Making Modesty Acceptable

06/01/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

When Kendall Jenner decides to wear pants with a dress, she makes a statement about the way modest apparel, and indeed cultural dress in general, is perceived based upon the wearer.

A brief scroll through my facebook feed the other day brought me to a post about Kendall Jenner in her latest round of "fashion pioneering."Consistency doesn't count for everything, but it sure counts for a whole lot.

With the many landmines out there, ready to derail even the most talented of people, "showing up" regularly offers undeniable benefits. According to, Jenner had introduced the idea of wearing a "dress over pants...adding yet another trend to her resume of style pioneering."

Which got me thinking -- about the fact that I've been wearing such a "dramatic ensemble" since I attended my first day of kindergarten dressed lovingly by my mother in my favorite colors -- hot pink pants to match -- or rather, clash, with my bright green kamees, or dress. It got me thinking about the fact that growing up in a South Asian family essentially means that you spend half of your life wearing shalvar kamees, a style of clothing incorporating, you guessed it, pants, and long slitted dress-tops -- and the other half wearing said clothing with jeans instead of the shalvar because, let's face it, the things are just too poofy to walk around in sometimes.

It also got me thinking about the ways in which modest dress, and indeed other forms of cultural apparel, are suddenly made acceptable to society when worn by a Western celebrity or touter of the title "fashion pioneer." Now, Bustle has since retracted their earlier article, putting forth a corrected version that acknowledges the discussion of cultural dress appropriations, but this is still a conversation worth having.

In France today, Muslim women are banned from wearing the headscarf. So far, "France has passed two laws, one in 2004, banning veils in public elementary and secondary schools, and another, enacted in 2011, banning full face veils." Right-wing politicians in France, including Nicolas Sarkozy, have begun making further demands, such as the barring of hijab-wearing Muslim women from Universities. As a result of these oppressive laws, Muslim women who dress modestly have become the victims of blatant discrimination; women have been prevented from picking up their children at school, and one pregnant woman was hospitalized after being violently attacked on the streets by a man who called her a "dirty Muslim."

In America, the ACLU reports that 69% of women who wear hijabs reported cases of discrimination, as compared to 29% who did not wear the hijab. Just this past Friday, over 250 armed, masked anti-Muslim protesters -- who ironically looked more like terrorists than the "Moslems" they had chosen to hate -- lined up outside of a mosque in Phoenix, AZ, in order to protest "the tyranny of Islam."

Yet modest dress, when worn by those such as Kendall Jenner, is no longer threatening or oppressive. It is no longer a matter of whether one's parents forced them to wear such clothing, of whether one is a radical or conservative Muslim. Modest dress, when taken away from the context of "oppression", becomes cool and hip.

The same form of appropriation can be seen in the case of cornrows, which have become a fashion trend among young white women as of late.'s Phillip Picardi writes that cornrows originated in Africa and the Carribean, and are "an intrinsic part of the Black tradition." Yet when celebrities such as Kendall Jenner, Kirsten Stewart, and Cara Delevingne choose to wear cornrows, a tradition steeped in history becomes nothing more than a style gimmick. It took fellow actress Amandla Stenberg's "Don't Cash Crop on my Cornrows" video for attention to be paid on the star-studded level at all.

This year's MET gala additionally was all about cultural appropriation. The theme, "China: Through the Looking Glass", was practically an invitation for Western stars to show off their ability to overlook an entire culture and heritage for the sake of a few flaming headpieces and slinky fire-cracker dresses. It seemed only Rihanna's dress was actually made by a Chinese designer.

What does this endless list of examples tell us? It tells us that as a culture, we Americans are far more comfortable with removing the style from the situation. We enjoy cornrows, rapping, spoken word, and indeed, dresses over pants -- and we choose to blind ourselves to histories of oppression, to spoken word as a form of black expression originating in civil rights movements, and to the unique culture and traditions of South Asia.

Let's stand with the #mycultureisnotcouture movement. Let's put our hearts where our style --choices originate, and actually pay attention to issues such as those felt by young Muslim women who are discriminated, or young black women who have borne the brunt of a history of systemic oppression that even today affects job opportunities and well-being. Let's stop "making" modesty "acceptable", and instead make America a more open-minded place.