Exposed: 4 Modern Perspectives on Modesty Through Fashion
Modesty transcends exclusive definitions that society has historically placed on women and their clothing. Words like "respectable" and phrases like "cover up" get thrown around so often, but the tea is that modesty is adaptable and ever-changing. From French police fining Muslim women for wearing burkinis to sexist high school dress codes, the repercussions that women face for their clothing are timeless. Reducing someone’s worth on the basis of clothing is a damaging way to deny them of their humanity and perpetually police a lifestyle that has no effect on you.
Some people view modesty as a necessary component to a religious lifestyle while others feel that it brings unnecessary complications. Modesty should not lie in wearing too much or too little but in the way each individual chooses to present their outward appearance and inward persona. As a concept, it's a way of thinking that translates into action and no one should have the power to tell you otherwise. What's unique is modesty’s ability to make you feel fearless or safe in your skin in a way that allows you to exist in your truest form.
We have a variety of experiences on the SB team, and here are four journeys that explore what modest fashion from a religious standpoint means to us:
Rimsha, Staff Writer
I am the unapologetic daughter of two Pakistani Muslim immigrants. Growing up in a traditionally religious household, I was not afforded the autonomy of picking out my attire, but rather told that I should wear pants down to my ankles and never under any circumstances expose my midriff. Wearing clothes picked out by my mom made fitting in during grade school much harder. Sometimes I even hid clothes in my backpack and, like any rebellious teenager, changed in the bathroom stall as soon as I got off the bus in the morning. I was indoctrinated to equate modesty with covering every inch of my skin, for reasons that did not resonate with me.
“You should not let boys see your skin, that’ll tempt them and make god angry.”
The way I viewed my own body was counterproductive to self confidence; I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, made to feel shame for the male gaze, and told to assume that unwarranted attention was somehow my fault. While the Quran encourages both men and women to adhere to certain dress codes, patriarchy and its subsequent social norms ultimately put the burden on women. Men are given free passes — we’ve all heard, “boys will be boys.” Making trips to the mosque with my family was anxiety-inducing because I heard people whispering about the tightness of my clothes even when my skin was not showing. They made it impossible to appreciate a religious sanctuary for what it is.
It wasn’t until my college years that I began to understand modesty as a way of life that encompassed actions and intentions, not just one’s outward appearance. It never was and never will be about a list of appropriate apparel. Empowering my true form by finally blocking out the years of judgement was an act of radical self care. My wardrobe was not an accurate reflection of my humility, and this is the biggest lesson I’ve come to internalize. I ventured out of my comfort zone at age 21. The power I felt stepping out of my apartment the first time I wore a dress was accompanied by my inevitable guilt and fear of judgment from the other Muslims in the campus community. After the initial, “I can’t believe she’s wearing that,” people stopped caring about my choice of dress. One of the hardest things I’ve done is keep this decision hidden from my parents, a double life carried out by a lot of brown Muslim girls.
It took some work to dismantle the idea that I should even worry about what other people think. As long as I am doing what’s best for my mental health and defying the social norms unequivocally stacked against women, it is a decision I do not regret in the slightest.
I was clumsily rounding a corner — literally running home after dinner with a classmate — when my phone rang. It was my then (and now) boyfriend. “I’m sorry, I can’t talk,” I sputtered. “I have to change for Shabbat and then get to temple before sundown!” This was seven years ago when I was volleying between Orthodox and Conservative services, undecided on where I should set up roots after college. That night, I was going to the former and had to change out of my slogan tee and patterned gauchos and into my most modest, black dress.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, let me oversimplify. There are three major sects of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — listed here by their willingness to bend to the ways of the modern world from most to least. Across sects, the concept of zenu’ei, very roughly translated from Hebrew as modesty, is present. The word modesty in English is weighty and rife with puritanical connotations. So, here’s a Jewish definition for you: modesty is a way of de-emphasizing the physical to emphasize the spiritual. As I once heard it described, its a ‘virtue, not a dress code’ and expected of literally every Jewish person.
To me, modesty refers to behavior, acting with dignity. Helping others, seeking equality in all things, not speaking ill of others — this all counts as zenu’ei. Devout Jews can also be expected to dress to de-prioritize the self, especially when we daven (pray). That night I mentioned before, I didn’t choose to wear an austere maxi dress to hamper the desires of men or follow some oppressive edict. I did so because I know myself and fashion is one of the ways I say, look at me, world, here I am! When I pray, I don’t want to ponder if my sweater actually goes with my skirt or wonder why someone hasn’t complimented my shoes or fiddle with my just-thrifted necklace. For just a couple hours of my week, I’m trying to make space for my connection with G-d, so why would I sacrifice precious square-footage for my own vanity?
After years of back and forth, I decided to continue my path within Conservative Judaism, where everyone’s personal journey with zenu’ei is varied and mostly without scrutiny. What I wear to daven is my choice. If I have doubts, I raise them and my peers or my rabbi will listen unprejudiced. In this digital age, I have many queries, each with a spectrum of answers. This is what I respect about my faith, its recognition that the world is full of gray areas that we are meant to question and explore together. One day, I might wear a sheer top with a sequin midi skirt and the next, a fluffy, gray sweater dress that meets my wrists and covers my knees — the balance I strike in between makes me no less devout or more fashionable. It only confirms the fact that I’m a complex person in a changing world, and that’s okay!
Meggie, Fashion Editor
I remember my grandmother hissing about my short shorts as a child: “Michael, I can’t believe you’d let a pastor’s daughter wear something like that.” As if my poor, kind father had any control ever over what I wore. See, I’ve always marched to my own damn drum, whether the rest of the world cheered me on or not. My fashion has had a mind of its own for as long as I can remember. It was slightly unintentional to flaunt my daily attire around as an act of rebellion, but once I crossed that line there was no turning back. Every outfit became a statement that my audience of street pedestrians, mall walkers, and churchgoers witnessed on the reg.
Now, if there are any PKs (pastor’s kids) out there you know full well that having a father that led a church meant you weren’t just his responsibility, but a whole community's as well. For those who don’t have a pastor daddy, basically it meant that I grew up repeatedly hearing the phrase, “Well Meggie, you’re a pastor’s daughter, you know better than that!” Not only from my church, but teachers, friend’s parents, and all four (yes, four) of my high school principals. Now, me being the outspoken “black sheep,” as one of my educators once put it, I took that as a challenge. As if to say, “I’ll show you what being a preacher’s daughter means!” I’d hike up my shorts I cut too short, and I’d strut my stuff for the town. Get it? Got it? Good, I’d smirk to myself.
As each year past, more of my born-and-bred sense of modesty left my radar, but my morals and my body are still completely my own. My closet became what I wanted to wear, not what others wanted to see a sweet little pastor’s daughter in. I felt like I could finally breathe once I left the confines of Waco, Texas. Moving out into my own city and choosing to ditch my bra really gave me a sense of freedom as well (of course, I still love going home and shocking the hell out of them with my “overexposed” nipples). I now view modesty as a sort of personal spectrum that we all have a chance to move along on our own. Fashion allowed me to step out of the world around me. Fashion did the talking and gifted me with a voice in a space where I felt no freedom to speak my peace. Although my style growing up was slightly tacky, I can still remember how pride radiated off of me as I let myself shine in my wardrobe. The sheerer the better. More color! More fishnets! Anything that pushed me outside of Waco’s Baptist box, I wore it.
Modesty, in a way, is what we make it. We define what our boundaries are and these days, I don’t spend my time pushing boundaries for anyone other than myself. Fashion is only an outlet –– a sort of art for all who choose to participate. After years of harsh comments from men who thought they knew best and the judgment of those who never really mattered, I’m happy to have come to a mindset in which no religion or person governs what I choose to wear. There is such beauty in letting your style run wild and freedom in wearing your clothing how YOU want to wear it.
Elizabeth, Web Editor
When I was born, my parents were recent converts to the Church of Christ down the street from my house. On Easter Day of my 8th month of life, my mother outfitted me in my Sunday best dress and matching bonnet and set me in my stroller to walk the two blocks to church. Unbeknownst to her, I was so irritated by those bonnet strings that I pulled at them the entire time, a move that left a long red welt across my neck. Following The Easter Bonnet Incident, my parents took note of my precocious aversion to uncomfortable clothing: tights were anathema, elastic sleeves were not tolerated, scratchy fabric made me cry. Soon enough, my mother was dressing me in soft, loose garb — menocore for infants.
My comfort-first clothing philosophy seemed to save me from future friction as well. I was raised in conservative Christian evangelicalism, which has a less prescriptive dress code than some other religions, but in my experience, adhered to a capricious definition of modesty. This lack of defined rules had its intended effect on me: for the most part, I policed my own attire. As it turned out, I also didn’t really have an interest in rebelling against it.
As I matured, I became aware of my changing adolescent body. My cardinal response to this metamorphosis tended to be shame. At church, the overt text, and certainly the subtext, was that my body was dangerous to men and controlling it meant covering it. Conservative Christianity is forever a test of women’s patience for male superiority, q.v. 1 Timothy 2:9-10 (“women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control"); 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”). Whatever the true exegesis of these verses, I regret internalizing my congregation’s proposed message that I was meant to be neither seen nor heard.
Meanwhile, the secular influence trickling into suburban central Florida during my coming of age was Seattle’s grunge scene. With its proximity to the riot grrrl movement and third wave feminism, it’s where I finally found examples of outspoken women to emulate. They were the opposite of submissive and I was enamored. Not that I would call this time a true rebellion on my part. I was middle-class, white, cis, and able-bodied — what did I really need to rebel about? But relative to my position in the world as a teenager, the disparity between this newfound culture and that of my church was stark and, because I split the difference, I ended up more Daria than Dickless.
Cut to me in conservative Christian college with an even more strict dress code: shorts mid-thigh or longer, skirt hems to the knee, no spaghetti straps, Arkansas heat be damned. Here, my wardens were the dorm mom, administrators, and student narcs like my roommate (You were genuinely the worst, Katie!). Now was my time to cut loose away from my parents, but I found myself in even tighter lockdown over my dangerous female body. And still, I didn’t really push back, unfussy in my t-shirts and slouchy pants.
I have since left the church. However, I still avoid uncomfortable clothes while the baggage of Christian evangelism continues to weigh on me. I’m not really sure where my preferences begin and my learned modesty ends, but I’m slowly becoming more comfortable in my skin, no matter how much of it is showing.
Between an act of rebellion and a way of discovering boundaries, fashion is a vehicle for intentional or unintentional discovery of oneself. From these experiences, it’s evident that an interconnectedness of modesty as demureness exists amongst major world religions. However, the realm at which dignity is balanced with spirituality is entirely up to you.
Collage by Magdalena Antuña.