Modesty in the modern world

Cane Caldo has a series of posts which include some observations on what is passing for acceptable public attire in Christian culture these days. The talk about skintight pants is interesting. I wear leggings myself, but exclusively under skirts or tunic-length dresses long enough to cover my butt. (Often those skirts and dresses are short enough that I would not wear them without the opaque leggings.) My jeans aren’t exactly the painted-on type but they’re not baggy either, and while I draw the line at rhinestone pocket accents, I do have a pair of jeans with patterned pockets.  And I wear regular shirts with those. Mostly I don’t want anybody looking at my butt, since it’s bigger than it should be! So maybe I should start wearing only tunic-dress length tops in public – after all, if a pattern is visible, people will look at it, whether you want them to or not!

The discussion about wardrobe style and modesty is rich with opportunity, because there really aren’t clear social guidelines for what constitutes acceptable dress, and it varies from place to place so widely. I recall having a conversation with my father as a teen about how I felt uncomfortable wearing my bicycling attire (the skintight shorts) anywhere other than on the (mostly wooded) bike trail. Like swimsuits on the beach but not the boardwalk shops, what’s appropriate for one location isn’t appropriate for another. Dad approved of my making the distinction at the time, but looking back now, I can see that if I had been a little more creative, I could have topped those shorts with a swimwear miniskirt without difficulty or much inconvenience at all. (For those of you wondering what my Mom thought, she died of cancer before I needed any of the womanly arts, so I had no female guide during puberty. Just Dad. Boy was that awkward sometimes.)

The principle of the Lord’s people dressing differently than the surrounding cultures goes all the way back to Old Testament rules – no mixed fibers, tassels, special kinds of head coverings. Few Christian groups practice “visual distinction” nowadays, but some do. It’s uncomfortable to stand out, and easy to say, “Well, I don’t want to make a Pharisaical display of my piety,” as an excuse for dressing just like everybody else – which for women, means “blending in” with the herd by wearing some level of eye-candy attire.

I’ve thought of this occasionally with my hair – I often braid it and put it up with a pretty accessory. Is this a violation of 1 Peter 3:3 or 1 Timothy 2:9 in a culture where any braid is “elaborate” by comparison to other women’s loose hair? Where is the line between dressing well to make a display of yourself and dressing well to show respect? I want people to see my long hair as beautiful not just for vanity’s sake (there is that, though I try to recall that it is a gift of God in my custody, not something to be vain about) but to exert a little peer pressure on my social group, where shorter hair kept that way by constant trimming is the norm and long hair is often derided as “inconvenient” by women who spend quite a bit of time and money maintaining their hairstyles.

It seems like a no-win situation sometimes, because you know if you take no care about your appearance and don’t make any effort to look good, people will say you dress like a slob and you don’t respect yourself or the people around you.  Somewhere, someone is going to be displeased with your attire no matter WHAT you wear. Considering this, I’m actually glad to be able to submit to my own husband, even though he has definitely instructed me to wear things in public (on beaches) that Cane Caldo would probably have conniption fits about. (Sorry for picking on you, Cane, if you read this!) I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I submitted because it was something my husband asked me to do.  And that means if he went so far as to tell me to ride through the streets naked like Lady Godiva, I would be duty-bound to do it. Though I am not sure where I would get the horse and having the inevitable cell phone videos posted to YouTube would be rather embarrassing.

Like many virtues, increasing concern for one’s appearance can become a vice. There are pitfalls on every side, which makes for some very fine rationalizations. If a woman wears a pretty hat to church, and no one else does, is she making an extravagant display of herself? If she wears an ugly hat, is she failing to show respect towards the church? Dressing like a slob? Making a different display of herself? Men’s fashions in this day and age are fairly uniformly bland, but that wasn’t always the case. How did people handle this question in previous ages, when the clothing worn by nobility, at least, would have been extremely flashy by today’s standards? This question isn’t new. Perhaps some wisdom from the past might be applicable.

I’ve started wearing skirts more often – one in particular, my current favorite, is ankle-length. It’s certainly sometimes inconvenient in daily life – catching on seat cushions, getting tangled with my shoes when I climb stairs. I’ll do housework in my jeans, but not my skirts. (Time for a bigger apron?) It’s good to have these conversations, especially since it is one where reasonable men can disagree and hone their arguments.

But what women wear is actually a very big part of our lives. There’s the objective factors that men can see, and that includes a whole social language built around clothing, but I very much doubt many men realize just how psychologically significant clothing is for women, any more than they can understand what it’s like to live under the influence of constantly shifting hormones after you hit puberty. The interior lives of men and women are very different, and not due solely to socialization either.

Which is not to deride men’s involvement on this issue. After all, while I would guess that most of a woman’s life will be spent dressing for inner reasons or other women, women do dress in certain ways to gain male attention, and it’s this particular type of male-attention-getting dress that is likely to become very immodest very quickly, and starts becoming a problem when that immodest dress becomes so mainstream that women don’t even realize that it’s capturing male attention in ways they don’t intend. You get the kind of “Oh gosh, that’s sexual?! I had no idea!” reaction that must seem incredibly naive from a male perspective.

And this conversation needs to start in Christian circles. If you google the issue you’ll find the internet is full of articles telling women that they absolutely should never change the way they dress based on someone else’s opinion, especially not a man’s – conveniently ignoring the fact that fashion is basically all about dressing for other people’s view of you. That styling yourself properly is important in getting people to view you how you want them to, not just about how you personally feel. Feminism’s no-consequences-for-women-ever mindset has got a death-grip on secular culture. If we’re going to change it – we have to start where it counts: with Christians, who look to a higher power than other humans for guidance on how to live.

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About pancakeloach

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2 Responses to Modesty in the modern world

  1. Cane Caldo says:

    Thanks for the link. Glad I inspired thought.

    he has definitely instructed me to wear things in public (on beaches) that Cane Caldo would probably have conniption fits about. (Sorry for picking on you, Cane, if you read this!)

    No sweat. Conniption fits aren’t my style, but I regularly chuckle at strangers.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree – your clothes make a statement about you. It’s easy to see this if you start with uniforms, then consider dressing for a job interview. Follow the implications from there …

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