photo from 'Laura Ashley: the Romantic Heroine' - a show at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England
Mr Rat pointed out a recent New York Times article on modesty and fashion and asked me what I thought about it. After I read it through, I was shocked by how derogatory it was towards modesty, and how many assumptions it made about women who choose to wear modest clothes. Where does this anger come from, I wondered? Is it jealousy of other women confident enough to dress how they like instead of dressing to impress and manipulate others through their sexuality? Is it fear of being considered “unfashionable” and dressed inappropriately if more covered up styles become widely popular again? Is it fear of losing the freedom to wear as little clothing as one wants?
One of the stranger assumptions in the article, I thought, was that modest clothes are flattering only to the young, rich, and thin, because no one else could afford to look so “drab” and “dowdy.” My own observations have been that modest clothes (that do not overly cling and which cover the vast majority of skin) are flattering to a much wider range of ages and sizes than immodest clothes, which demand a perfect body because so much of the body is put on display for other people’s judgment.
I also found it odd that modesty should be aligned so simplistically with “patriarchal oppression,” ignoring the many personal reasons women can and do choose to dress modestly: comfort, style, warmth, practicality (no sunburns in the summer, for instance! No chances of accidentally showing other people your underwear!), or an affection for styles of the past. I can’t see that wearing skimpy clothing is terribly freeing from patriarchal oppression if it then exposes you to unsafe situations with men who “misread the cues” you are sending from your “liberated” clothing choices. Why does “liberation” involve becoming complicit in one’s own objectification? Liberation, freedom----to me, these mean having a range of choices, being able to make one’s own choice from among them, and then having that choice respected by others. I think what bothered me most about this article was its lack of respect for women who make the choice to cover their bodies, and for the range of reasons why they do so, including religious reasons. The writer assumes that women who adhere to their religion’s standards of modesty do so out of oppression by men who want to control and limit their sexuality. She ignores the fact that modesty is also a symbol of self-respect, of control of one’s own sexuality and how it is displayed and to whom and in what circumstances. She also misses that religious modesty is often connected to spiritual values of independence, responsibility, and individual worth. And lastly, she also misses the mystery created by concealment; for as Walter Benjamin wrote, "form and content, veil and veiled are the same."
Mr Rat made the comment that such an article about men’s fashion would be quite ridiculous, mostly because men’s fashion is by nature primarily quite modest and practical, not needing to exhibit the body in order to be confident of one’s control over it or one’s ability to be taken seriously or make an impact on the world. To me what is being debated when people talk about modesty is not women’s fashion, but women’s bodies and who gets to control them and why.
What are your thoughts about modesty? Have any of you read this article? What do you think about the debate between modesty and immodesty? Is there any middle ground?
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.