Modesty – How, What, and Why? (Part One)

Modesty - How What and WhyModesty? What’s that?

Modesty is a concept which can seem quite alien in today’s culture of skinny jeans, mini-skirts, bikinis, and tank tops. Most teenagers scarcely give it the slightest consideration, going out of their way – it seems – to wear the most revealing clothes they can find.

However, modesty can still be important to some youth and adults today. There are lots of reasons someone may choose to dress modestly, from religion to comfort and on. Actually, I was going to do a “Why Modesty?” post, until I realised that I couldn’t really get my reasons down in a coherent manner. My modest dress started of mostly subconscious, just wearing what I felt was more comfortable, but eventually gained some religious aspects to it, too.

I’m not going to dwell too much on the “Why?” of modest dressing; I’d rather get down to the “How?” and “What?” as quickly as possible. But for those interested in Bible verses relating to modesty, here are some good ones to look up: 1 Timothy 2:9, Deuteronomy 22:5, 2 Corinthians 6:17, 1 Peter 3:5, and Romans 12:1-2.

So, what is “modesty”? Well, the three generally-accepted definitions of the word “modest” are “inexpensive”, “doesn’t draw attention”, and “isn’t revealing”. In my opinion, clothing should be all three of these things – and particularly so for Christians. In fact, 1 Timothy 2:9 says that Christians should dress, “… in modest apparel, with humbleness and sobriety, not with… costly array…” (paraphrased).

There are a couple of rules for buying clothes which are generally taught to girls in most Christian churches – but unfortunately not often followed! They are: 1) necklines should not reach more than four fingers below the collarbone), 2) shorts or skirts shouldn’t come higher than where your middle finger is when your arms are hanging straight down your sides, 3) if you bend over, people shouldn’t be able to see your underwear, or the outline of your underwear, 4) bra straps shouldn’t be showing, 5) when you lift your arms above your head, one shouldn’t be able to see your midriff, 6) gently press the shirt between your boobs. If you can’t do it with minimal force, or if your shirt springs back out immediately, it’s too tight.

I think these are good standards for anyone to keep to, but they still leave room for some pretty immodest clothing. In the absence of any specific verse detailing exactly what to wear, I turn to the Jewish definition for modesty in clothing. Judaism is, after all, where Christianity comes from; and Paul, being a Jew himself, probably had these standards in mind when he was writing. According to the Jewish standards of modesty (to my understanding), one’s shoulders, collarbone, upper arms (to the elbow), torso and thighs (to the knees) should be covered. It’s also interesting that the Bible seems to consider, in a number of places, that “nakedness” and “nudity” are two different things. “Nudity” the complete absence of any clothing at all. “Nakedness”, on the other hand, is when any of the abovementioned body parts are showing, even if one isn’t entirely nude.

These still seem pretty reasonable standards for anyone, I’m sure you’ll agree. There are lots of clothes which might not be accepted by some modest-dressing churches which fit these standards, such as cargo pants and t-shirts. Anyone can keep to these standards easily.

But a lot of modest-dressing Christians and Jews advocate skirts-only for women. There are a couple of reasons for this:

One is Deuteronomy 22:5; “Woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man; neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.” While many Christians would say that this, being Old Testament law, is not longer applicable to us today, one has got to consider the strong wording used! Surely anything which was an “abomination” to God in the Old Testament times would still be something He doesn’t like today? Some also say that, in our culture, trousers can be women’s clothing as well as men’s – they are often made specifically for women and not for men. But consider how this became so – it was because women wanted to usurp the headship order (see “Why Headcovering?”)! Only 100 years ago, it was considered a scandal for a woman or girl to wear trousers. Don’t you think it’s odd that, today, women can wear trousers and no-one will bat an eyelid, but when men wear skirts, it’s considered strange, improper, even outright wrong?

Another reason is that skirts simply look nicer. The female shape is built for a skirt, not trousers – it’s curvier and trousers simply don’t cater for that unless they are very tight and fitted. Consider how trousers fit on a woman. “Modest”, that is loose, trousers often look ill-fitting and awkward, particularly at the back, and tight and shaped trousers simply aren’t modest. (There are some exceptions to this, like most culottes, which are designed to look like a skirt). Trousers draw the eye to a woman’s midsection, which, if she’s being modest, is not where she wants people looking.

Yet another reason some women choose to wear only skirts or dresses is that they find it more comfortable. I have to agree – this is my main reason for wearing skirts. They are also a lot cooler in summer (consider it that you have your own personal breeze with you) than even shorts, and with the right undergarments, a lot warmer in winter!

Well, this post is now getting very long, so I’m going to split it into two parts. I hope it makes sense to people. I’ll finish up by doing a quick re-cap of what I’ve talked about:

1) The definition of “modesty”, and how it pertains to 1 Timothy 2:9.

2) The generally-accepted rules of modesty taught in most churches but almost never applied.

3) The Jewish standards of modesty in clothing.

4) The reasons for going skirts-only.

Well, I hope that I have made sense so far, and I will post Part Two tomorrow.

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7 thoughts on “Modesty – How, What, and Why? (Part One)

  1. […] as “Why Christianity?”, “Why Headcovering?” and “Why Chooks?” I said I was going to do a post on “Why Modesty?”, but I never got around to […]

  2. victoria214 says:

    what range of lengths/hemlines do you feel are acceptable in skirts, dresses, (and even pants)?

  3. Rachel says:

    The official rule at most schools here is that skirts should touch the ground when kneeling (interestingly, that’s the way to measure the proper length of a kilt, too). I’d say that’s a bit short – I’d say a skirt should cover the knees when you’re sitting down. If you sit down on a chair and people can see straight up your skirt, then it’s too short.

    On the other extreme, I’d say if a skirt is touching the ground, then it’s too long. That’s a practical thing, even more than the last one. It’s cumbersome and gets dirty easily if a skirt is too long. (Is a wedding dress the most impractical garment designed? Both white AND drags on the floor!)

    As for trousers… I don’t know, really. I suppose, whatever you’re comfortable with in a skirt, don’t go shorter than that in trousers. That said, seeing too many guys’ hairy legs in summer weirds me out, so I wish they’d wear longer trousers!

  4. Peregrina says:

    I have come across your page recently and really appreciate your posts. I too dress in simple dresses (plain dresses without cape) and cover my head. Being an autistic, I like to wear the same style of dress (in similar colours–blue, green, grey and classic floral patterns that has those colours) everyday.
    As a Christian Orthodox, I have met conservative Russian women who complained that in western countries, there was nowhere to buy dresses that befitted Orthodox women. In their country, there are shops that cater to Orthodox women who want to dress more conservatively. I have browsed some Russian websites that sell Orthodox dresses and realise that, yes, they do have shops that sell plain dresses.
    Women are required to wear dresses or skirts and head covering in churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, the head-covering tradition is dying. Some parishes are not strict and women attend services bare-headed. At worst, they come to services with full make-up on! When they kiss the icons (religious images), they leave lip marks on them.
    It’s so true that “Trousers draw the eye to a woman’s midsection”. I have talked to a few conservative Christian women about this issue. They all said that it’s not so much of the fact that trousers are men’s clothing but that trousers draw attention to parts that are cause temptation.
    I would like to add that John 21:7 also implies how important modesty is, even for men. Look at how Peter put on clothes when he knew Jesus was there. He showed respect. To cover one’s nakedness means respect, but a lot of people nowadays overlook.
    By the way, you said “seeing too many guys’ hairy legs in summer weirds me out”. How about seeing these legs in churches? I am horrified.
    I think people don’t know what modesty and sobriety mean anymore.
    What one chooses to wear is a matter of one’s personal choice. Everybody has free will. I am not saying that every woman should wear plain dresses and cover their heads full time, but I wish they dressed more decently particularly in churches.
    Ah, many Christians have fallen prey to the way of the world.

    • Rachel says:

      Dear Peregrina,

      Thank-you for your kind comment! I, too, think that autism has contributed to the way I dress. I make my dresses all with the same pattern for consistency.

      Although I am not Orthodox, I visited a Greek Orthodox church recently and was surprised to see only one woman their with her head covered, since I had been told that Orthodox women covered their heads and been to Russian and Ethiopian Orthodox worship when I was small where I’m sure women had their head covered. But I’ve read that Greek Orthodox churches are sometimes less strict about headcoverings than other Orthodox churches.

      I’m interested in hearing about Russian shops selling plain or modest dresses. It makes sense, though. Would you mind sharing a few links for those shops? I’d be interested to look at them.

      Also thank-you for your thoughts on modesty in the Bible. Some of my reasoning has changed since I wrote this post four years ago, and I am considering another post on the topic. I’m interested in the Orthodox reasoning and thought behind it as I am mostly familiar with the Protestant reasoning.

      • Peregrina says:

        Dear Rachel,
        Thank you for your reply and interest.
        Greek churches have been modernised a lot over the past decades.
        Orthodox literature, i.e., writings of Christian scholars of the early centuries contain some passages about women [and men] dress code and, of course, head coverings for women. These are the writings of those Christians who lived a few centuries after Christ’s Resurrection. Head-covering is required for prayer time and in churches. In Orthodox tradition, we are encouraged to pray all the time, to remember God and glorify Him always. So, women should always cover their heads, at least during their waking hours. I know that nuns cover their heads all the time, even when they sleep.
        This link will lead you to head-covering topic from an Orthodox perspective:
        https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/womens-headcoverings/
        This one is about modesty: http://www.orthodox.net/cotc/modesty.html

        As for the dress shops, I can share with you these links. The key words to search in Google “одежда для православных женщин” (it simply means clothes for Orthodox women). The problem is these websites are in Russian. Not all of these dresses are plain. I have to add, Russian women love flared skirts.
        http://baryshnya.com/catalogue
        http://www.miryanka.ru/
        My interest about Russian Orthodox tradition includes the topic of Old Believer Orthodox Christian. They dress even more conservatively and live separate from the world like the Amish, though, those who are a bit more modern, they live and work in secular world just like all of us, but they go to church dressed in traditional Russian clothes. They are very strict. Women must be covered from head to toe in church. They look almost like Muslims. (key words to search одежда для старообрядческая). Their lifestyle and dress code are similar to Amish and Mennonite. That means the way they dress is also their identity.

    • Rachel says:

      Dear Peregrina,

      I recall watching a Russia Today documentary about the Staroobryadtsy a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyxcS1DDzKQ. I believe there might be an Old Ritualist or Old Believer church in Melbourne or Sydney?

      I can read Cyrillic and pick out a few words, but not much more than that! My father spent some time in Moscow before he came to Australia and even tried to teach me Russian for a bit when I was about 10-12, but I never learnt much other than that… I can navigate a website well enough, sort of, but I don’t know the words to search for anything, so having the links straight there is very useful! There are online shops for modest-dressing Protestant women, too, mostly in America, but as far as I know, they don’t have physical shops you can just walk into on the street. Is the same true for the shops you’ve linked, or do you think Orthodox women in Russia can walk into a shopping centre and find a shop selling clothes like this?

      Thank-you for the other two links, as well. I found the lipstick rant at the end of the second interesting, and I know you mentioned lipstick in the first comment, as well. Although most Protestant churches do not have icons (and certainly none are in the habit of kissing them), I’ve noticed that lipstick becomes a problem during communion. Although many Protestants take communion from separate little cups, some churches (including the one where I worship) still use a communal cup, and most people “sip” rather than “dip”. The server always has a cloth on hand to wipe the rim before passing it to the next person, but sometimes when someone is wearing lipstick, it’s impossible to wipe it off without causing a scene! And so we’re left with lipstick-stains around the rim as the cup moves along. (This is the entire reason I swapped to being a “dipper” rather than a “sipper”).

      I appreciated the quotes from the early church fathers in both links. Protestants tend to focus more on the Reformers than the early church fathers, and I didn’t even read any of their writings until I went to Bible college (and even there, I read a lot more from the Reformers). So I wouldn’t have the first idea where to find writings on the topics of clothes and headcovering without these quotes.

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