New Worlds: Modesty

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Not every society likes the kind of ostentatious clothing described in last week’s essay. Sometimes they run in the opposite direction — at least in principle — decrying the use of excess fabric, garments in bright colors, gaudy jewelry or any jewelry at all, and so forth. This brings us to the topic of modesty in clothing, which is not just about avoiding ostentation, but what people are required to wear for “common decency.” (However that may be defined in a given society.)

N.B.: This essay discusses the body and its parts. If you work somewhere that you might get in trouble if someone saw those words on your screen, you might want to read it later.

Pragmatic concerns do come into play here. Pale-skinned people have a greater need to cover up skin for their own protection, especially in regions where the sun is particularly strong. In a cold climate, you’re not going to be running around much in a loincloth, unless you want hypothermia; in a hot one that might be just the thing to avoid heat stroke — or else a loose, voluminous robe that allows for air circulation underneath. Technology has an effect, too, as not every society has the ability to make the fabric needed for a loose, voluminous robe.

But modesty is not primarily about pragmatics, about temperature regulation or the avoidance of sunburn. It is first and foremost an ideological thing. Modesty can be thought of in many ways, but one of them is the division between “public” parts of the body — those the world in general is permitted to see — and “private” parts, not meant just in the euphemistic sense for genitalia, but any part which is not for general viewing. What people consider to be public and private varies enormously across the world, and across history.

The closest thing to a universal standard of modesty has to do with the aforementioned euphemistic sense of “private,” i.e. covering the genital area. But even that isn’t actually universal: there are cultures where it’s acceptable to wear nothing more than body paint. If anything gets covered, though, the groin usually tops the list, with a loincloth or a penis sheath. Next after that may be the breasts of women — but not necessarily the same part of the body for men.

Apart from starting with the groin, though, I don’t think there’s any predictable sequence for what gets classed as off-limits. The general purpose of modesty practices is to avoid attracting sexual attention, so what gets covered depends on what that society considers to be sexually provocative. This can be anything from the collarbone to the midriff to the ankles, from the buttocks to the hair to the arms to the face. Some cultures say it’s enough to not show skin; others require you to conceal the shape of the part being covered, too, with loose or padded garments.

Padding brings us to another point, which we might term anti-modesty. In Renaissance Europe, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for a man to appear in public with his penis showing . . . but an oversized codpiece? That was totally fine. The same goes for padded or push-up bras, or anything else meant to emphasize and draw attention to a body part while simultaneously keeping it covered.

Modesty rules can wind up in something of a feedback loop, either pushing toward greater or lesser coverage. Because they’re meant to regulate sexually enticing displays, if you cover something up, you eroticize it — and also place increasing amounts of psychological weight on what can be seen. In a series of mystery novels by Zoë Ferraris set in Saudi Arabia, the male protagonist feels embarrassed when he catches his gaze lingering on the hands of the woman he’s talking to, as that is nearly the only uncovered part of her body. Conversely, when even ankles should be concealed, showing one’s knees is shocking . . . but when ankles become acceptable, knees don’t seem like as big of a deal, and then next thing you know women are wearing miniskirts.

A lot of this is contextual. There’s been a push in recent years to allow mothers to breastfeed in public, acknowledging a difference between uncovering a nipple for sexual purposes, and uncovering it for practical ones. Someone who might applaud a cleavage-bearing dress at a formal event might well be shocked to see the same exposure at school or work. These differences may show up in law or explicit custom, e.g. with some religions requiring women, men, or both to cover their hair during worship, but not during daily life.

And of course it isn’t the same for everyone. Because modesty has to do with avoiding sexually provocative behavior, children often have leeway not permitted to adults. This image from an 1868 issue of Harper’s Bazaar gives a regulated progression for how long a girl’s skirt should be, based on her age. Many societies demand greater modesty from women than from men, because ideology says it is the responsibility of women to avoid enticing men, and/or don’t believe women have enough sexual desire for anyone to worry about men enticing them. There can also be a class element, either with the elite being free to dress scandalously, or with the lower ranks having comparatively lax standards. (Sometimes that’s back to pragmatism: if necessity requires women to engage in manual labor, enveloping garments become impractical or even dangerous.)

Modesty isn’t entirely about covering the body. I mentioned up above that the rules may forbid things like bright colors or ostentatious jewelry; modesty also shades over into behavior more generally, in ways not related to appearance. Some of that is still related to sexual appeal, but a lot of it starts being about power, reputation, or both, as it controls things like who is allowed to speak up in what contexts, who is allowed to participate in what spheres of life, and even how much you’re allowed to boast about your own skills and accomplishments.

But that’s too much to fit into one essay. So rather than being immodest and letting it burst its bounds, I’ll wrap it up here, and next week move on to something else!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Modesty — 15 Comments

  1. Sumptuary laws can be fascinating, whatever the culture one is delving into: who is daring to wear what, though those were mostly (not always) aimed at keeping social mobility upward checked by those with the wherewithal to climb. But they also hint at what men (the lawmakers) found attractive in women, which, as you say, could vary. (But then the discussion strays into the opposite of modesty.)

    What signals private and public clothing in societies with elaborate rules can be interesting as well.

    • The big (in fact, kind of insurmountable) challenge of this project is figuring out how to organize all of the material. I hit sumptuary laws last year — including things like food and architecture — but you’re right, it could just as easily have been part of a clothing discussion.

      • They cover the other side of modesty. A merchant who dresses like a noble is immodestly pretending to be something he’s not.

        Indeed, Thomas Aquinas included among the sins of immodesty is drawing attention to one’s self by an undue negligence of one’s clothes.

  2. In modest clothing, the most rigorous law and it is universal until very recently — in some parts of the world — the most enforced socially and legally, is gender coding. Until quite recently, even in Europe and the US, women could be imprisoned for wearing ‘men’s clothes.’

    • Gender in clothing is going to have to be a whole separate post. Good point about it not must being a social matter, though — sometimes it’s a legal one.

  3. Remember Grannie Gowns from the late 1960s?

    A friend was sent home from high school to change clothes for wearing one. “What? I’m not exposing anything that should be hidden.” The principal replied that what was covered ignited boys imagination. I’ll leave it there.

    But it reminded me of a line in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” when Xander said “I’m 17, linoleum makes me think about sex.” Being male and 17 must be a terrible pain.

      • Grannie gowns were like maxi dresses now. Think Gunny Saxe for slightly upscale, and basic bib-tucker fronted sheath gowns with or without a flounce for cheaper. They weren’t sexy at all, but those were the years of dress codes and conformity–skirt checks in the hallways. Even if it was 110 degrees, girls could not wear sandals, and if it was 40 below zero, they couldn’t wear pants to school.

        • Yep, a 60s thing right alongside miniskirts. And like Phyl, I remember that girls weren’t allowed to wear them either. I don’t even think the rule was aimed at protecting boys so much as it was an effort to keep girls from doing anything that might be perceived as rebellious or hip. Harassment of boys for the length of their hair was also a big deal at the time, for the same reason.

  4. Pingback: New Worlds: Modesty - Swan Tower

  5. As I was washing dishes, and thinking about your point about cod pieces and padded fronts of gowns, probably the oddest of all the covered-yet-drawing attention items of ‘modest’ fashion was the bustle, which is after all nothing more than an enormous butt.

  6. One of the weirder taboos is that it’s permitted for women to wear very skimpy bathing suits (at least near water, not so much on the street, I think), but not just wear underwear even if the the underwear covers quite a bit more.

    Mind you, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a new fashion for bathing suits which look almost but note exactly like underwear.

    • Yes! Part of how I got less self-conscious about being seen in my underwear was by pointing out to myself that it’s a lot less revealing than some swimsuits out there. (Not the kind of swimsuit I wear — I want something I can do a racing dive and 50 meters of butterfly in without losing anything, thankyouverymuch — but they’re out there.)