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Modest dressing

Happy New Year!

This post is a response/follow on to Sandra’s post on Offbeat Modest Dress. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to do a post on modest dressing since when I first started my blog a year ago.

The reason I was going to post initially was because my photos were repeatedly invited to the Is This Modest? group (which now seems to have been pretty much abandoned, but there is a website which seems to still be going). I eventually asked the guy not to invite me any more (I’ll explain why below), and very polite he was too.

At the time, I had no idea what modest meant in relation to clothing. It seems that the modest dressing concept is a fairly common sense thing in the US, but in the UK it is rarely used. In fact, the only mention of modest dressing I can remember coming across was a feature on Muslim fashion in the Guardian. It does seem to be a mainly religious thing and I guess Europe is a lot more secular, and religious people are a a lot less fervent, which is maybe why it doesn’t crop up very much.

I would never have thought of myself as a modest dresser. I mean, I wear bright shouty clothes, and I like accessories and unusualy cuts. I want people to notice my clothes. Surely that is the opposite of modest – attention seeking!

But now I realise that modesty is all about being covered up and hiding one’s body shape (see Sandra’s post for more details). In which case I probably do dress modestly, as I rarely show any kind of skin, mainly for purely practical reasons of keeping warm in a cold climate. And because I am lazy with the epilating!

I did a bit of searching around the ITM website for the rationale behind dressing modestly and I really wasn’t very keen on what I found. The main argument seems to be that women should dress modestly so as to not lead the men that see them into temptation (which seems to mean cause them to think about sex – its about thinking as well as doing). There was no mention of men tempting the women who see them.

This assumes a direct correlation between seeing body parts and ‘temptation’, like thinking about sex is some sort of automatic response to seeing a woman’s belly or shoulders. Human desire is a bit more complicated than that! People get turned on by all sorts of things and situations, and as anyone who posts outfit to flickr will know, people have fetishes for just about anything you can think of, and many of them have very little to do with revealing the body.

But my main problem with this rationale is that it seems to absolve men from any responsibility for their own thoughts and puts it all on the woman and her clothing choices. And its only a small step from that to saying that rape victims only have themselves to blame if they were wearing revealing clothes.

More specifically in relation to the Is This Modest? group, the reason I decided not to add my stuff to the group was because its a group for outfits that are borderline modest, inviting people to judge whether they are ‘in’ or ‘out’. I frankly didn’t want to be judged by standards I hadn’t signed up to, and didn’t even understand.

The thing was that what was presumably borderline about my outfits always seemed to be that while I was completely covered up, my clothes were fitted. And you know I am a girl with a big bum and boobs and the offending thing seemed to be that you could see that. I just don’t think a straight shaped person would have been classed as borderline in the same way, so ultimately, people were asked to judge my body not my clothes (or different standards of clothing were applied to me because of the body I have).

What do you think? Does anyone here try to consciously (rather than accidentally, like me) dress modestly? I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who does and find out more about their reasons!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Make Do Style 11 January 2010, 5:17 pm

    Great post. I dress how I please. The trouble as you've rightly identified with the word modesty is it applies to women, who for some reason shoulder the responsibility of temptation of the flesh.

    I could actually share a shed load of my research for my dissertation on this issue but I'd would be the longest comment ever. The dichotomy of being covered is argument that should be dispatch back to the days of yore. Women can't win whatever we do and dressing in a modest fashion should only be for dressing up as part of your style persona for the day and if you fancy being Dita von Tease the next day then have fun with that too.

    For me fashion and clothes are fun. They tell a story at that moment and I'm too fickle to only dress a certain way.

  • Katie 11 January 2010, 5:19 pm

    There's a whole modesty movement that's not based around religion (although it doesn't preclude anyone religious from participating)that really focuses on defining modesty as "wearing what makes you feel most comfortable." While there's nothing inherently wrong with a woman wearing a low cut shirt, short skirt, or tight pants, there is something very wrong if she's wearing those things because she thinks she's supposed to (to be popular, to get attention, etc.) and not because she truly wants to. This modesty movement says there's nothing wrong with not wanting to show your cleavage, or your thighs, if you don't want to.

    If you go by the definition of modest dressing as "covering up and having no shape," then I doubt many people would consider me modest. However, if you define modesty as making a conscious and direct decision about what parts of me the random world gets to see at large and what parts they don't, then I'm absolutely modest.

    For a really interesting read on the subject, try Wendy Shalit's "A Return to Modesty" and "Girls Gone Mild." I don't agree with everything she writes, but I very strongly believe that women can be just as empowered by choosing not to show everything as society claims we can be by displaying it all.

  • Sal 11 January 2010, 7:52 pm

    Fascinating stuff, this. I don't consciously try to dress modestly, and there are definitely times when I DON'T. But I am more comfortable being covered up, and generally keep my parts under cover of clothes. I think also that, as a woman of relatively small boob, I can get away with a lot of looks that more endowed women can't. A deep v just looks deep on me, since no cleavage peeks out.

    Katie's thoughtful comment makes me wonder: How do we truly know what we want to wear independent of outside influences, and what we want to wear because of peer pressure? I think that line gets fuzzed quite often. Not to say that we're all slaves to the mental collective, just that societal influence on personal decisions can be hard to detect. It's subtle stuff, and pervasive.

    Crap, I got totally off-topic. Sorry.

  • parakeetpie 11 January 2010, 8:59 pm

    This is a really though provoking post. Thank you.

    I've never really thought about it much. At work I suppose I do dress quite modestly. For 6 1/2 years I've worked in a hugely male dominated environment, so much so that in my day to day work I have no (yep, zero) contact with women. There is no push for me to dress in any particular way, compare the way I dress to other women or try to look good. I always thought it was nice not to have to worry about how I looked but I think subconsciously I dress fairly modestly to avoid drawing attention to the fact that I'm a woman. I don't try to hide my figure and I want to look feminine but, for example, I stay clear of tops which reveal very much and definitely no skirts without thick tights. At work I am acutely aware of even the slightest look or glance that comes my way and it makes me uncomfortable because I know it's not at me the colleague, it's at me the woman.

    Wow, I'd never really thought about how I dress before. This month I have really been thinking about how my career choice is affecting my life and my place in the world and now I have another aspect to consider.

  • Katie 11 January 2010, 11:49 pm

    I've heard many arguments around the idea of modest dressing existing to "protect" women from men. What I like about this new modesty movement is that it's about portraying women as they want to be portrayed. It boils down to aspects of choice: how do you want to be perceived, and who gets to dictate how you present yourself?

    I've seen smart, capable, successful women made miserable by a shirt that shows too much cleavage, and I've seen other, equally smart, capable, successful women love to wear the same shirt. What listening to your own modesty meter does is let you be the one to decide what's right. Modesty isn't inherently about how you look, but how you feel. What the modest dressing movement does is give those people who want to be more conservative/covered up/etc. permission to be that way. And not that anyone should need permission, but in a world that sends messages telling you that you have to look a certain way, it helps to have people who say it's alright to chose a different path.

  • Audi 11 January 2010, 11:57 pm

    I've never thought of my style as modest; quite the opposite, in fact! But I consciously avoid anything that I'd consider to look slutty, and for me that equals a sort of modesty, I guess. Fascinating topic!

  • pineapplemint 12 January 2010, 3:30 am

    Interesting blog post! I tend to think of myself as dressing modestly, as I don't like to show a great deal of skin. For me it is not a religious thing or even really a conscious thing; I simply feel more comfortable showing less. That said, I am fine with body conscious garments that show my shape.

    I am most interested in what you wrote about being judged not for the color, fit, or cut of your clothing but rather by the shape of your body. Both modest and immodest modes of dress (of course there are more, but I will stick to the extremes) are ultimately making statements about the body. Whether by covering it or flaunting it, women are responding to societal cues.

  • Chelsea 12 January 2010, 3:30 am

    I do not own a single piece of clothing that I would call "sexy." Nothing that isn't actual lingerie, at least. In this way I guess I could be classified as a modest dresser, but only because I do not like to show off too much skin.
    I think the issue of modesty has a lot to do with taste, especially in the non religious. I have no problem with women showing shoulders, stomachs, legs, or cleavage, I just choose not to. In many instances showing off too much IS about temptation. A girl isn't showing her boobs and her gams at a bar if she isn't looking to titillate someone.
    I do believe there is a strange middle ground. I do not show off skin, but I try every day to show my waist. I emphasize it any way I can. As that old quote goes 'Wear your dress tight enough to show you are a woman, but loose enough to show that you are a lady.' I don't see how showing your body in this way is immodest. Quite queer.

  • Oranges And Apples 12 January 2010, 9:02 am

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments!

    Katie – I'm really glad you added that second comment because now I understand! After your first comment I thought that that's far too broad a definition, because its such a common sense statement and I think you'd be hard pressed, to find an adult that DIDNT think they wore what they wanted, its just that if what they wanted to wear was a miniskirt in fishnets, that obviously wouldn't be modest. But your second comment does calrify nicely. I have to say that personally I have never felt any pressure to dress sexily, if anything, it's the other way! The last time I can remember when I was in any sort of social situation where skimpy clothes were the norm was probably when I was about twenty – and it wasn't at all pressured.

    Chelsea – I don't agree that 'A girl isn't showing her boobs if she isn't looking to titillate someone'. Sometimes when I go out for cocktails with my girlfriends I'll wear a low cleavagey neckline, but I'm definitely not trying to invite any male attention whatsoever. Like Kate MDS says, its about having fun with clothing, and wearing something a bit more revealing signals that its a special occassion.

    Sal – i think you're right, we don't know what we 'truly' feel about what we want to wear because we are social beings and every single decision we talke about anything will be in some way influenced by those around us. It's part of being human. I don't think that's a problem though. Peer influence only becomes a problem when it goes against what we actually want, in which case it becomes peer pressure.

  • eliza 12 January 2010, 9:57 am

    I have been following the modesty-movement for quite some years now, and it seems to be a very 'American' thing. Europeans would just dress modestly, or not, without making a huge hoohaa about it.

    Imo it is inherently sexist when it is based on the idea that women are responsible for men's lust & actions.BAH!

    Also, like with most things, what starts as a religious/idealistic thing often ends up being extremely legalistic and all about competition: I am holier than you because my dress is longer.

    I could go on about this for hours, but just like to say that I love to hear a reasonable, European voice about this fascinating subject.

  • La Historiadora de Moda 12 January 2010, 2:05 pm

    This is really an interesting post! I hadn't given much thought to the modesty movement, but since I teach (mostly 18-23 year olds) I avoid showing too much skin — although I do relax this a bit in the summer because it's just too hot to cover up too much. I try to avoid cleavage, and I don't wear miniskirts or short dresses without tights because of my own insecurities about my thighs and because I prefer to avoid inviting my students to think of me in a sexual way. You're right, though, that all kinds of things turn people's cranks.

  • Retro Chick 12 January 2010, 2:07 pm

    That's a great post, and I can see why you wouldn't want to be part of such a group.

    It has never occured to me to consider my dress in that way, and I hate the implication that we should somehow consider ourselves complicit or responsible for someone elses behaviour because of the way we dress.

    I think your reasons for wearing outfits are your own, and even if you do wear chose to wear something specifically to "titillate" it still doesn't make you responsible for other people (mens) actions or thoughts.

    The very fact that a style of dress is described as "modest" seems to me to be yet another way of pigeonholing women into either virgin/whore and nothing to do with giving women "permission" to dress how they really want. I can safely say I've never felt any pressure to dress "sexy" or in skimpy clothes!

  • katrina 12 January 2010, 11:36 pm

    well said, Franca. i wear clothes that don't reveal my shape or too much skin simply because that's what i'm comforable in. i'm a prude! so i guess you could say that i dress modestly — as a matter of personal taste, that's all.

    i appreciate your post and agree with all the points you've made. i'm really glad that i read your post in its entirety before joining their group.

  • laura 13 January 2010, 11:13 am

    was für ein interessanter post! davon hatte ich auch noch nichts gehört. ich ziehe mich vermutlich auch unbewusst "modest" an, allerdings trage ich auch mal einen minirock o.ä.
    diese ansichten sind schon verrückt. würde irgendjemand von männern verlangen, den obersten knopf an ihren hemden nicht zu öffnen oder keine kurzen hosen zu tragen, weil es ein verlangen in der frau wecken könnte? sicher nicht. natürlich muss man – egal ob als mann oder frau – auch beim anziehen gewisse normen einhalten, um nicht als "billig" dazustehen. prinzipiell sehe ich es jedoch nicht ein, mich beim anziehen danach zu richten, ob ich die lust irgendeines mannes wecken könnte.
    und lustig, dass du das mit den fetisch-leuten bei flickr erwähnst – das nimmt ja ganz schön überhand. am gruseligsten finde ich die strumpfhosen-fetischisten, die gehen mir immer auf den nerv.

  • madam0wl, a.k.a Sandra 16 January 2010, 11:44 pm

    Oh man, I fell behind on my reading and missed this until I saw it linked on Sal's list.

    So you did submit a photo or two to that ITM group? And got responses about your body? Wow. Yuck.

    Somewhat related to this is the whole issue about how even though "bigger" girls are starting to get more fashion spreads, these "curvier" women tend to be more sexualized in fashion/media than "straight" women. I'm fixing to write something about that… there was a Jezebel write-up on the topic recently. I know you aren't technically plus-sized, but you identify yourself as having a big bum and boobs which is pretty much the basis for "curvy" right? Do you feel you wear "fitted" clothes because you want to exert your sexuality? Or just to accentuate your assets?

    Thanks for your response!

  • alltumbledown 18 January 2010, 5:21 am

    I'll speak from the other side- a modest dresser for religious purposes. The question of the modest label is one with which I struggle with constantly, especially since beginning my blog a few months ago. As an Orthodox Jew, I abide by a code of modest dress which includes wearing only skirts, longer sleeves, and covering my head outside my home. I don't do this because I feel particularly modest- in fact, my outspoken personality is really anything but- but because such clothing is a signifier of belonging to my particular community. Following laws written nearly 1500 years ago in a society in which women dressed in a specific way is of course strange to the contemporary observer, but for me is really just a part of belonging, not representative of belief in this specific aspect of Judaism.

    I try to work within my limitations to represent myself through color, texture, proportion and shape. I do not believe that women should be relegated to Victorian ideals of modesty, and have been conflicted about joining modesty-centered groups online. I do feel obligated to share my religion so that readers understand my seemingly endless lineup of skirts and dresses, but do not want to represent anything more than that, certainly not to advocate the return to pre-feminist politics and social mores. I have found such positive feedback in the short time that I've been blogging, and it is incredibly meaningful when coming from those outside my community.

  • roselizabeth 19 January 2010, 9:13 pm

    This post has been thought-provoking for me, to say the least. In that sense I have truly enjoyed reading it. however, I disagree with some of the things you have written.

    A lot of religions, mine included (I am LDS), believe that part of the reasoning for dressing modestly is to avoid "leading men into temptation," as you put it, but it is definitely not anywhere near the assumption that someone who is raped while dressed immodestly should be held accountable in any way.
    I don't think believing that you can influence other people's thoughts with the way you dress is the same as believing that how we dress makes us responsible for another person's actions.
    The fashion industry in general tries to influence how people think. Fashion movements inspire more than just the ways people dress, and often try to stir up deeper emotions and inspire thoughts that can be expressed through actions as well as personal style. (take the current Diesel "be stupid" campaign for example)
    But that doesn't mean any designer can take direct responsibility for the purchases an individual makes, or the good deeds their customers might be inspired to do.
    Avoiding tight or revealing clothing because I know that I can influence others thoughts with the way that i dress does not mean that I am sexist or that I am anywhere close to blaming a rape victim for the crimes of her attacker.
    To me, and for many women of the LDS faith, dressing modestly stems from the belief that my body is a precious gift from God. Knowing that i have the ability to influence the thoughts of others, I choose to dress modestly so that others will know that I respect the body that I have, and in their thoughts AND their actions I expect them to do the same.

  • Oranges And Apples 20 January 2010, 9:02 am

    Roseelizabeth – thanks for your comments. I appreciate your point of view, although obviously we disagree.

    But just to clarify, I am obviously not saying that the dressing/thought thing is the same as saying women are (partially) responsible for their own rape, but I do absolutely think that the two points follow the same logic, and if you follow that through to the extreme you end up with the rape thing. It's not a flippant point either, defence lawyers in rape trials use the 'she was wearing slutty clothes, she must have wanted it' argument all the time, and more often than not it ends up with the attacker being let off easily.

  • roselizabeth 20 January 2010, 11:25 am

    atually…i think we do agree!
    i agree that it's not a flippant point by any means, but my point was just to clarify that some religiously-based opinions about modesty are far from extremes. i know that the LDS standards of modesty are intended to inspire respect for something sacred, not to blame someone who has been victimized by others who do not respect them.

    extremists notoriously take logical doctrines or practices and push them to the point that they seem illogical, and are often just downright wrong. a lot of people who think dressing modestly can help keep our thoughts clean get a bad wrap because of those who 'follow through to the extreme' like you had mentioned. i'm glad to hear you clarify that 'though these two points of view seem related, they are not necessarily the SAME view.'

    thanks for writing back to my earlier comment! i appreciate it.

  • Rebecca 20 January 2010, 4:57 pm

    This has been incredibly interesting – both your post and the comments! I was raised in a strict religion where modesty was important (not allowed to wear any skirts/shorts above the knee, not allowed to go swimming in public, etc) but have moved FAR from that (and oh how freeing it is!). I've been on both sides of the issue.

    I once found the modesty movement very compelling (and read those Wendy Shalit books mentioned above). Today I generally dress "modestly" for the reasons you've mentioned – basic comfort and laziness when it comes to things like body hair. 🙂 But I've also received glares from Amish people at the farmer's market before, and I can only assume it was because I was wearing a slightly transparent sleeveless shirt or a skirt that showed my legs.

    I understand holding to a principle for religious reasons, but I find the other side of the coin (thinking people who dress "immodestly" are "sinners") very disheartening and sad!

  • Diana 20 January 2010, 9:22 pm

    I would have never imagined a modest dressing topic on a fashion blog, but it's great to read your perspective and the commentary.

    I dress modestly not for religious purposes (we were always told to not tempt the boys, but thank God I figured out they can think for themselves and not be controlled by that like most religious people in my community). I dress honestly out of convenience, and I just don't feel comfortable showing too much skin. I certainly don't dress in long dresses, sleeves and turtlenecks all at once, but I'm really busty and I'm comfortable with it now, when i was younger I hated it. Anything I wear make it look like i'm trying to make it sexier but it's not that at all. I know it's a self confident issue but i just prefer a cardigan to avoid drama! Cleavage never hurt anyone but for myself, I just find it weird.

    I love the way you dress- it proves you can still have fun, and be sexy and fashionable without throwing your dignity out the door!

  • Anonymous 15 September 2010, 12:22 pm

    I am a 16 year old Christian girl and I do dress very modestly. I know I am in a minority now in the UK as most girls my age wear extremely immodest clothing, but my beliefs are strong and I know that I am on the right path. I never expose my cleavage or my thighs when out in public, and in church I wear a long sleeved white blouse fully buttoned to the neck with a long skirt. Under this I wear a full cotton or satin slip as an extra layer of modesty and to ensure no part of my bra can be seen. I realise that some of you will think this is extreme, but this is the path I have chosen and will follow always.
    God bless you all

  • va 19 January 2011, 5:26 pm

    I love to dress modestly with modern clothing . I consider modesty a beautiful thing and a respect to women and men . I agree that with wearing modest clothing you can't wear just anything or else it won't be considered modest , lol .
    What I wear is tops that don't show too much skin or cleavage and I don't wear short skirts . Instead I opt with jeans , pants , long skirts , t shirts , Indian clothings such as tunics and dresses over pants as long as it looks decent to me .
    I find it to be admirable when one dresses modest because honestly it's not an easy thing to do when one can wear just about anything these days .. Thanks

  • Martha McKie 24 July 2012, 4:55 pm

    My original reason for searching on modesty was that I’m wondering where we are headed, sartorially. I think the last people who dressed in as little as possible were slaves of owners who didn’t provide clothing allowances! What is going on? Why are we showing so much skin these days? I don’t think that this is a topic that should be left solely to religious voices.

    In public, I consider comfort to be a matter of not worrying that my clothing is migrating around on my body providing views I hadn’t intended. I do want to hide areas of my body I consider private. I think most everyone shares that desire, but I think that there are people who want to come as close to the borderline as possible. I don’t like that to be in my field of vision! Even on the rare, extremely rare occasions when that is attractive, even then it’s an unwanted distraction.

    I, like you Orange and Apples, love to appear nicely dressed. I often have to settle for dowdy or perhaps silly or costume-y. The clothes available nowadays are siding with the “dare the borderline” crowd, I think. In fact, it is my paranoid fear that clothing manufacturers invented the “dare the borderline” aesthetic!

    My favorite way to dress is in shapely dresses or slacks/skirts and tops. I would wear shorts, too, but it has been years since I found a pair of shorts that meets my standards. Last time was some L.L. Bean shorts 15 years ago.

  • Ignorant Awareness 2 February 2013, 2:10 pm

    Martha McKie, I definitely agree about clothing manufacturers advocating the ‘dare the borderline’ movement (at least from what I’ve seen on the UK high street)

    Even at 5ft4, whenever I try on a dress in shops like H&M, I find that the length is a couple of inches above the knee. Now, that’s not much of a problem for me (since it still covers everything, & I like to layer trousers under my dresses anyway- yes, I’m weird like that =P), but it does get me thinking how on earth taller women get away with shopping at these high street stores?! Of course it’s up to them how short their skirts should be, but I know people who shop at these places for career clothes- it certainly makes you wonder!

  • Eleanor 7 September 2013, 2:45 am

    Just for the record, not all LDS people share the same opinions about modesty. I for one, as an active member of the LDS faith most definitely do NOT subscribe to the idea that women should dress modestly for the men. I find this idea abhorrent. I wrote a post about it, and added this thoughtful and excellent post you made. Thank you for posting!
    Eleanor recently posted..Modesty, Body Image, and Exasperation with How People Talk About ModestyMy Profile