For those of you who have a pressing need to be elsewhere but like me, still compulsively click through things in their Google Reader cue and read the first line or two of things before you crash out the door: unsurprisingly, I’m not keen on it! Now go catch your bus!
For those of you lucky enough to not have to schedule your life around the vagaries of public transit, let me elaborate. This week’s Feminist Fashion Bloggers post is a free form post with no set topic, and there was some talk about modesty in the roundtable discussion this past week. Additionally, I’ve been meaning to write up a post on why I’m uncomfortable with deliberately dressing modestly, so perfect opportunity, right?
Dressing is inherently personal, and there’s as many reasons why we dress the way we do as people who are getting dressed in the morning. I’m going to be very careful to not try to denigrate anyone’s motivation for dressing as they do — this is about why I, personally, even though my typical style of dress probably falls under most people’s concept of “modest”, am uncomfortable with “dressing modestly,” not about why it’s wrong for anyone else to claim the label.
Modesty, says the OED, has three meanings:
1. the quality or state of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities;
2. the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level;
3. behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.
The third definition is the one most closely associated with dressing, though I’d argue the first has a role to play too. Modesty is tied very closely to decency and acceptability, and there’s an awful lot of rules and standard surrounding what is and isn’t considered appropriate dress for women (in particular — men have their own sartorial baggage, but I’m just going to focus on women’s dress here). Lots of women take this and say “I’m setting my own standard of what I’m comfortable with, and sticking within that boundary, and to me, that is being modest,” and that’s certainly their business. There’s lots of other women who dress within certain boundaries for religious reasons, and rampant atheism notwithstanding, I’m certainly not going to say they have no business doing that either. Everyone dresses within boundaries — I’m generally not keen on miniskirts, terribly high heels, or very low cut tops — and that’s not the aspect of modesty that I’m uncomfortable with. I’m uncomfortable with two things about modesty (religious or secular), principally: the external definition and judgment, and the equation of a perception with morality.
Modesty means little in a vacuum: miniskirts are, at their most basic level, pieces of fabric that have absolutely no moral value.* What gives a miniskirt moral value, or perceived moral value, is the perception of the woman wearing a miniskirt. Without the perception (positive or negative) of others around us, a miniskirt (or any other article of clothing) has little meaning. We may like it for one reason or another, and that’s fine, but I’d be hard pressed to disentangle why, exactly, I like a particular skirt from the perceptions and visual shorthand that I think the world around me associates with it. I get uncomfortable when someone else is clearly drawing the line and defining the shorthand, not me, though there’s often a lot of grey area around who’s drawing what. Everyone’s got a different line between modest and unmodest dressing: some people would say that it’s based on amount of skin showing, others by how much your shape is covered or not, others by how much your clothes stand out in a crowd on the street. There’s no one definition, and trying to conform my (very personal) considerations for getting dressed in the morning to an arbitrary and shifting rubric is not something I have any interest in doing.
Secondly, modesty is very closely tied to perceptions of morality and character. But since what constitutes modest dressing varies widely from person to person and culture to culture, who decides where the line is? Who is this moral arbiter that decrees that garment x is immodest but garment y, only slightly different is okay? And since when does a garment indicate whether or not you’re a decent human being? We don’t live in a caricature of the Victorian era.
Thirdly, I’ve heard people, both men and women, make comments about how men can’t be helped being distracted by a revealingly-clad woman, and frankly this is just nonsense. Men aren’t unreasoning brutes, and refusing to hold them accountable for treating women as objects rather than equal human beings is profoundly unfeminist and completely unhelpful (not to mention very heteronormative too). It’s not my job to suss out what combination of clothing will artfully dodge every man I pass on the street’s wandering eye and unrestrained mouth, and men have a responsibility not be sexist oglers. I’ve been leered at and harassed enough times while wearing completely bland, unrevealing clothing to know that it doesn’t, on a lot of levels, matter what I wear: the fact that I am a woman, alone, in public, is often enough to provoke men to try to cut me down to size. Modesty, to me, means fitting into that restrictive narrative (that I, as a lone woman in public, should be unobtrusive and unremarkable, though my presence alone is grounds for harassment), that is not a narrative that I will ever feel comfortable fitting into. I understand that this is not how many people approach modesty, modest dressing, or public image, and let me reiterate that this is not meant as a judgment on other points of view. Because this is so personal a topic, I am very interested on your thoughts on this: what’s your take on modesty and modest dressing?
* Setting aside all the various ethical considerations that go into manufacturing anything in an industrialized world.
** The majority of people alive in the Victorian times didn’t live in a world like the sort of thing we typically imagine now, with the primness and righteousness and all that, and I think what we associate with the Victorian era often has little to do with what actually happened then.