24 October, 2014

What is modesty?

Or, a great excuse to write about fashion

First, the question: how do you define modesty?

I have my own thoughts, of course, but first, let's ask Google for a standard definition (or three):

mod·es·ty    ˈmädəstē/      noun
  1. The quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one's abilities, e.g. "with typical modesty he insisted on sharing the credit with others." Synonyms: self-effacement, humility, unpretentiousness
  2. The quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level, e.g. "the modesty of his political aspirations." Synonyms: limited scope, moderation
  3. behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency, e.g. "modesty forbade her to undress in front of so many people" or "the modesty of his home." Synonyms: unpretentiousness, simplicity, plainness
Note that only a subset of the third definition even begins to address modesty in a way that implies a sexual element.

Reading the New York Times yesterday, I came across this article in the Style section: Modesty Is Her Best Policy: Fabologie's Adi Heyman Promotes Modest Fashion. It describes the creator of a Jewish lifestyle website and emphasizes the appeal of "modest" fashion to women from a variety of backgrounds.
Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
for the New York Times

I might have flipped right past - I've read several articles on this subject in the last several years - but it was accompanied by a photo. The creator poses on a city street, wearing an apparently expensive trench coat, a leather belt and bag, trendy sunglasses with a clear acrylic frame, brilliantly yellow stiletto heels, and a blond wig. 

Two thoughts popped into my head immediately:
  • I wonder how vegans define modesty? and
  • When I wear colored shoes - especially stilettos - I'm looking to be noticed!
I also latched on to this final quote:

The trend toward modest fashion may well pass, but Ms. Heyman is conscious of its deeper meaning. “When cloaking elbows and knees, we aim to emphasize the person, not the body,” she wrote on her blog, adding, “By covering up what is superficial, we reveal what is more important: personality and character.”

Hmmm...we'll come back to this. 

Several years ago, I was going on vacation in Morocco. I flew into Marrakech and took a train to Casablanca. I was going to be traveling alone for that part of the trip, so I wanted to blend in as much as possible. I Googled various recommendations for how to dress and ended up reaching the (erroneous) conclusion that I needed to cover up from ankle to collar bone. 

Unfortunately, this was 2007, and"maxi" was not a word in my vocabulary, at least not in its application to skirts and dresses. And, since I can't stand turtlenecks (I feel like I'm choking), I owned exactly one shirt that covered my collar bone - my rowing jersey. So I scoured Oxford, and finally managed to conjure up a long khaki skirt with a lace underskirt and elaborate gold and pearl beading from the Covered Market and a very full and slightly dusty lilac corduroy skirt from a forgotten sales rack in Debenhams, as well as a few crew-neck shirts and a couple of cowl-neck sweaters that weren't terrible.

This was a pointless exercise for a variety of reasons. First, I like skirts and I wear them a lot, but in new places, where I feel slightly uncomfortable and on my guard, I would much, much rather be wearing pants. I know it's highly unlikely that I would need to, but I can run, kick and fight in pants. Secondly, my face has only slightly more color than a glass of milk - unless you're a drone, looking down on my head, I don't "blend in." I glow in the dark. 

Third, Google was just wrong - plenty of Moroccan women do not cover up to that extent and there are tons of tourists running around in shorts and more inappropriate get-ups (not that I'm recommending those). Furthermore, I should have learned years before that people don't expect outsiders to behave exactly like their compatriots. They mostly just ask that you not dance naked in their town square (or blot their nude beach with a burqa). We humans are more tolerant than we give ourselves credit for…sometimes. When I was in college, I hiked across Costa Rica and stayed with two host families in villages on the western slope of the Sierra de la Muerte. One of my fellow hikers asked our guide (the young adult son of one family and one of 18 children) what his conservative parents and siblings thought of the teenage girls running around their country, far from the protective gaze of their fathers. He just shrugged and said, "You are American. It's not the same."
  
(On the flip side, this Italian-speaking Catholic girl got kicked out of the cathedral in Milan, three months after the Moroccan adventure, for wearing a shirt with cap sleeves that exposed too much shoulder.)

Let's go back a little further. Once upon a time, I was a teenager loyal to Express and Abercrombie & Fitch (it was the '90s). I wore plaid mini skirts and cut-off jean shorts, and every single shirt or blouse was velvet, velour or somehow imbued with glitter. (I would kill for a good picture of one of these outfits.) Many of my shirts had cut-outs in peculiar places. I also wore heels with EVERYTHING. Other than a pair of sneakers, I don't think I owned any flats. One of my college suitemates took one look and said, "You know those are tools of the patriarchy, don't you?"

Example: my first day of "college in high school" (because I took my first college course when I was 14, and you can be geeky and fashion-oriented too). I wore a shimmery blue ribbed sleeveless crop top turtleneck (are you picturing it?) under - God help me - acid-wash denim overalls.

Now(ish):
Anthropologie Time Gone By dress
And frankly, none of these outfits would qualify for the American-religious-pop-culture definition of modesty, because even when they covered up the obvious places, I liked to wear them tight. No one with a 36D chest has ever looked modest wearing a stretchy Lycra button-down shirt sized to fit her arms and waist. 

Thankfully, fashion evolved and so did my taste. I have lot more ballet flats, tea-length skirts, and three-quarter-length sleeves in my closet now. I also discovered the open secret of tailoring - because one size doesn't even fit all of one body, most of the time.

More "modest"? If you mean less revealing of breasts and thighs, then...yes, definitely. More flattering too, if I can judge myself. If you mean "modest" in the sense of simplicity, less glitz and flash, then...probably. Very few, if any, of my clothes have any kind of sparkle now. My jewelry is simpler, too, and my hair is back to its natural color from various shades of red. If you mean "modest" in the sense of self-effacement or unpretentiousness, then...maybe. Inadvertently. I'll explain... 

I have always dressed in clothes that made me comfortable and (that I thought) expressed my identity. As a teenager, I didn't feel my clothes were too tight or the fabrics too unforgiving. Over time, I became more comfortable in skirts that were long enough to leave no worries about how I sat and shirts that carried no risks when bending over - for one thing, I entered a profession where I sometimes crouch down or sit on the floor to be at the same level as the children I'm treating. I also became increasingly concerned (admittedly, a little obsessed) about sun exposure, and so I feel much more relaxed if my skin is covered when I'm going to be outside. 

At the same time, do I have any less desire to be perceived as attractive than when I was younger? I don't think so. I think I still want to be noticed, but I have possibly a richer picture of what makes a good first impression and how important those first impressions can be. Rather than thinking of "attractive" as synonymous with "sexy", I think of it as encompassing beautiful, capable, strong, professional, trustworthy, intelligent, creative, unique... And more. It's not that I didn't care about these things at 17, but I think I had more faith that people would get to know me and discover my intelligence, creativity, and so on.

I own fewer clothes and shoes now than when I moved into my first dorm room (and suddenly understood why Bed, Bath & Beyond sold so many different types of organizers). The clothes I do own are higher quality and more carefully selected. They are also - while I'm being honest - a LOT more expensive.

So when I think about these things - the fact that I still do care about the image I project, through my clothes...that I try to shop in moderation but still have a wardrobe worth many times what most of the world makes in a month...that I still, simply, like pretty things... I don't feel "modest."

Even if my collar bone is covered today. 

I realize now that certain parts of my early Christian and Catholic education really deeply define my values in almost subconscious ways. I was taught that God calls us to want less and less for ourselves and give more and more to others, and so I try to live that and I fail. Frequently.

I don't kid myself that God is happy if we spend $400 on high heels as long as we make sure our breasts are covered.

So to go back to the quote in the original article that so bothered me:

“When cloaking elbows and knees, we aim to emphasize the person, not the body,” she wrote on her blog, adding, “By covering up what is superficial, we reveal what is more important: personality and character.”

Okay, yes, clothes sometimes can reveal personality and character...if you are lucky enough to have the time and money - not to mention good eyesight and either a personal inclination for the visual or the money to hire a consultant - to select clothes that really do reveal your personality and character. 

But ultimately, fashion is superficial. The fact that the superficial can sometimes mirror deeper truths, or that we often judge and are judged on superficial qualities, doesn't change that.

(Fashion is also fun. I'm awfully far from a person who believes God doesn't want us to have fun or take joy in our lives wherever we find it. During a particularly rough time in my medical training and personal life, I bought a pair of crazily indulgent "what the heck did I just do?" $500 Coclico leather riding boots. They fit my feet like gloves, and every time, I wear them - now four years later - I feel happy and confident.)

The example of the wig (or Sheitel) particular bothers me. My limited understanding of the history of this practice is that Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair, for reasons of modesty. I have previously read that this was supposed to preserve the beauty of the hair for their husband's enjoyment only. According to Wikipedia, an esteemed rabbi in the 16th century wrote that a wig was a suitably modest covering. This has puzzled me for awhile, because when I've read interviews of women my age, they write about trying to choose the loveliest and most natural looking wigs. The women in the NYT article, Adi Heyman, is pictured wearing a blond wig with what can only be intentional dark roots (not quite an ombré look), styled into "beachy" waves. 

No matter how hard I try, I can't really appreciate the nuance here. If the wig is to preserve modesty, why wear one that draws attention to one's head and hair? Why is it okay for passers-by to admire someone else's hair on the wearer's head?

I admit it: attractive women in loose hijabs draw my eye more than women in ponytails and look so good that I wish head coverings would come into style the way scarves have.

I also recently read this great post from Rachel Held Evans, who writes about how strict standards of "modesty" can objectify women's bodies more than most bikinis. She also brings up a great point about how standards of modesty are deeply rooted in the culture of a specific community and time period. Now that I live (for the first time in six years) in a house that gets cable television, I caught an episode of "19 and Counting" and was slightly stunned that the adolescent daughters wear more makeup than I have ever owned. But hey, I won't judge your eye liner if you don't judge my (one-piece) swimsuit. 

Milan Fashion Week: I want this outfit