Sometimes a maxi skirt is just a maxi skirt – and sometimes it’s a cultural/political statement. It is, however, not always clear where the distinction lies. On one hand there’s an increasing tendency among style-setters to be more covered up; on the other, feminists and certain religious groups are eschewing their traditional mufti in favour of fashionable, if still floor-length, garb.
The result is a movement towards modesty seemingly everywhere you turn. And while it would be wrong to conflate the two, they both reflect the zeitgeist.
Professor Reina Lewis of the London College of Fashion has conducted research into “modest dressing”. “I found that it is expanding among young women across the world,” she says. “Especially among women of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. They were not using ethnic clothing to do this, but instead participating in mainstream fashion to find items that covered up naked flesh.”
It’s worth noting that the Duchess of Cambridge opted not for a ubiquitous strapless bustier wedding dress but rather something notably demure. Nigella Lawson, likewise, did not stroll on to the beach in Australia recently wearing a “dental floss bikini” but instead a burkini, leaving absolutely no area of her body exposed.
The signs have been there all year. At January’s Golden Globes, actress Tilda Swinton wore a mannish shirt and a long drapey maxi skirt (Jil Sander); at Cannes in May, Uma Thurman sported a long-sleeved, floor-grazing blue gown, which, despite being body-hugging and fluid, didn’t reveal much flesh at all.
Leith Clark, stylist and editor-in-chief of Lula magazine, says: “I spied Isabel Lucas on the back page of US Weekly wearing a long white dress with a jacket on top, with a hat. Very covered up, very amazing. I thought she looked like such a dream.”
Clark adds: “I don’t think that when women dress like [glamour model] Jordan they’re dressing for themselves. I don’t think they look comfortable or happy.”
Stylist and writer Jane de Teliga, director of London-based image consultancy Style On Call, says: “It is now considered rather vulgar to be deeply tanned and overly exposed. We have gone as far as we can with deep tanning and revealing our bodies, short of being completely naked, so it was inevitable that it would become more chic to be paler and more covered up.”
Sally Jacobs, a London-based marketing consultant, adds: “In the 1990s I was a typical teenage club babe wearing fluffy bras and mini skirts to go out at night, exposing acres of tanned flesh. Now I’m in my 30s I prefer to cover up with Equipment silk blouses and Zara peg trousers at night. It’s much more discreet, classy and classic.”
Her feelings are echoed by teacher Siobhan Flack: “In my teens and early twenties I wore shorts, hot pants and mini skirts a lot but, though I still like wearing miniskirts, I now wear leggings underneath. In my work it is more appropriate to wear more demure things.”
Whether you chalk it up to a turn of the fashion wheel, a feminist statement, or something more personal, the result is that when you enter a shop in a last-minute dash for an August vacation cover-up, you are likely to find not itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny pieces of fabric but something much more substantial. Maxi skirts, maxi dresses, palazzo pants and jumpsuits to be specific, along with big 1970s-inspired kaftans everywhere from Pucci to Marks and Spencer.
“We see consistently strong sales across tunics, kaftans and cover-ups in our beachwear category, with Missoni and Pucci being perennial favourites,” says Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-a-porter.com. “Women look for flattering easy-to-wear pieces for the beach or in the bar.” John Lewis reports a 103 per cent rise in sales of swim cover-ups, year on year, especially maxi dresses and cotton kaftans such as the embellished René Derhy La Plage range. This month at least, more is definitely more.