Why Modest Fashion Bothers Me

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Today I want to talk about the trend for Modest Fashion.

Increasingly I’ve started to notice some of the outfits I pin on my inspiration board marked with a Modest Fashion hash tag. It’s also been suggested that some of my own outfits are “Modest” since I favour midi skirts and not a lot of cleavage.

The term makes me really uncomfortable and irrationally irritated. Frankly there’s nothing more likely to make me want to start wearing cropped tops and mini skirts together than being accused of being a “Modest Dresser”.

I did a bit of Internet research on modest dressing. It seems to be largely accepted to be wearing clothing that covers your knees, upper arms and collarbones and isn’t too form-fitting, though modern interpretations don’t seem to necessarily demand flowing, just not skin-tight.

Like this OMG I’M MODEST.

Modern Modest Dressing

At this point I should probably make clear that I’m talking about modest dressing from a purely fashion perspective, because it has lots of over laps with religion. I’m not religious, but if you chose to follow a religion and to follow its prescriptions on dress then that’s up to you and I defend your right to do it, whether I personally follow that religion or not. That’s really not an area I know enough about to comment on. So lets draw that line right there.

Modest dressing as a secular fashion has crept in from religion, but also seems to have sprung out of a reaction to some of the overtly sexualised versions of femininity that we see in popular culture.

4 years ago I wrote a piece about Feminism and Vintage Dressing. It wasn’t an academic thesis, more some observations on the kind of women I had met in the Vintage Sub Culture at the time (and I got some horrible personal attacks on Social Media after I wrote it, so please play nice today).

Whilst some of my views, and indeed the “vintage” world itself, have changed, I still stand by the core of it; how you chose to dress can be a powerful statement of how you view yourself and your relation to the world. I was thinking about the difference between dressing to fit into a mainstream mould of attractiveness, and dressing in a way that makes you feel good. At the time I felt that vintage dressing, pin up and burlesque was a way of showing two fingers to the established definition of “sexy” and an attempt to redefine it.

The world of  vintage has changed a lot since then. It’s been co-opted more into mainstream looks and styles. My excitement at the time that I discovered vintage and the freedom I felt in creating those looks and not giving a damn what anyone else thought about me felt extremely liberating after years of trying to force my short and curvy body to somehow look tall, slim and leggy. When I posted outfit posts it wasn’t men who appreciated the looks, it was women, and it felt somehow creepy when men did comment.

Vintage Modest Dressing

On the surface modest dressing as a fashion trend appears to have a similar message. There are many positive stories out there about modest dressing and how women feel that it has improved their body image and freed them from worrying about inappropriate male attention. But this is what bugs me about the concept of modest fashion. At their heart the positive stories are all about women who felt solely defined on what their body looked like in relation to a particular ideal, or found they spent a lot of time being harassed by men because of their clothing. The idea that the answer to that problem is to cover up more bothers me a lot.

It’s not the actual clothing that I have a problem with. As a fashion movement modest dressing seems to involve a lot of my core wardrobe staples.

Sensible cardigans and midi skirts really are my bag, baby.

What bothers me is the fitting of women into a little box based on their appearance. That anything that’s not modest is somehow immodest, or shameful. That the very concept of modest fashion seems to be about men, not the women who wear it. Modest fashion relies on the idea that by flashing a bit of cleavage women are somehow “tempting” men into behaving in a certain way. In the story I linked to above a woman suggests she now only gets the occasional “street pervert or harrasser” suggesting that otherwise decent men are induced to harass women in public by the clothes they wear. A concept that is as insulting to men as it is to women.

Modesty in dress is a concept that relies on defining women by their body parts and which bits are or aren’t appropriate to show in public. It places more value on a womans outward appearance than on her values and suggests that appearance is somehow linked to morality and how she can expect to be treated.

Modest dressing  is not dependent upon dressing appropriately for a given situation, I’m all for appropriateness. I wouldn’t wear jeans to a wedding, or open toed shoes in a factory, that’s kind of rude in the first instance and dangerous in the second. I also wouldn’t wear a crop top to a business meeting, I do question exactly why that is, but I understand there are social conventions of dress, and I’d be as surprised to arrive for a business interview to see a man in cut off shorts and a slogan t-shirt as I would a woman in a cropped top. Modest dressing applies solely to women and defines what is  “appropriate” full stop, regardless of the situation.

If you realise you’ve accidentally become a modest dresser, then by all means continue. I’ve got a lot less modest in my old age, but I will continue to wear whatever the hell I want. Just please don’t suggest I’m ever modest.

Immodest Dressing


21 Responses
  • Grey Dove
    April 27, 2016

    Fabulous, Thank You!
    I first became aware of this when I was researching products related to those I make and sell and I was surprised at the number of Barbie (as in Barbie doll) clothes being sold as Modest! There are some much more extreme (and frankly upsetting) Barbie clothes being marketed, taking the “modest” concept way too far (in my humble opinion), and I was/am very upset and somewhat concerned by all of it! So I’m triply appreciative of your post which expresses my thoughts and feelings on the topic much better and more clearly than I currently could.
    (And no, I don’t care how a doll gets dressed but Barbie is a surprisingly good gauge of current trends in how women are being perceived.)

  • Mim McDonald (@crinolinerobot)
    April 27, 2016

    I have a friend who consciously dresses modestly, but to be honest, I never really noticed until she stated it – she’s really stylish and just looks *good*. Her attitude is “I don’t owe the world a look at my boobs”, and fair play to her. I guess the key thing is, she has her own unique look, she doesn’t look like she’s following a trend or trying to fit in with a crowd.

    I’m not sure if my clothes count as modest or not. Like you, I dress appropriately, because it’s rude not to in some situations. It can get frustrating shopping for repro-brand vintage nowadays because so much has swung towards the ‘pin-up’ end of things (I’d argue that a lot of it doesn’t even qualify as actually repro, but that’s another topic). Pin-up styles are great for those who can wear them, but I’m a fat old lady and need my bra!

  • Suzanne
    April 27, 2016

    I can really relate to this. Recently someone contacted me via FB and asked me to be featured as a modest dresser. There are lots of words I would use to describe my style, but modest? No way.

    Like you I find there is a negative connotation with the word modest suggesting that showing women’s bodies is wrong. This of course only increases the older you get. Once you pass 40 you it is truly no longer acceptable to show cleavage, too much leg, bare arms, knees. The list goes on and on. On the other hand I see men parading around sans shirt at 70 beer belly wrinkles galore, not a care in the world. I’m sure he’d laugh out loud if someone suggested he was immodest.

    To me the entire concept is sexist.

    Loved this post!


    • Gemma
      April 27, 2016

      Oh yes, it’s the “mutton dressed as lamb” thing, but that’s a whole other ranty blog post, maybe I’ll save it for another day 😉

  • Lucy
    April 27, 2016

    Great post, most of my wardrobe would tick the modest box, the person in the clothes would certainly not! Much like you, I wear what pleases me.

  • Perdita
    April 27, 2016

    I live in a very ethnically diverse area and women I know who describe themselves as “modest” often do so to demonstrate their cultural identity (especially at a time when UKIP and Co are peddling their agenda, it’s a political choice as well as a cultural and religious one). I’m not sure how they would feel about women doing it to dodge cat calls and blaming women for inviting such insults. Interesting given some I know have been harassed for wearing Hajib by ignorant men who seem to want us all to be there looking like their idea of an available woman – so covered up but not too much!

    • Gemma
      April 27, 2016

      I didn’t want to comment on that side of things because it’s not something I know much about, but that side of using it to build a cultural identity is really interesting to read about.

  • Janet
    April 27, 2016

    Totally agree — dressing vintage might be sensible but never modest! Agree with dressing in a way that’s appropriate and makes you feel good, not in reaction to other people’s ideas on what you should be doing. Thanks for the post!

  • Elizabeth
    April 27, 2016

    This post really made me think about my own personal style. I do dress modestly, and it is actually out of a desire not to show my body. BUT. I realize that it’s not an entirely positive thing, for me. Personally, a lot of my “modest” style stems from a longtime dislike of my own body and appearance and a frustration with the way my body is changing as I age and stop doing some of the activities that kept me slim and toned. It’s a manifestation of my own internal struggle, not an empowering thing. And I find myself occasionally quite upset with the fact that all my clothes make me feel frumpy, when in fact I choose clothing that is not form-fitting and covers my knees and arms and back and chest. So thank you for this post.

    • Gemma
      April 27, 2016

      Oh, that makes me sad.It’s a shame we spend so much energy disliking ourselves. I think it’s a thing a lot of women do, though. They always wear sleeves, even though they’re too hot, because they hate their arms, or always wear trousers because they hate their legs.

  • Jessica
    April 28, 2016

    I love this so much. Thank you, thank you for writing about this subject.
    As a general rule, I just hate the idea of modesty. It’s rooted in the idea that the body (particularly the female body) is sinful, and shouldn’t be seen lest it arouse lust in helpless men. If someone prefers to cover up for whatever reason, that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that I should feel ashamed of myself if I choose not to. It also doesn’t mean that I deserve to be cat called or assaulted if I wear a low cut top or a short skirt. Given how often people still critique rape victims for wearing the wrong thing, I don’t think it’s wrong to feel that the very idea of modesty is damaging.
    While I’m ranting, I also hate it when people talk about how “classy” vintage women are. Class is just another way to say that some women are good, and other women are trashy and slutty. I just can’t with that.
    I’m kind of surprised you got hate for the last article that you wrote. What did people disagree with? It seemed quite mild to me.

  • Miss Magpie
    April 28, 2016

    Hmm, I’ve not come across this modest dressing until now, what a depressing concept. I guess I am a modest dresser these days, (I certainly wasn’t in my youth!!) but that’s more because now I’m fat and over 40 so I no longer feel comfortable in certain clothes but that’s me and not society dictating what I wear. I seem to have embraced colour and pattern instead.

    I work at a business school and this reminds me of an time last year where one of the students arrived for an important interview in a very short skirt combined with so much cleavage on display it rendered you speechless. Even my first reaction was a maiden aunt worthy ‘good lord! this is a job interview not a night club outing’. Thinking about it afterwards I was torn with on the one hand good for you to wear what you want, but on the other have you so little confidence in you skills and abilities you have to use your boobs to try and get the job for you? You knew instantly that everyone who saw her was judging her. But there again maybe her outfit made her feel a million dollars and gave her a confidence boost despite not being what one would call corporate? I suppose maybe it comes down to whether you care that people will be looking and judging.

    • Mim McDonald (@crinolinerobot)
      April 28, 2016

      Yeah, but you’re assuming that modest dressing is always about being dictated to. Some people choose it for themselves simply because they prefer long skirts or trousers, or don’t want to show cleavage. And for them ‘modest dressing’ is simply an easy shorthand for the style they look for when shopping, it doesn’t have to extend to an entire outlook.

      If a woman covers up, it isn’t necessarily because she’s being told to, any more than one who lets it all hang out is pandering to others.

      You have fabulous style, I love your colour and pattern choices!

      • Gemma
        April 28, 2016

        Of course! Like I said, it’s not about the clothes. It’s the concept and the loaded term “modest” used to describe it.

  • Marija
    April 28, 2016

    Dear Ema,
    I have realized I’ve accidentally became a modest dresser.. and I am continuing with it. 🙂
    For some of us, it’s not about religion, it’s also not about “not tempting men”. For me (and I’m sure I’m not the only one), modesty is my choice. Because of ME.
    I’m not advocating it.. oh, nonono! If you have “the Body” and have the pride – show it: wear tights, crop the shirt.. pump-the pin-up style.. go for what makes you feel good, what makes you being – you.
    Modesty in clothing is also about “safety”. You know that time you were out with friends, you leaned over.. and someone noticed a “crack” (upper or lower one)= I’ve had that.. and since I’m uber-shy that stuck with me.
    So, my fashion is “safety first” kind of style. 🙂

    • Marija
      April 28, 2016

      There is a typing ERROR – I know your name is GEMMA! 🙂

  • Alice
    April 28, 2016

    You look absolutely fabulous ! Love the outfit and the offshoulders blouse!

  • Ev
    April 28, 2016

    Great post dear 😉


  • Janiece
    May 7, 2016

    I could not love this post any more, I have felt exactly the same for some time and I could have cheered when i read this. Horrible gendered notions of modesty (which leads to the notion of the opposite of modesty, which leads to a slut-shaming mentality), and the idea that women are responsible for male sexual responses, fill me with despair. Women are entitled to be positive about their bodies and sexuality and to express that through fashion, at whatever age they are. People can cover up if they wish – I do myself, more often than not these days – but to link it to the notion of ‘modesty’ for women is just awful. Thank you!

  • Pernille
    May 20, 2016

    This was interesting! I did not know “modest fashion” was a thing (other than in connection with religion).
    I guess I classify as a modest dresser, but I do not like the label!
    I prefer 30s to 50s styles, and there is another factor you did not mention: the weather! I live in turtlenecks all winter, and cardigans are a must! Not only by choice, but also because the weather dictates warm clothing! Plunging necklines is not an option when it is freezing outside!

  • Katy
    July 10, 2016

    As a modest dresser, I love this post. I chose to dress modestly due to my Christian faith. It did start out as the “not tempting men” fashion choice but now I couldn’t disagree with that more. Instead, I chose to dress modestly as an act of respect for God but it’s a personal choice. I know Christians who don’t dress “modestly” but are still incredibly “modest” and other people who dress “modestly” but are “immodest”. As a fashion statement, modesty is out of place. It belongs in the same place as other subcultures, as a way that people can be themselves completely. It’s a personal choice and I would hate to think people assume I’m judging them by how modest their outfits are. Thank you for this post so much!