Employers, Designers Need to Make More Room for Modest Dressing

LONDON — Increasing numbers of women worldwide are dressing modestly — for religious, personal or professional reasons — and employers, schools and governments need to recognize those trends, and support women in their choices.

Companies should start incorporating different religious requirements into their business plans and expand their notion of appropriate workwear to more “religious or ethnic fashion” styles, according to a new study by London College of Fashion and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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The study aims to highlight “the breadth and diversity” of women wearing modest fashion. It urges the fashion industry to pay more attention to women’s needs, and wants places of work and study to expand their understanding of what an “appropriate” dress code entails.

Women who worked at U.K. faith-based organizations were interviewed as part of the study, as were women who worked in Saudi Arabia, where they are required to wear an abaya to work.

The study also looks at workplace dress codes that require women who would not necessarily choose to wear modest dress to make multiple, costly and time-consuming adjustments to their wardrobes.

“The additional time and expense of developing a modest workwear wardrobe is nowhere recognized or recompensed as a contribution to the organization,” said the report, the findings of which were presented in a parliamentary roundtable at Britain’s House of Lords moderated by Baroness Lola Young.

It went on to recommend that women should be compensated for the adjustments they are required to make to their dress code, while modest fashion guidance within an organization should be seen as a paid-for, professional service.

“How can we make tolerance and respect seem real without imposing something that represents the opposite on people?” said Young, who spoke of her own experience of seeing women being frowned upon for wearing trousers in the House of Lords.

The issue is particularly relevant for women in the faith-based sector as well as women traveling for work in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the abaya is often described as “the price for doing business.”

These women have expressed a lack of education around the best language to use in the workplace, when it comes to addressing modesty requirements. The primary reason, according to the report, is the industry’s overarching attitude: Fashion is seen as mostly secular, and religion is limited to aesthetic inspiration.

There is a need to start looking at “modest fashion expertise as a workplace asset,” include religiously related modest fashion in fashion school curricula and recognize “the longstanding participation of people of faith in the fashion industry.”

In Britain, some progress has started to be made as police forces such as London Metropolitan Police and North Yorkshire Police have started offering the option of a uniform hijab to cater to Muslim women, and the communities they serve.

But a broader attitude change to uniforms and dress codes is needed, according to the study:

“Give me any single sentence from a dress code and I will prove to you that it’s discriminatory to someone in the world. This can’t be sorted with rules, it just doesn’t work. We have to change our mind-sets and decide that this a major issue to do with culture,” said founder of the Common Purpose charity Julia Middleton, who made the case for a shift from dress code to dress values, not just in the workplace but in schools, too.

“Culture is not just faith, it’s geographical, it’s about background, sex and so much more,” she added.

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