Modesty in dress

In primary school, I sat next to Abigail, a primith (ok, that’s how I heard it back then, it seems it’s Plymouth) Brethren.  She wore a headscarf, but otherwise, she didn’t seem any different to me.  She did sit out of the 1 hour religious class run by the state school.

My memories of Brethren's at school source:
My memories of Brethren’s at school

Queensland isn’t as multicultural as other parts of Australia, so I don’t think I was exposed to headscarfs of Muslims until moving to Sydney.  That being said, since an early age, I have travelled and have be understanding of the decisions of cultures and religions to wear things that cover their head, or are more modest in length.  When I was 8, I went to the North East US and saw the Armish.  This trip was probably my first introduction to Orthodox Jewish men in New York City, though I don’t clearly remember this.  I occasionally saw my cousins in yarmulkes, as their mother is Jewish, and I understood that this was part of their faith tradition.

Only since visiting Israel in 2012 have I come to know that Orthodox Jewish women wear headbands or headscarves to cover their head, wearing longer skirts, usually below the knee.  They almost always have thick, skin toned tights with flat shoes.  In some regards, it seems like a uniform!

An image of slightly less shy NY Jews from my favourite photographer, Louise Hawson of
An image of slightly less shy NY Jews from my favourite photographer, Louise Hawson of

I completely respect the choices for people to wear clothing in accordance with their religious traditions or in accordance with their religious texts.

Where I have come undone lately, is within the Christian faith.  I stumbled upon a lovely blog called Large Families of Purpose, and chose to read about their decision to wear modest, long skirts instead of pants and shorts.  Thankfully, this was a decision they came to, it’s not something they’ve done ‘since always’.  Nonetheless, it challenges me.

I chose to wear ‘church’ clothes to church.  I feel uncomfortable if I wear a skinny strapped top or dress, and I won’t wear anything too casual.  No one has told me to do this, it comes from respect, perhaps.  And being with an older demographic.  However, in the rest of my life, I wear what I chose to wear.  There’s some short skirts and dresses.  I always things I feel comfortable in, and certainly wouldn’t call my outfits particularly racy or provocative!

A family company specialising in modest dress source:
A family company specialising in modest dress

I’m not going to start wearing floor length skirts and dresses.  However, I’m not sure how they (people such as Erika on the blog Large Families on Purpose) get the idea that they should. I think the issue I have here is less about religion, but this perception:

We do not want to stir up inappropriate thoughts or behaviors on the part of men or boys, or provoke emotional or physical actions towards our girls.

It’s not my job, nor any woman’s job, to stop men having ‘inappropriate thoughts’.  Why should women be the guardians of decency?  Why should be reduce our self expression and clothing choices for males?  To be honest, if I didn’t wear my work uniform, I would actually attract more attention.  And to be honest, I don’t want to ‘stand out’, or be anymore attractive than anyone else might be – I’m there to get a job done,

The only bible reference cited on the blog is this one:

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  – Matthew 5:27-29.

Well, if that is the case, best we don’t wear makeup, and I’m certainly not the biggest fan of make up!

I suppose I struggle to see how Erika Shupe at Large Families on Purpose came to this conclusion.  Even the older ladies in my church wear pants!  I won’t be giving up shorts, or pants or leggings, that’s for sure.  But I do wonder how Christians finds reason to radically change their wardrobe to be more feminine, and how this decreases ‘looks of lust’!

What are your thoughts on modesty?  How do you feel about the dress codes of other faith communities? And your own?

21 Replies to “Modesty in dress”

  1. I, too, am glad this is a decision Erika made rather than being told what to wear. If that works for her, that's fine. Personally, I don't believe women should have to dress a certain way to ward off men and inappropriate thoughts. (And if my husband is any indication of the male populace, he still finds women attractive (and probably even imagines them naked) wearing all kinds of stuff. But that doesn't mean he would act on those thoughts.)

    I wrote a post about modesty last year that you might be interested in:

    And there's a campaign in Brazil – "I don't deserve to be raped" that you might want to read:

    1. I agree Amanda, it is good that she took it upon herself. And I certainly wouldn't expect her to change it either – if she's happy with it, that's fine. My questions are more 'should I be dressing like this, if I too have similar beliefs to her' and 'does she judge those who wear shorts/skirts or basically, provocative clothing' and if so, then I really have my defenses up.

      I completely agree, if I was to analyse my 'temptress' powers, I'd say they are more in my wordplay and my looks (using my eyes) than from my ten inch heels or mini skirt!

      I LOVE the photo you have on your post, I wish I had found that for my post! (I'd say I'm usually flirty, though last night cheeky, but that's about it)

  2. There is a whole history of women's rape and assault complaints being dismissed because of the way they dressed, and being told they were "asking for it." I suppose any group can agree on (or impose) a dress code, whether it's a school, workplace, or church. I'm used to people having the freedom to choose, i.e., if you don't want to wear a work uniform, you can choose not to work there. But of course it's different when people are either coerced, or punished for non-compliance, as in the case of having to wear a niqab. I am not going to read the blog you cited, but your comments make me think that there's a strict code of behaviour and dress for girls and that they would be shamed and blamed if anything negative happened to them while wearing the "wrong" clothes. I think in some cases of extreme world views, the parent might be likely to blame and punish the girls anyway ("You may have been dressed modestly but you had impure thoughts") etc.

    My own style of dress is "modest casual," and I virtually never wear dresses or skirts, nor go anywhere that requires them. Church, job interviews, theatre, funeral, and you-name-it….no issue whatsoever from anyone as to whether women wear dresses or skirts. Men in skirts. probably…

    1. I disagree with being 'blamed' for assaults and rapes, however, I think it's important that people consider what they wear and the responses they might get (the legal ones to start with) and whether they are comfortable with that. I don't like too much attention from the 'wrong' sorts of people, and therefore chose to be more modest in cases where others might have tarted it up!

      I also think it's ok to have an opt in school/work/church that outlines it's expectations, which might extend to dress. I come from a culture of school (and work) uniforms, and I think you come in with open eyes. If you don't want to wear the uniform, you can opt out.

      I used to own so few dresses I could count on one hand – mainly in the uni days. Now I have many more. I never felt I 'had' to wear one, though I think I went to far as almost rejecting them. It's been a slow return to wearing them – gee I find them a welcome relief in summer!

      As to men in skirts (or dresses) – well that's another post! I was talking to an apprentice just this week about cross dressing and gender reassignment. I am quite comfortable with both, though I'm not sure he was!

  3. This is a very thorny issue. We live in a very multicultural area of Melbourne. None of our local friends wear the burqa or niqab, but the hijab is much more common. Even after so many years in this part of Melbourne, there's not a day that I don't inwardly feel challenged by this dress and what it represents. I try my utmost to step outside my own culture and walk a mile in others' shoes, but I still find it hard. Too much history there and ongoing issues.

    It goes way beyond dress here, too, this concept of 'modesty' and women not tempting men (eg. police investigations into illegal, 'underground' female circumcision operations, some of these within 10km from where I live.)

    Despite this, I am a conservative dresser, which probably just suits my personality. In our church there is really no practical emphasis on traditional concepts of modesty. Strapless, form-fitting dresses with heels are as common as shorts, jeans or suits: it's a real mix. I like the egalitarian feel and the lack of even a hint of women-blaming over attire.

    1. I told you I'd delve into the messiness of religion (and life). And I'm thankful to be posting about meatier topics too!

      I'm glad to hear your church is open to all the clothing choices – my church is incredibly traditional, but there's certainly no dress policy explicitly stated, and I've never heard anything untoward said of anyone.

      Interesting in Dubai I saw a lot of niqabs and found it initially confronting, but in the end, I actually thought good things: good on them for being anonymous (the way I feel I can 'hide' by being in uniform), good on you for having such a strong conviction to your faith and it's requirements, it can't be easy in a dessert. I suppose I chose to believe that it was a choice, and not a requirement or a punishment, but the realities are something I'll never know. I've just tried to see it as a positive.

  4. It is fascinating isn't it the issue of modesty in dress! One interesting thing to add to the mix is that when we had a presentation at Arundel from a Sexual Assault Expert he pointed out that no serial assaulters have ever identified clothing as the reason they attack someone. They just focus on people who look vulnerable and easy to attack. So whatever you're wearing if you look confident, rapists etc will probably not attack you! So the whole thing of causing-sex-attack is silly.

    The issue of arousal is true enough though, ie, people can be aroused visually, but I agree, the primary person responsible for their fantasising is the fantasiser, not the fantasisee!

    1. That's incredibly insightful to know that the offenders aren't 'blaming' victims dress. It seems to be something society is projecting onto the crimes to make sense of them.

      I totally agree though, I should not be the gate holder to your morality or fantasy. Gosh darn, men have imaginations! Even in more conservative eras, undoubtedly there was as much passion and love, and steamy affairs!

  5. Personally I dress fairly modestly. I am more comfortable. I grew up in Queensland too and there have been huge changes here in the last few decades. Many girls wear long sleeves, head scarves and pants to school. I feel sorry for young girls who wear track suit pants under their school uniform. It is way too hot here for that in summer. If you want your child to dress a certain way because of your beliefs I am fine with that but please make sure the child is comfortable.

    I also go to Baptist church and the young men often poke fun at the modesty issue. For example at youth camp all participants are expected to wear modest forms of swim wear rather than bikinis etc. Fair enough if my child attends your camp then my child will follow your code.

    My son at 22 often comments that he wishes girls were a little less overt in their dress. He is quite protective of the young ladies who work with him too. As for his sisters he often wishes one of the girls wore a longer dress or skirt. I don't know if my boy is typical or not. He prefers to see girls as a treasure and that he worries that skimpily dressed individuals have low self esteem or respect.

    I have no problem with men in skirts either. In some cultures this is a norm. I would rather see a man in a skirt than see a young man with his pants falling down. Call my boring. My daughters don't like the look either. On Wednesday night my boy told me he offered to buy the kitchen hand a belt as he did not want to see his backside near the food he was preparing.

    When I was nursing there was a movement amongst the female nurses to wear trousers. There were definite arguments that stated positive reasons for doing so. It was always vetoed and we were told to wear dresses and stockings. If you have ever had to jump on a bed unexpectedly believe me you would prefer to be working in trousers.

    Hope this makes you smile a little. I am Christian but tend to prefer the diversity the world has to offer.

    1. I'm the same Suzan, on the most part, people my age have called my outfits boring, especially in reference to more recent trends. There are no pockets hanging out of the bottom of my cut off jean shorts!

      I agree that comfort is an issue with dressing modestly – if you're sweltering, it's no good, just as being incredibly cold (in formal dresses for women in winter). Although, I spent a week in Egypt in June with only my European winter wardrobe, and whilst i was hot, I was also thankful for the protection from the sun, as I too am very fair. If I'd had shorts and singlets at my disposal, I'm not sure what I would have done..

      I agree, I wonder with girls or women who choose to put it all on show, whether what they are really screaming for is some love, some care and attention. But that's not to say aren't totally confident, but I do think peer pressure often ends with girls in almost identical outfits despite their differences.

      As I touched on earlier in a comment, I'm 100% ok with cross dressing. I think women benefit from the full spectrum of clothing choices, and men get such a small segment. I have no issue with men temporarily or permanently wearing what is seen as women's clothing. I suppose I can't imagine myself without the full range of choices!! My brother has some baggy pants, its a bone of contention in the family!

      Oh what a silly workplace. I'm so pleased to see more than one school offering shorts as part of the approved school uniform. Not my school, but at least one private all girls school and a local drama grammar school. I like to see that some schools can look past tradition and move with the times.

      You certainly made me smile – your comments are rare, but always enjoyable.

  6. Well, this is an enormous topic where I, once again, have a rather quirky perspective. I have very fair skin and burn easily. As a child growing up in the 70's – sunscreen wasn't quite as advanced as it is today, so my parents didn't allow me to wear anything that showed much skin. Even in the swimming pool I had to wear a shirt over my bathing suit. I know modesty was not the primary goal, but somehow the net effect was that I ended up feeling EXTREMELY uncomfortable about my body in general. Seriously, I was well into my 30's before I could emotionally handle wearing shorts or sleeveless tops.

    It seems to me that what the whole thing boils down to is that many, MANY cultures have not quite figured out a way to be at peace with female sexuality… or, more likely, human sexuality in general. But the thing is, sexual feelings don't just go away when you repress them, instead they tend to get bigger, and feel more out of control and "dangerous", which just leads to all sorts of crazy stuff.

    I don't have any answers here, but I don't think that demonizing female bodies or female sexuality is terribly helpful.

    One other anecdote. A friend of mine rented her basement out to a Saudi Arabian exchange student. He got along great with her family, so a few years later when he wanted to bring his bride (an arranged marriage sort of thing, I think) over to live with him, my friend agreed. Well… the bride had grown up in a society where it was totally unacceptable to be seen by a man outside of her immediate family unless she was wearing a full birka. As you might imagine, this made life a tad bit complicated for my friend's husband! Anyhow, the part that was most interesting is that it was perfectly OK for my friend to see her without the birka, and what my friend found very strange was that when she (the bride) was hanging out she wore INCREDIBLY skimpy and provocative clothing. I'm not quite sure I can wrap my brain around all of the contradictions. I think the take away message is that men can somehow not be held responsible for their own actions/responses where female bodies are concerned? It makes no sense to me.

    1. Quirkiness welcome. I too am fair, and for SO long wore swim shirts. I'm so pleased as an adult now I can do without these, and monitor my time in the sun and use sunscreen. But I still feel a burden to keep myself sun safe.

      Only recently, combined with my weight loss, have I been more comfortable in my body. Once previously I was at about this weight, and whilst it's a healthy weight, I just feel I look better. The upshot of that is that mostly, I am modest in my clothing choices too.

      There are certainly some contradictions under the birka – which you can see in the choices of shops in Muslim countries!! And the eyeliner, my oh my.

      At the end of it all – EVERYONE should be responsible for their thoughts, words and actions.

  7. I think what you wear should be appropriate for the climate, situation, event and your age, and comfort. Modesty, is not a concept I care about.

    At uni I swapped between wearing shorts or long flowing hippy skirts. My choices there had nothing to do with modesty but centred on what I thought I looked good in, could afford and the image I was trying to create of an earnest, alternative uni student. (Not very successfully I might add.)

    I wore very short and very, very tight shirts and dresses going out when I was in my late 20s. I thought I looked good and I was happy for the attention. But I wouldn't wear the same clothes shopping or to church. that would be inappropriate. Similarly I wore a bikini to the beach and would walk up to the shop on the beach in one but would walk to the shops at home in one. Now I wouldn't wear clothes as revealing as I wore in my late 20s. These decisions were not and are not based on modesty. But many factors: good taste, my age, my size, comfort. (And that last one is telling of my current age!)

    I can't stand the sexism of modesty when it is focused on women. Why are we the tempters? Why don't men wear a burqa? OK, I am inconsistent in my beliefs and actions – I wore towering heels and short skirts while my partner got to go out in jeans and sensible shoes. And I do tut tut about what some young girls wear now. "Surely it is too cold!"

    Really covering up is not going to change or stop sexual thought patterns and desires. It is about control of women. (Even when it is done by other women.) And if a female want to wear a short skirt or a maxi skirt, I say "Go girl". You chose. You control you. You wear what YOU think you look good in, what you feel comfortable wearing. (Though I still give plenty of advice on what people should wear – should from my point of view as looking more attractive. Lol, told you I was inconsistent. But then again, that advice may not be for the skirt to be longer or less tight or less revealing. It may be to be even bolder and more revealing.)

    1. Good taste – I'm not sure that's still in stock :p I completely gag at some of the clothing choices of others, but I wouldn't go so far as to ban the option to have them available for sale, or to have people wear them.

      Sometimes I wish it was ok to wearing jeans and flat when men do – the expectation to dress up can wear thin in winter! Thankfully with engineering friends that is ALWAYS ok! And then sometimes, with those friends, I feel self conscious if I want to wear a dress and make up – but I do, and no one says a thing.

      I think inconsistency is the key.

      Gosh darn, men could work birqas, but to be honest I mostly don't notice them anyway! Seriously, I very rarely double take with a man! So it wouldn't make much of a difference to me. I still notice good looking women though – what does THAT say about me!!?

  8. My youngest comments when I picked her up from a sleep over last night made me smile. They had been roller skating. Pip said, “How could a mum or dad let their 12 year old out the door in some of those outfits?”. Then she went shorts shopping with her grandmother and the issue of being too tight was raised.

    I love the points about religious dressing. I have to agree what some ladies choose to wear under their traditional clothing is eye opening.

    I am frequently shocked that people are so ignorant that they think someone asked to be raped. Where is self control as an issue if this is the case? To me rape is a violent crime and is more to do with domination and perversion that over impulsive sexuality.

    1. Yep, I still feel like your youngest!! Though my mum's oldest brother has asked if I've been poured into my jeans 😡

      I couldn't agree more with your explanation of rape.

  9. This is a tricky issue. I don't want to have to be "forced" to wear something, but on the other hand, as a mother of boys, it is somewhat frustrating when you are standing in the grocery aisle and every magazine has a scantily clad woman on it with lots of cleavage and I am trying to make sure my sons grow up not seeing women as sex objects.
    I personally dress modestly myself because men are visual, and while I would never consider attire to be a cause of rape (that just makes no sense?) I do not want men to look at me and have sexual thoughts (other than my husband) as that makes me extremely uncomfortable.
    I don't think modesty has to mean skirts and dresses, and once again I wear a lot of them because they are comfortable. I think keeping yourself reasonably covered so no private parts are hanging out is probably a good idea..
    Anyway, interesting topic. Oh, and I'll add that I don't find bikinis appropriate, but I do wear a tankini with a skirt. Chasing children at a swimming pool in a bikini just opens up opportunity for unfortunate situations..
    The Modest Mom is a website that has stylish examples of modern clothing. Sometimes I look at it for ideas of things to wear with skirts.

    1. I agree Katie – it's a fine line between 'having' to wear something, and choosing to wear something. I think I am similar to you in many ways – I don't like to attract the attention of men/boys, generally, though I'm happy for my partner to like what I'm wearing!!

      Interestingly too, I didn't own a bikini in the last probably five years? I bought one a few weeks ago for our holiday at the end of this week – partly as I've lost some weight, and partly due to the BF's preferences. Generally speaking, I like to swim in rough surf, or swim properly, and therefore a two piece is more annoying than anything. At least the bikini isn't too 'itty bitty' and I hope will serve me a little better than some I've had in my teens. Generally though, I much prefer not to show of the large white expanse of belly – no matter how toned. It just feels 'naked' to me!

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