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How Working at Haute Hijab Influenced My Modest Style as a Non-Muslim

Posted on Jan 18, 2019
Erin Smith


As you may know, Haute Hijab and I go pretty far back. We first met in 2011 when I submitted a blog post about wearing hijab for a day as a part of an International Scarves in Solidarity Day, and Melanie was kind enough to repost it. (Reading it now feels a little embarrassing, like finding a journal from high school you forgot existed, but I digress.)

Erin Smith

In 2012 I saw a chance Facebook post that HH was hiring, and the rest is history. I often joke that I wasn’t exactly the most “obvious” candidate for the job, but this company truly has become my second home. At the risk of sounding cheesy (actually, you’re in for a whole onslaught of cheese), it has really changed my life – and my whole perspective on style.

The first time I put on a headscarf, I walked through that day with a strangely peaceful feeling. Somehow, the simple addition of a rectangle piece of fabric to the clothes I already had made me feel less cluttered and more serene.

The scarf on my head was like a warm hug that permeated my whole day and a constant reminder of myriad layers of meaning, each of which I needed to handle carefully, like a gift.

Obviously, I wouldn’t ever have presumed to somehow “get” hijab after walking around in a headscarf for a single day, but I did experience a spark of understanding that was, for me, profound. Rather than feeling exposed, or like I had something to prove, I felt proud, elegant, almost regal. The sensation of being covered felt like visiting an old friend, which was a bit strange considering I was raised in a typical suburban, 90s, Midwestern environment with little exposure to Islam or anything resembling modest fashion.

And yet, something about that feeling was unmistakably familiar.

Erin Smith

Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to dress up. My mom – ever the creative and frugal type – sewed beautifully and would make the most beautiful costumes for my sister and me. There was one I remember well when I was about 4 or 5 years old that was inspired by Princess Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The first time I put it on, I think I must have twirled for an hour straight. I ate, played and napped in that dress – feeling like not just a little kid, but a sparkly superhero.

Later I started sewing my own creations and thrifting, but unlike my friends who would slash and crop all their thrift store finds, I had an affinity for all things long, flowy and vintage-inspired. In high school I was a choir nerd to my core in a school where one of the crowning achievements for singers was to score a spot in the elite Madrigals group, which focused specifically on Renaissance music and required us to dress to match.

Erin Smith

Being the extra kid I was, I decided to make my own costume – cerulean silk trimmed in brocade, with bell sleeves and a crepe underdress that I intentionally made too long so I could kick it out in front of me as I walked. There was something about that swish of fabric around the ankles, the soft layers and careful details, that made me feel so powerful.

This was the same feeling that came back to me the day I first put on a headscarf.

At 5’7”, I’m on the tall side, and more leggy than torso-ey. This, combined with mainstream America’s apparent thirst for ever-minier mini dresses, meant there was a good 10-year period where I simply could not find a single dress to wear. Any dresses that I bought instantly became tops, and they never seemed to look quite right paired with my jeans. As someone whose style influences basically include 1) Stevie Nicks and 2) Stevie Nicks, the complete lack of full-length options greatly distressed me.

I remained always on the hunt for that most-elusive piece: a maxi dress with sleeves. The one that, ten years ago, was nowhere to be found – at least nowhere that I could find it! The one with a hem that swished around my ankles. That made me feel beautiful. Un-self-conscious. Like myself.

Since I started working at HH, I have witnessed firsthand the sea change that has occurred in the wider fashion industry. Little by little, designers have fallen in love again with long lines and draped silhouettes that had once seemed largely abandoned in favor of all things shorter and tighter.

One need only look as far as the hijabs on the Gucci and Marc Jacobs runways, or the mainstream brands like DKNY and H&M releasing “Ramadan collections” to see it – and while the effectiveness and earnestness of these various attempts can certainly be debated, it is undeniable that Muslim women and hijab fashion are now driving forces behind the change.

Just like that cozy feeling I got on my first day wearing a headscarf, the modest fashion movement has been a warm hug for so, so many women. As modest dressing continues to filter into the fashion mainstream, I sincerely hope this industry doesn’t forget to give credit where it’s due. Time will tell if this remains the case, or if it will go the way trends usually do in such a famously fickle industry. But for now, I think a lot of us are just so grateful to finally have some good options!

Erin Smith

I cherish the unique perspective on modest style that I get from my work – not explicitly an “insider” or “outsider,” but somewhere in-between. I know I never would have had the confidence to really embrace my own preference for it if it weren’t for the Muslim women around me leading by example. Their influence inspires me not simply from a style perspective – it showed me a clear alternative to all those limited options and uncomfortable expectations that so frustrated me growing up. It validated what had always been in my heart and encouraged me to actually listen.

As I reflect on how my life has manifested in my clothing choices, one thing stands out to me: The phases of my life where I dressed less modestly always coincided with the times I felt the least in control. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone – I can only speak to my own experience.)

I guess my instinct during these shakier times was always to disappear, to lose touch with my own wants and likes and instead seek external validation, to forego my own comfort and fade into the expectations that seemed set for me. Talk less, be smaller, eat less, smile more, wear less, look more like the image of ideal femalehood that’s been fed to so many of us daily by American society – then and only then, I believed, would I be “good enough,” so then, maybe I’d be happy.

But of course we all know it doesn’t work like that, and shouldn’t work like that.

As a woman, being inspired to use my wardrobe to express myself and what I value – and not the expectations of others – has been hugely empowering. The funny thing about clothes is that no matter how little you might care for fashion or trends, you never fully get to opt out of what your clothing says about you to others. For better or worse, the clothes on your back become the underlines and exclamation points in the visual story of you. To stop taking dictation from this world, to have the final say in your story, is a revolution you can live every day without having to even say a word.

Nowadays, I have really come to own this choice of mine, and a lot of that has to do with the influence of the hijabis in my life - friends and my coworkers at HH. There is a tender beauty in the things not seen, and I think a lot of women – Muslim and not – are hungry for that.

For me, I have stopped feeling uncomfortable with what makes me comfortable. Knowing women like you did that for me. I’m very grateful to you.