jasonbwatson

July 26, 2016

Defining Modesty

In the June 28, 2016 issue of USA Today Maria Puente had a lead story in the Life section entitled “‘Modest Fashion’ Has You Covered.” There were three large photos above the fold, including Melanie Elturk, who founded Haute Hijab, Duchess Kate, whom the caption said “has long been a model of modesty,” and a bridesmaids dress from Dainty Jewells. I do not think I have ever devoted a post to women’s fashion, and I have no reason to think it will become a regular addition to my topics of comment, but several things about this article struck me. Perhaps it is because I am an administrator of a Christian school and dress code is always topic of discussion and debate. Perhaps it is because my own daughter is on the verge of entering her teenage years and is more attentive to her own clothing choices now. Primarily I think it was a third reason, which I will elaborate on shortly.

Puente’s article begins like this: “Sooner or later, every American woman with an eye on fashion has to make a conscious decision, based on factors such as religion, personal preference, work rules, age or shape: Who do I want to dress like–Bella Hadid or Kate Middleton?” I think that is an interesting lead for a couple of reasons. First, because Puente listed religion as the first factor that women have to take into consideration. As much as I would like to think that is because “religion” is a significant factor in the decision making of most Americans on whatever the subject of consideration may be, I think it speaks more to the increasing number of Americans who are part of religions with strict dress codes–specifically Muslims. The second reason Puente’s intro is interesting is that she presents Middleton and Hadid as if they are the only choices. In reality, they are more like two points on a spectrum, with Hadid firmly on the one end and Middleton to the modest side of center but certainly not at the extreme.

Puente states that “more women are choosing to wear ‘modest fashion'” these days, and that Middleton is one of their icons. She goes on to say that that is not a “slam against the young-and-lithe Hadid, 19, who last month at Cannes grabbed eyeballs and camera flashes ‘dressed’ in an Alexandre Vauthier silk gown that amounted to a large red scarf artfully draped around her underwear-less frame.” Next to this statement is a picture of Hadid at Cannes. Now, I was not familiar with Hadid before reading this article so I did not want to make a broad stroke assumption based on this one example. A quick Google images search , however, revealed a plethora of images, precious few of which could even come close to being described as modest. That is part of the reason why I think Puente’s intro creates a false dichotomy; a woman could dress with far more threads on her body than Hadid usually sports and still not be modest. By the way, some of those image results reveal–literally–that it is possible to be “covered” with material while still leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. This is part of why defining dress code is such a joy *sarcasm* for those of us who have to do it regularly. The sheer, lace and burnt out fashions of today mean a girl or woman can leave very little skin uncovered yet still leave very little hidden. Similarly, Middleton is a great example of a woman who dresses tastefully and fashionably yet still does not go so far as some would require in order to accomplish modesty. The photo accompanying the Puente story, for example, shows Middleton in a dress that stops just above her knee. It is a dress I would be more than happy for my wife or daughter to wear but that many would say is too short. And while I was familiar with Middleton and her well-known modest fashion before reading Puente’s article, I wanted to be fair. A Google image search for Kate Middleton revealed plenty of images, and none of the initial results I viewed were what I would call immodest, but above-the-knee dresses and skirts are common and a few necklines are plunging.

Peunte’s article states that among the reasons women are choosing modesty these days, “often it’s to comply with religious traditions and laws for women to dress modestly, as among Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and conservative Protestants and Catholics.” That statement by itself, of course, reveals the vast range of what may be considered modest. After all, using only the images accompanying the story, Elturk is revealing nothing but her face and hands, while Middleton’s face, neck, arms from above the elbows and legs from just above the knees are visible. Many Muslims would consider Middelton’s attire quite immodest. Even Orthodox Jewish dress, with ankle-length skirts, neck-high tops and a head covering would be considered immodest by strict Muslims. Yet, many conservative Protestants and Mormons would consider Orthodox Jewish dress more conservative than necessary and the Muslim hijab and accompanying dress to be so far beyond what is appropriate as to be almost ridiculous.

Puente quotes Zahra Aljabri, a former attorney and the co-founder of Mode-sty, an online shopping site providing modest clothing choices for women, as saying, “It takes intestinal fortitude to go against the culture. Consciously dressing modestly every day means you really have to believe in it. And before, you weren’t always happy getting dressed.” The tag line on the Mode-sty site is “style + modesty. no compromise.” A quick peek at some of the sites offerings reveals clothes I would happily purchase for my wife or daughter as well as options I would consider more “modest” than I would prefer or find necessary. The site does include a link entitled “How do you define modesty? Read our definition.” Following that link takes you to a 2013 blog post with this excellent question and answer:

So what does it mean to be a modest dresser? That answer depends on who you ask. What you may consider a modest outfit may not be to others. While everyone may agree that a strapless cutout mini dress doesn’t qualify as modest, defining what does isn’t as clear cut.

We’ve found that modest dressing is really a continuum comprised of many factors, and we’ve identified ten. Your view on each of the following factors determines your personal definition of what is a modest look.

The ten factors fit, shoulders and arms, upper chest, hem length, pants, style, color/print, shoes, hair and make-up. The commentary on the subject of pants provides an insightful look into the range of what can be considered modest:

When it comes to pants or jeans some women do not consider them modest and will not wear them in public. Other women will wear pants or jeans as long as they are loose so as not to show the shape of the leg. For other women as long as your legs are covered it doesn’t matter how tight the pants are. Still other women will wear tight pants as long as they are wearing a long top that hits at least mid-thigh.

This fits with my statement above about the ability to be covered with material and still not be hiding much. It also acknowledges that there can be significant differences about what is modest. For example, loose-fitting pants will reveal very little and most people would not consider them inappropriate at all. Yet, still others find them immodest by default; it would not matter who loose they are, because they are pants, and pants are unacceptable. Period. It does not take walking around in a crowded public area for very long to realize that it is true the some women do not care how tight their “pants” are–and I put that in quotation marks because I am not certain that what some women wear as pants are really pants at all. This is an appropriate moment to point out, as well, that it is entirely possible to wear something that is simultaneously modest and immodest. Maxi skirts are quite popular these days. Length-wise, they are certainly modest, as they come just about to the floor. I have seen more than a few of them, however, that are not modest in the seat area. The fit and fabric are loose down the leg but very, shall we say “snug” around the seat. Likewise, some of the geometric or “Aztec” pattered pants that many women are wearing these days are loose and modest everywhere but the seat, which is quite form-fitting.

Puente’s article describes a number of women who are creating web sites to explore modest fashion, pointing others to sites or stores that provide tastefully, fashionably modest choices or actually creating their own clothing lines to provide the same. Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik are Orthodox Jewish sisters-in-law who created Mimu Maxi. Of the growing number of women who dress modestly Hecht says, “People are seeing that covering up can be super-fashionable. It doesn’t mean dowdy or your fifth-grade teacher or dressing biblically.”

That leads to my third reason, that I said I would elaborate on later. Hecht’s statement goes far beyond fashion and reinforces a truth that I always am struck by and find fascinating, and that is that the world is continually “discovering” ideas and beliefs and facts that the Bible has said all along and acts like it is a fantastic new notion. Is it possible for women to dress modestly without having a biblical motive? Certainly. Does that mean modest dressing is not biblical? No it doesn’t. What, by the way, would dressing “biblically” mean? Is Hecht referring to the dress styles of the ancient Israelites? I do not know. I would call that ancient rather than biblical. Dressing biblically would mean, to me, dressing in a manner consistent with the teachings and principles of the Bible. That leaves, by the way, plenty of room for personal discretion and style. It also leaves plenty of room for disagreement. I am an Evangelical Protestant, and there are plenty of varying opinions within that group of people on what modest dress means, from the fit and length of shorts to whether or not bikinis are acceptable; from whether or not women can ever wear pants to whether or not bare legs are acceptable with skirts and dresses. What the Bible definitely makes clear, however, is that women are not to dress in a manner that is immodest (1 Timothy 2:9). There is plenty of room for discussion about what immodest looks like exactly, and there will never be uniformity of opinion or conviction. It is usually much easier to agree on what is definitely immodest, though–something like “a large red scarf artfully draped around her underwear-less frame.”

If you’re a school administrator like me, there will always be the necessity of creating a definition of acceptable attire in order to minimize conflict and daily headache. But if you are a parent, a Sunday school teacher, a pastor, recognize that modesty does not have a nice neat definition. Recognize that there is room for disagreement and difference of opinion and that someone can be dressed in a way you would not approve of or prefer if it were up to you and still be modest. At the same time, do not be afraid to have conversations about dress. It is an extremely important part of self-expression and it is something that does impact attitudes, thoughts and actions–among the wearer and the viewer. It is irresponsible for parents and church leaders to ignore the topic of fashion and modesty but it is equally irresponsible to just create black and white rules and say “that’s just the way it is.” That means these will be hard conversations, because there are no easy answers. If we allow that to keep us from ever having them, though, we will be letting the world have great influence. And while Kate Middelton or–Ivanka Trump, since we was in the news so much last week–will influence some women, Bella Hadid and others will no doubt continue to go more attention from the major media and will surely influence more women to dress immodestly.

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