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Modesty: Where Have You Gone?!

September 16th, 2016

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

Let’s start with a simple definition of modesty – 

  • the quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities
  • the quality of behaving and especially dressing in ways that do not attract sexual attention

From Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary

 I ran into a friend, a nicely dressed career woman, the other day at a social event.  She is my age and as we talked about many things, but one of the topics mentioned was modesty in dress.  There were quite a few folks around us and most of them were from the age of about 30 on up. Also, most of them were dressed casually, and comfortably considering the temperature was about 90°.  The majority of them were also dressed modestly, by that I mean their underwear was not visible, the women’s necklines were not plunging to their navels, skirts and shorts were not so tight or short that that the wearer was in danger of flashing the unsuspecting public, nor were the men walking about with their shirts off or their briefs showing.

For the purpose of this blog I will confine my discussion mostly to dress and fashion, and also mostly to women’s fashion since men’s fashions don’t change quite as drastically or as quickly as women’s.

A time line of women's fashions from 1700 to 2000 using silhouettes

A time line of women’s fashions from 1700 to 2000 using silhouettes

Standards of modesty have changed through the years, of course.  If we look at hemlines in the 1860s and 1870s women are only showing a small amount of skin.  If we look at fashion during the 1920s we see hemlines creeping up.  By the 1960s and 1970s skirts were often super long or super short. As we can see, changes and controversy over hem lines have come and gone for many years.

If you read articles about Modesty, it becomes evident that there are many interpretations of what constitutes modest dress.  There are religious ideas and corporate ideas of modesty, there are interpretations of what is modest for children, adult females and males, family members and participants in sports and/or cultural activities.

Youth have dressed in the fashion of rebellion for generations.  When I was young we wore miniskirts, sandals, bell bottom jeans, flannel shirts and drove our parents crazy as they policed our style before we left the house knowing that upon our arrival at school we would roll up our skirts, and apply make up in the closest bathroom. Some of the guys owned “Cuban Heels” pointed toed and higher heeled boots, which they stored in their high school lockers; they would exchange their more conservative shoes for this footwear when they arrived. Nowadays these fashions seem pretty tame, especially when compared to what people see on  the red carpet at the Academy Awards, the Oscars or the Grammys, but in those days our “new fashions” caused a great deal of consternation among parents, teachers and school administrators.

Black and white illustration of the proper length for a girl's skirt at various ages

Black and white illustration of the proper length for a girl’s skirt at various ages

Modesty is not an easy topic to write about because it is a construction of one’s society and also a personal choice. I think of modesty as a way to act and dress in public so that a person’s clothing or behavior is not an unwanted distraction/attraction or an impediment to communication. Some of the leaders in the women’s rights movement i.e. Elizabeth C. Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone began wearing the “bloomer” costume, a version of short skirt, trousers and a jacket, for a short while only to discover that it impeded their work by drawing attention away from their message and focusing it on their clothing.  After about 3 years they returned to more conventional dress to show their seriousness and commitment to their cause.

A person can call attention to themselves by dressing in an overly modest or prudish fashion as well as by dressing in an exhibitionist fashion. If a woman shows up in a crowd dressed in fashions from the 1950s she can attract some attention, though not as much attention as the woman who shows up dressed like Miley Cyrus and “twerking”.  Neither fashion is standard in today’s world.  This does not mean that everyone should imitate their neighbor to blend in, but it does mean that a little thought about what is appropriate and what isn’t can help if your goal is to get a job, be taken seriously, be respected or communicate serious ideas.

While I am glad that our standards of dress are much relaxed from the fashions of my mother and grandmother, I will admit to being a bit surprised at just how little clothing some people are wearing in the 21st Century.  While watching the Olympics this summer I noticed that women’s track and field uniforms were more like modest 2 piece bathing suits than shorts and tanks.  I noticed that the men’s uniforms were pretty much the standard shorts and athletic shirts they had always been. It made me wonder if there was just a bit of sexism going on, a double standard perhaps?  If the women’s uniform really streamlines them and gives them that much of an edge in competition, why don’t the men change to something similar? It makes a person wonder….

Colored illustrations of women's fashions in the 20th Century

Colored illustrations of women’s fashions in the 20th Century

Modesty is personal enough that we all need to make our own choices in what we wear, but the flip side of that coin is that many people will judge us on their idea of what we are wearing. I will leave it to my readers to decide what constitutes modesty for you, but I will provide you with some contrasting styles to look at and contemplate.

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows
Anything goes

Lyrics from the song Anything Goes by Cole Porter 1934

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One response to “Modesty: Where Have You Gone?!”

  1. Joanne Wisor says:

    Really interesting, Karen.

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