Fashion diplomacy in action – showcasing Australian ‘modest’ fashion in Malaysia

By Pamela Cue, Manager, Public Diplomacy and Policy Support Section, Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur

You may not have even heard of the modest fashion market [external PDF], but it is booming. Modest fashion is clothing that conceals rather than accentuating the body – and it is quickly increasing in popularity. Spending is estimated to reach USD368 billion by 2021, a 7.2 per cent growth rate since 2015. To put it in context, that’s more than the combined size of the current clothing markets in the United Kingdom (USD107 billion), Germany (USD99 billion) and India (USD96 billion).

South East Asia is one of the biggest consumers of modest fashion, with young Muslim women in particular driving demand. In fact, millennials from Indonesia and Malaysia have the highest engagement rates on social media in the modest fashion sector.

This so-called ‘rise of the hijabista’ presents valuable opportunities for Australia’s international engagement. Apart from the obvious economic benefits, the emerging modest fashion market can help advance Australia’s public diplomacy objectives.

Not only does it provide a platform to showcase Australia’s diverse, tolerant and open multicultural society, but it also highlights the excellence of our creative industries.

At our High Commission in Kuala Lumpur we recently did just this, with the launch of the acclaimed ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’ exhibition at the renowned Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia.

Malaysian launch of Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia. Image credit: Australian High Commission, Malaysia.

Developed by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion’ showcases the experiences of leading Australian Muslim women, how they express their faith through fashion, and Australia’s modest fashion industry.

One of the first exhibitions of its kind in the world, it features a diverse range of women, from Aheda Zanetti, the Australian inventor of the ground-breaking ‘burqini’ swimsuit and the inspiration behind the exhibition, to academic and media commentator, Dr Susan Carland, and Australia’s first Muslim surf lifesaver, Mecca Laalaa. Read more about the inspiration behind the exhibition.

We first came across the exhibition in 2016 when we were researching public diplomacy activities for the coming financial year. At that point, the exhibition was just about to finish its stint at the National Archives of Australia – the last stop on an extensive Australian tour that started back in 2012.

We loved the concept and thought it beautifully showcased Australia’s contemporary and inclusive society. Thankfully, MAAS and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), South East Asia’s preeminent Islamic Arts Museum, thought so as well.

After more than 18 months of hard work and with the support of the Australia-ASEAN Council, as well as our corporate partner, Lendlease Malaysia, we were able to launch the exhibition in Malaysia – the first time it has been displayed internationally.

Guests viewing the Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia exhibition with curator Glynis Jones, at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Image credit: Australian High Commission, Malaysia.

The exhibition launch in November 2017 was a great success, with over 120 guests plus two Malaysian Ministers in attendance. We were also lucky to secure the attendance of Glynis Jones, the curator of the exhibition and Aheda Zanetti, the Burqini designer, to add more profile to the launch.

We thought the exhibition would resonate well with Malaysians and we were right – a comment we heard from many was ‘wow, we didn’t realise Australia had a modest fashion scene’ or ‘I learned something new about Australia today.’ IAMM tells us that the exhibition has been very popular with subsequent visitors, with follow up activities, including talks with Malaysian fashion influencers, being well attended and received.

The exhibition also attracted good media coverage, with write-ups and interviews with Aheda and Glynis in leading Malaysian and international outlets. The exhibition and curator/designer pair of Glynis and Aheda also made quite the impression of some prominent young Malaysian fashion bloggers that we built into the program. See some of their Instagram posts: @sarahshahnor and @aidasue.

A further highlight has been seeing the people-to-people links forged during the project. From the close bonds between the staff at MAAS and IAMM who worked together to set up the exhibition, to the entrepreneurs we involved who were inspired by Aheda’s success story – the exhibition has cultivated links which will last far beyond its run in Malaysia.

The team from MAAS, IAMM and the Australian High Commission after the successful launch. Image credit: Australian High Commission, Malaysia.

‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’ is on display at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia until 28 January 2018. After this, the exhibition will travel to Indonesia, organised by the Australian Embassy, Indonesia.


Pamela Cue is the Senior Public Affairs and Policy Support Manager at the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur. Prior to this, she worked as a lawyer at King & Wood Mallesons and at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. She holds a Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hon) from the Australian National University.

[Cover image credit: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences]


71 thoughts on “Fashion diplomacy in action – showcasing Australian ‘modest’ fashion in Malaysia

  1. Annegret Green

    DFAT….you disgust me!!! Using tax payer funds to promote this blatant lie is beyond belief. 99% of Australian women do not & would NEVER wear your so-called “modest fashion”!!! It’s misogynistic & un-Australian, as well as being an insult to ALL women!! I’m offended!!!! There are brave women in Iran protesting for the right to be free of these garments & disappearing for doing so. Yet you have the gall to promote this rubbish???? Your time would be better spent stopping Female Genital Mutilation & the forced marriage of child brides. After all, those things are illegal in Australia!! SHAME ON YOU!!!

    1. Christine Rayfield

      Exactly – well said. Hard to believe DFAT is supporting this. Have you no shame (‘cover yourself sister – have you no shame’ – this is what young muslim men whisper in the ear of young muslim women with ‘uncovered’ hair).

    2. But media pressuring young women to be sexy and change their bodies to be slimmer, more whatever isn’t misogyny? Requiring women to be ‘sexy’ or have no worth isn’t misogyny?

      I’m not Muslim but I personally cover up for personal reasons. Misogyny has many faces. The mainstream ‘beauty’ industry is one of them.

  2. I have just finished reading the spellbinding but heartbreaking book “Leila’s Secret” by Kooshyar Karimi. I suggest that everyone, especially those at DFAT, reads this book. I am absolutely disgusted and outraged by our government’s actions. This is an affront to Australian values and those many Muslim women who are prepared to give up their freedom and ultimately their lives fighting to end female oppression and suffering under fundamentalist totalitarian Islamic regimes such as in Iran. I am proud and so grateful to be a female living in the West in democratic Australia. I will always promote and encourage Australian Western democratic values and culture. I would never undermine our Western democratic culture and values like our government has.

    1. Fashion is a distinctive and often constant trend in the style in which a person dresses. It is the prevailing styles in behaviour and the newest creations of designers, technologists, engineers, and design managers.

      You are an inspiration !

  3. This is absolutely amazing. I dont understand the backlash. Australia is taking part in a Malaysian Religious event and should be very proud. There is nothing wrong with diversity and international relations. Australia is a multicultural country with many religions and cultures. Australian muslims are a strong part of the Australia whether people like it or not. We need to show respect to all race and religions. All these comments are just showing fear. Fear of what? Muslims that are true to their religion must respect all religions especially the country that they are living in and must follow the rules and regulations of that particular country that they are living in. So what we are supposed to go against our faith to fit in to society. Do we ask that of other religions and cultures to change their values and beliefs. Respect is the key hear we have freedom to wear what we choose to wear and nobody should tell us what is correct or incorrect. For the Australian to use the word Grotesque is insulting on all levels.

    1. David Foley

      Of course you don’t understand the backlash.
      Clearly you have not actually read or umderstood ANY of the comments. I’m pretty sure that fear is not the emotion being repressed. That is called a strawman argument and shame on you for attempting it.
      While there are many things that can be said to refute your sadly quite ignorant response, here are two.
      1. The implication that that rubbish on display is an example of modest Australian wear is an abomination. The implication is that what Australians regard as every-day apparel is immodest, is offensive in the extreme and something to be refuted with extreme force. You should learn to understand why this is so. It will assist in understanding the anger and disgust expressed in these comments.
      2. Your bemusement and dismay at the use of the word “grotesque” very clearly shows that you do not understand how Australia works. You need to do better.

  4. Identity Politics is destroying civilisation

    So DFAT 95%+ of Australian women are wearing immodest (synonyms – immoral, indecent, improper) clothing according to your definition?

    You appear to be lending support to countries and regimes whom persecute women for clothing choices they make.

  5. Rachel Prior

    Cool. I think alot of this stuff is being stocked in millers stores and premier stores around australia. Not everyone in australia wants to get sunburnt or “showa little skin for ‘daddy’ “.

    I know i am a big fan of top to toe, jeans and long sleeve shirts. Most of the women round here are too. Up here in the northern tablelands. Nice work. We are not very racist either so try a little diversity in fashion. 🙂

  6. Daniel Barreca

    How can DFAT justify using taxpayers money to promote religious issues/activity yet they are so strict on NGOs for not using any of the DFAT funding overseas or elsewhere doing the same as them – hypocrisy. Should be ashamed of themselves…!!!

  7. Wow so much vitriol in so many comments. My take on this initiative is that it provides opportunities for many, both in Malaysia and in Australia and as such is worthy of support from DFAT.

  8. Sue

    The comments on here are HILARIOUS! Australians are truly biggest. Hahahaha. I am so glad I left that country and don’t have to hear those ignorant words coming out of your ignorant mouths. I really cannot stop laughing

  9. It’s Good to see the different modest style and fashion of different countries. They give me ideas for introducing new outfits to other modest women. Thanks for sharing this topic.

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