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. David Foley

    this is an absolute abomination and in no possible way represents any part of Australian life. This is the worst form of social engineering there is – it propagates a lie and misrepresents Australian culture in the worst possible way. It is treasonous, and a total capitulation to a way of life and living that Australians want NO part of.
    How dare you.

  2. Chris Blunt

    Be ready for a tirade of criticism.
    Can you explain how this fits with the narrative and promotion of Australian values and culture.
    This is not a progressive move as you assumed , but one step backwards into a misogynistic backwater 90% of Australians abhore.
    I cannot believe taxpayers are expected to fund rubbish like this.

  3. Brian Nield

    What an absolute crock. No non Muslim woman in her right mind would wear that hateful and depressing style. It is fine for Muslim women to wear that if they want and they do have a choice about their clothes. But to lie to a foreign country that this style is popular amongst non Muslim women in this country is not correct and you should remove your incorrect blog at once!

    1. larry hoofs

      I don’t find the style depressing, indeed it has it’s attractions, but for DFAT to promote it is totally inappropriate. Mind you I prefer the more revealing female form. Not sure about ‘Active Wear’.

  4. Dr Edeline Byrne

    Sorry but this one is NOT representative of Australia or the women of Australia. It is political posturing at it’s worst. Are you trying to set up a ‘modesty fashion industry’ to go along with the proposed arms industry? As an ageing moderate feminist I am outraged.

  5. Catherine Peck

    This is Australia. I want to be cool not confined( in layers of clothing) If we have to conform to other countries’ dress codes, and rightly so, then new arrivals should have to conform to ours. There’s also less chance of them being discriminated against if they adopt western dress.

    1. larry hoofs

      Not rightly so. We tolerate their dress sense here and they should tolerate ours over there.
      I don’t hold with us or them being discriminated against. Where is the respect from Muslim nations
      toward the West? We are now apologising for our own culture. Es gibt nicht.

  6. Alex Ayres

    Are you for real – so you are suggesting that in Australia, girls that don’t cover their arms, head or legs are immodest…..

  7. Fraser Dawson

    This is an absolute affront to the women of Australia, and those who promote the ‘display’ as representative of Australia, and with the use of sparse taxpayer funds, should hang their heads in shame. Better still be honest, admit the error and seek other non-taxpayer funded employment. For some common sense on the issue see Caroline Overington’s article in the Australian today.

  8. Terrence

    This is awful! Can’t believe that the Australian government is sponsoring a style of dress spawned by misogyny and repression.

  9. Kathy

    What are you thinking DFAT? Australia should be encouraging frredom from mysogony, not dressing it up as a fashion choice. Have you seen all those Muslim blokes walking around in short sleeves, sometimes shorts while their wives and daughters ate weighed down from head to toes on the heat of Australia’s summer. What an affront to the little lass in Iran who ‘disappeared’ after publicly removing her hijab and waving it is the air. Some diplomats you are- more like cringing dogs

  10. JKe

    This is an absolute disgrace and totally unAustralian. We are a free country and do not promote the subjugation of women.
    Woman all over the Islamic world want to get rid of this misogynistic clap trap.
    The Minister and her department must repudiate this immediately.

  11. David Bruce

    Muslims are presently 2 percent of our population. Imagine what things will be like when it is 10 percent.

  12. Ian

    My girlfriend is Islamic. She’s lived in Australia for 20 years and is from the region this exhibition is targeting. She deplores to Arabic takeover of her traditional Javanese dress and she’ll have no part of it. The only time I’ve seen her head covered is when she’s praying.

    This foolish promotion has no relevance to Australian values (and I include my many Islamic Australian friends). I hope it hangs like Colerige’s albatross around the necks of all involved for the rest of their careers.

  13. Tim

    While i respect an indivisual’s right to choose how to dress I am alarmed that the government chooses to use taxpayers money to promote “modesty fashion”. The implication being that wearing a bikini is not normal Australian behaviour but is actually immodest – or put another way; “sluttish”. Keen for a pamphlet from DFAT to help me explain that to my young daughters.
    If you must spend our money, how about you spend it on promoting equality between males and females and the eradication of FGM.

  14. Jill

    I thought the public service was supposed to work for the public not waste our tax payer dollars on this absolute rubbish. We are actually Australia not Indonesia or Malaya. Please stop kowtowing and bowing and scraping to other countries and stand up for Australian values and ethics. This is still Australia if you care to look around,what the other countries choose to do is their business, so please attend to our affairs and stop wasting sparse dollars.

  15. Marcus

    An unholy alliance between Islamist appeasers and a coterie of unrepresentative left-leaning, multiculturalist, public servants who choose on ideological grounds to dress in formless, drab and deliberately asexual garb.
    Note, however, that being in Australia, they have a choice.

  16. Heather Cullen

    This is a disgrace.
    It is NOT our culture, and to suggest that if you do not wear this you are ‘immodest’ and ‘accentuating your body’ is offensive in the extreme. How date you?
    These women can choose to wear this ridiculous clothing if they wish (although I am firmly of the belief that they do so under duress, not by choice) but do NOT use my tax dollars supporting it.
    I am outraged by this waste of my money!!

  17. Dalo

    Such eloquent comments above express everything i think and feel about this absurdity. So I’ll go the low road and 😂😂😂😤😤😤😠😠😠😠😠😠😠😠.

  18. Simon Drummond

    I understand DFAT needs a presence in Malaysia, a muslim-majority country. But to pander to this misogynistic religion in this way is a poor indictment of your understanding of Australian values, and gollum-like grovelling of the highest level. “Modest fashion” is just a weasel-words phrase for “clothing that efficiently smothers women’s rights to self-expression”. You’re pathetic, DFAT.

  19. Neenee

    DFAT misunderstands its role. It is there to represent Australia, not to kowtow to a primitive cult named Islam.

  20. Deirdre Chambers

    I’ll be damned if I stand by and watch my country naively promote the “fashionable” oppression of women which places all blame and all responsibility for the reaction of (some) men on our shoulders. This is an insidious trend that died out in Australia before my great-grandmother’s day. What next, DFAT, whale-bone corsets and crinoline petticoats? I stand with the young protestor who disappeared in Iran after taking off her veil during a speech, not this nonsense. #thisiswhatafeminstlookslike

  21. Gary

    Hey DFAT can you at least employ people who can write English – “conceals rather than accentuating the body”. Besides the poor grammar as an Australian I find this article unrepresentative of Australian culture and likely to cause offence to the majority of this country’s citizens. It should be removed from your website.

  22. Lesley

    This is not indicative of the way the majority of Australians dress & I do not believe any of us should feel the need to accept this as representative of the Australian way of life. It is time the majority took a stand against the minority who seem to want to portray Australians, their way of life, the habits & choices as being out of step with the rest of the world. We are Australians, but we are all individuals & do not need to be classified so that we fit into someone else’s idea of what we should be! Stand up Australia before we lose what makes us uniquely Australian.

  23. larry hoofs

    DFAT you have lost the plot. If you actually believe that promoting Islamic style clothing will enhance our trade prospects with Muslim countries then you are seriously deluded.
    If indeed such behaviour is a requirement of said countries by us then we should have no part of it.
    The intolerance is theirs not ours.
    Stop apologising for who we are!

  24. GreyZeke

    “from Aheda Zanetti, the Australian inventor of the ground-breaking ‘burqini’ swimsuit and the inspiration behind the exhibition,” – Try to find this garb on a beach let alone on a surf lifesaver. A PR exercise of the most base kind,

  25. GreyZeke

    So let me understand DFAT – my wife, 2 daughters and 3 daughter in laws are immodest – right?

  26. Julia

    Sorry! “Modest dressing”? I thought Australia had moved beyond the years of showing ankles being risque and baring flesh being a nightmarish temptation to all men who see it. As a woman, I will decide what I will wear and I don’t need a government using my taxpayer dollars to suggest that I am immodest because I don’t choose to cover every inch of my skin. It’s 39 degrees here today and I’ll damn well be wearing whatever I need to in order to stay cool. How about we use that money to fund a women’s shelter or support services for those trying to flee misogynist regimes that refuse to allow girls to a decent education? Bad call DFAT, bad, bad call…

  27. Peter Browne

    ‘Don’t mean Nothin’, this is the Doublethink and Newspeak world that is 1984 today…

  28. Bob

    Hang your head in shame DFAT.
    This is an affront to Australian values and capitulation to Islam.
    We will never submit.

  29. H Plaistowe

    This article completely misrepresents the position in Australia . If there is such a “modest” fashion trend it is certainly not followed, nor even entertained , by 99% of Australian women.

    This article should be followed by a more balanced one showing Australians as they are not how others might want as to be.

  30. Not one comment to support this DFAT attempt at appeasing our northern neighbours.
    It’s a disgrace that a federal government department spends its resources pushing out this false impression of Australian dress practices and standards.
    Remove the article please.

  31. Phil

    I truly WEEP for my country if we are now to bow down to misogynistic countries that support a centuries old Islamic way of life that I don’t think should even be classified as a religion.

    Read all the comments above DFAT – and note there IS NOT ONE in support of what you have done.

    My forebears came to this country, made a life here, fought (and some died) for this country in both world wars so we could be free and unfettered by things like this.

    I also served this country (in the RAN) for many years and then have to watch as attempts are made by some unnamed public servant (note the word – SERVANT) to change our culture into something that’s it’s clearly NOT.


    Get rid of this stupidity BEFORE people get REALLY angry!!

  32. Heather

    I completely agree with the comments made above. Promoting the hijab is NOT a responsibility of the Australian Government! It is also NOT an acceptable form of clothing for Australian women! Decent women in Muslim countries are risking their own lives to protest against such draconian clothing and here we are trying to legitimising it!

  33. John.

    Maybe the Minister should get her attention seeking snout out of Los Angeles and the GdayUSA trough.She then may have enough time to give Australian’s an explanation why taxpayer money is being wasted on this appeasement to female oppression,An absolute sell out of Australian values.

  34. Maree

    I am not sure what your agenda is here, but let me makes this blantley clear.

    I will vote against anyone who tries to tell me how to dress.

    We (the tax payers ) pay you, go find something useful to do and leave the fashion advice to vouge.

  35. Jude Pinkerton - Treloar

    This is a disgrace.
    When did promoting religious clothing become the responsibility of the Australian Government. We are a free society and women should not be told to cover up. We should not be supporting this archaic clothing and beliefs.
    Who thought up this stupid idea.?

  36. Mark Schneider

    ” ‘wow, we didn’t realise Australia had a modest fashion scene”…. Neither did we! This cult already dominates our food industry forcing all manufacturers to pay a halal tax, now we’re being told our women are immodest. Wait until they reach 10 or 15%of our population and our way of life is finished. See Belgium, France or Germany for examples. Modest dress belonged in the dark ages, along with FGM, beheadings, and stonings. Enough.

  37. Dan

    What forms do I need to complete to ensure no single tax dollar I pay contributes to this disgraceful misrepresentation of the culture in my country, by it’s own government?

  38. Sonia

    WTF are you wasting my tax dollars on. Australia is not and never will be modest in this way. You have not only degraded Australian women by making out they are poorly dressed, but once again this dumb government is trading majority sensibilities for minority idiocies. STOP IT! I was born in Australia, I have British Heritage, I am White and Proud of it. I am not racist and I am not alone in this feeling. Stop cowtowing to the minority five minute wonder groups, because Australia is made of many kinds of people with many kinds of backgrounds and all of us should be taken care of, listened to and provided for. By the way the Iranian woman who protested by taking off her Hijab because she wanted to be free hasn’t been seen since, for a country that is supposed to stand up for womens rights, you DFAT have done a piss poor job with this advertisement

  39. Ainsley Hayes

    I’m Australian and I do not approve this message.

    We are Aussies in our cossies! We like to get our kit off, not cover ourselves up.

    Australians do NOT parade a false modesty like foreign cover up cultures do. We must not lie or appease primitive cultures just for a lousy buck. Instead, we should just continue to show here how we actually live and how we actually dress and why we believe that’s fine.

    Who the hell are these people who speak for us and why are we paying for such an ugly and alarming misrepresentation of Australia?

  40. Gina Kiwi thank goodness

    Insidious… but not surprising. Australia has a poor reputation in its treatment of women – particularly educated ones.
    This is a very clever way to gain support for repression in the most subtle way.
    They look dreadful, anyway. Hardly elegant, and certainly some of the clothing is highly impractical for Australia’s climate and lifestyle.
    Why do we not see similar clothing for men, please? Or do we assume that Australian men have such appalling fashion sense, it is not even worth trying?

  41. Jennifer Flowers

    Give me a break! When will this absurd appeasement end? !!!!!!!!!
    I can’t believe what politicians and their pathetic advisors are doing to this country!Dragging it back to the dark ages.

  42. Lighting Bolt

    You have gone wrong by are conflating Islamic dress with modest dress. Just call it at Islamic “Faith Fashion” and leave the modesty bit out of it.

  43. R Luttrell

    To think my husband fought for this country to have you leftist misogynistic tax paid leeches spout this propaganda Shame on you

  44. Toiny

    Incredible! The Australian government supporting the suppression of women. Disgusting – especially from a “conservative” government.

  45. Peter W.

    This is a clear demonstration of what pathetically spineless and out of touch people we have in our current government. They should apologise to each and every true Australian who has positively contributed to our now fast declining standard of life style. As a self funded retiree I demand the government immediately retrieve every single cent given to this absolute rubbish.

  46. It is one thing to defend the right of people to dress as they please, it is another to approve of their wearing a symbol of oppression.

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