by Mary Harrington
Friday, 10
September 2021

Modest fashion is making a comeback

Consumers are growing bored of BDSM chokers and embracing the 'granny style'
by Mary Harrington
London Modest Fashion Week

If you spent all your time online right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking fashion had arrived somewhere deeply strange. Every third girl on TikTok wears a ‘sub choker’ to make videos about doing laundry, while social media ads for an absurdly high-cut bodysuit recently caused a mixture of sniggering and nausea among the middle-aged women of my acquaintance.

Now, courtesy of yet more unsightly social media adverts, we can learn that the forward-thinking individualist should choose to empower themselves with slave shackles and accessories reminiscent of equestrian bridles.

German jewellery brand MYL’s ‘Rebellare’ collection offers these heavily fetish-themed treasures along with platitudes about feminism, self-expression and the terrible scourge of conservatism. The ‘Geschirrtasche’, for example, ‘an empowering fashion item’, is essentially a BDSM chest harness with a large wallet attached. The ‘Bold, Dominating, Empowering’ ‘Halskrause 1’, meanwhile, comprises a stainless steel neck choker connected by long rein-like chains to a bit designed to be worn in the mouth.

In response to such a barrage of poor taste, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the offline world, women’s clothing has taken a strikingly traditional turn. M&S, for example, abounds with high-necked, long-sleeved, mid-calf florals:

M&S, 09/09/21, photo credit: Mary Harrington

Of course it’s absurd in a sense to measure Berlin clubwear on the same yardstick as clothing marketed at bourgeois Englishwomen. But I can’t remember a time in my adult life when trends for this latter group turned quite so conservative.

Doubtless Britain’s Muslim community is helping to drive demand; but it’s not just Muslim women who are gratefully embracing ‘modest activewear’ as a more appealing workout option than tiny crop tops and skin-tight booty shorts.

What strikes me about the rhetoric of radical self-love, stereotype-smashing and fetishwear as empowerment is how exhausted it feels as a trend — and how self-defeating. Who has the energy for standing out from the crowd, when that means dangling annoying bits of metal off your lower lip all day, impeding your ability to talk or eat?

In contrast, the ultra-trad turn in high-street womenswear feels like a mutiny against the long-unchallenged belief that clothing is a vector for self-expression — an idea that usually precedes someone trying to sell you something uncomfortable and expensive.

Old-fashioned styles like the one pictured below, currently in stock in Sainsbury’s, imply the reverse. That is, it can be possible, even desirable, to find blessed relief in dressing not for oneself but for others, in clothing that makes a selling-point of self-effacement.

Sainsbury’s 06/09/21, photo credit Harrington

And it’s not even clear that this is the option most likely to efface your self. After all, how much attention will anyone pay to what you’re saying, when they’re boggling at the fact you’re wearing a bridle and reins?

My hunch is that fashion is having a ‘your nan was right all along’ moment, as growing numbers of women twig that the less people stare at what we’re wearing, the more likely they are to listen to what we have to say. In other words, the mums of Middle England have a better handle than the club kids of Berlin on what ‘empowerment’ actually looks like.

Join the discussion

  • My local outdoor pool (in Vienna) is somewhere to observe these two diametrically opposed fashion instincts up close. Teenage girls (mostly of Turkish origin) splash around in groups: some wearing a full-on burkini while others frolic around in bikinis that would make a Victoria’s Secret model blush. A thong in a public swimming pool when you are 15? Really??? While the only reason I will defend a burkini is on skin-protection grounds, the skimpy swimsuits worry me a whole lot more. Young girls are so sexualised these days.
    The frumpy look (lots of chunky knitted cardigans, florals, and large-rimmed specs) has also been popular among girls over here generally.

  • or what I call ‘the hooker look’

    perhaps the frumpy clothes are being bought by actual hookers to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population. Or could frump be the new fetish? Wasn’t there a thing a few years ago about dressing like a 50s housewife?

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