bottom of the knee and they have been very hard to find. Although I have at times worn shorter things, and showed more skin, this is exactly the territory in which I feel most comfortable. Partly I am sure it is age, but partly not, and I am sure one advantage of age is there is less pressure to bow to common denominator idea of "sexy". I think I tend to feel that appeal and comfort go hand in hand, and, for me at least, revealing clothing is the antithesis of comfort.
Jean Shaw said…
I have always loved longer skirts. The "swish" of fabric feels luxurious to me.
Wendelah said…
I would love to see you repeat this column when your weather turns warm again. It's harder for me, at least, to find pretty, modest clothing appropriate for spring/summer weather than it is in autumn or winter.
Duchesse said…
Wendelah: Thanks for rhe idea. You can also check sites like The Modest as the seasons change.
Wendelah said…
@Duchesse Thanks. Although the larger sizes are limited and the prices out of my range, The Modest is a good source of inspiration. I am busily tracking down plus-sized alternatives to your suggestions. I found a perfect dress on sale at Neiman Marcus and purchased it! I found several gorgeous sweaters at Marina Rinaldi, which are not on sale, so I will have to wait for the prices to drop... I've noticed that pretty blouses are comparatively easy to find. Matching skirts are harder.
Duchesse said…
Wendeleh: Yes, for inspiration. Then you can look for a different price point and sizing; Navibi have good-quality Women's sizes, and they have sales. For hot weather, the Flax line has some good linen pieces, (but not as good as it once was years ago) in a ranged of"Generous" - their term for Woman's- sizes.
JohnInWI said…
My research on Briggite Macron made me curious about your Canadian first lady. After a cursory search, I find her style somewhat safe. I will say that her family radiates a sense of love and ease with one another. They really look quite "normal". My husband assures me that they can't be the first family and not be rock stars. Want to trade ;) -Lily
Duchesse said…
Lily: First Ladies are usually under scrutiny and most are expected to promote the designers of their own countries. Can you imagine everything you wore in public being dissected that way? (Mrs. Kennedy famously got Oleg Cassini to copy French designs so she could "wear American".)

I'd describe most Most First Ladies' dress for public occasions as "elegant appropriateness", which varies by culture.
I've been receiving a lot of links from "The Modest" lately and while the items are out of my price range, I do find many of them quite lovely. I have always dressed slightly more conservatively (I prefer a preppy/classic style) and I welcome having more options out there. I also have big boobs so I've always been self conscious about exposing too much!
I was recently in Uniqlo for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to find options in the larger size that I need and I still felt that things were stylish rather than frumpy. It is a shop geared more towards a younger crowd so I was surprised to see this style of clothing being so popular. Mom always said "leave a little something to the imagination"! :-)
Duchesse said…
Margie (and Wendelah): The Modist- note clever homophone for "modest".

Margie: Uniqulo have good pieces, like those linen shirts for summer, and other things run very narrow—we have to pick and choose. Always worth a look!
JohnInWI said…
I just read an excerpt from Michelle Obama's book "Becoming". She talks about the fine line she had to walk in presenting herself as a first lady of color. The cover photo is stunning. I loved her fashion sense. That woman can wear color! -Lily

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