A Modest Proposal with Maria Alia

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As told to Alexandria Gomez with Photography by Pierre Crosby

Covered-up clothing, once considered a niche market, is now exploding across social media and runways alike; but according to Palestinian-Puerto Rican fashion influencer Maria Alia, there’s more to the movement than meets the eye.

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, pre-Instagram, there weren’t many examples of modest dressing, let alone fashionable takes on modesty. For most of my child- hood, my primary sartorial influences were my Muslim mother and older cousins who preferred more traditional styles. When it came time to start high school, I decided my first day of school would also be the first day I wore a hijab—a choice that felt seamless and inevitable, but entirely my own. However, I had no intentions of sacrificing style in the name of that choice.

I’ve always been interested in fashion, but I never saw a future for myself in the industry. Up until very recently, modesty was synonymous with loose, long and thoughtlessly layered clothing. I used to think my fashion-forward style of dressing was an anomaly because the majority of my peers weren’t represented in the industry. But with the advent of social media, communities have been created by groups that didn’t previously have visibility in advertising campaigns and on runways. I joined Instagram in 2012 and became instantly in awe of how women around the world were expressing themselves and their modesty through fashion. One day, I posted a photo of my outfit and it was reposted by Hijab Fashion, an account that had 60,000 followers at the time (and has since grown to 3 million). I immediately got hundreds of new followers and direct messages asking about my style. About a year later, I decided to start my blog. It’s been incredible to see how the community has grown since.

What’s been even more surreal is observing how modesty has entered the mainstream. There is a huge market of not only Muslim women, but Jewish and Christian women too, as well as women who simply prefer to dress modestly, and the industry is finally taking note. In particular, head scarves have been having a moment in recent collections from Gucci and Tom Ford, and Vogue Arabia made history by featuring three hijabi models on its cover. I’m happy about the exposure as long as people are mindful of the origins—if we want to celebrate something for its aesthetic or trendiness, we have to be tolerant and respectful of those who wear it in real life for reasons beyond fashion.

My personal style is representative of my Muslim religion and Middle Eastern heritage, but, to put it simply, it’s the way I like to dress. I feel empowered by that. A common misconception about modesty is that it’s black and white—you either subscribe to modest fashion or you don’t. In reality, modesty occurs on a spectrum like anything else. There are plenty of people who see the way I dress and assume that I’m oppressed or forced to dress this way. On the other hand, many people in my community would argue that I don’t dress nearly modestly enough. Others assume that I am hyper-conservative and religious. Some may be surprised to learn that my style influences run the gamut from the timelessness of Queen Rania of Jordan to the irreverence of Rihanna to the effortlessness of Phoebe Philo. Personal style is personal and modest fashion is not exempt from that. At the end of the day, I’m a representation of myself and I can proudly say that how I choose to dress represents all facets of my identity.

 

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