I have had reason to think about the subject of modesty recently, and would really appreciate hearing the thoughts and perspectives of my blog readers on the subject.
A few preliminary remarks, before opening the discussion up.
First, discussions of modesty among Christians in the context of clothing tend to be focused far too closely and exclusively upon the clothing of women and its relationship to male lust. This excludes a lot from the picture. For instance, it excludes the relationship between dress and the pride of the wearer. Scriptural and earlier Christian treatments of the subject of women’s dress often seem to focus more upon clothing and jewellery as ostentation and display of wealth and status over others (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-4). The Scriptures have a lot less to say about modesty of women’s dress in the context of male lust than we might presume, and far more about displays of wealth and prideful attempts to draw attention to oneself.
Second, it tends to place the responsibility for ‘modesty’ (made synonymous with clothing that does not excite male lust) almost solely on the shoulders of women. In a society as sexualized as ours, and in a hormone-addled male mind, a woman’s body, however it is clothed – this is especially true for women with certain figures – can excite lust (‘modest is hottest’ is not a helpful slogan). In such a society, even modest clothing starts to take on a sexual value as sex dominates the thoughts of the culture. We should have more sense than to believe that the fault is primarily in the object of lust than in the lustful person. The duty of men to control their desires should not be ignored.
Third, following on from the previous point, rather than focusing primarily upon sexual modesty in dress on women, we should recognize that modesty is a cultural virtue that requires the cooperation of different parties and far more than a set of restrictions on dress. Sexual modesty requires us to give sex a particular place in our cultural life and conversation. There is an unhealthily immodest tendency about the way in which sex is an increasingly open topic of Christian conversation. The idea that sex is a secret that belongs between two persons, a secret that if spoken of, should only be discussed with reticence, in a discreet, honourable, reserved, decent, and delicate manner seems to have fallen upon hard times. When this cultural conception of sex is rejected and sex becomes an open and ubiquitous subject for lewd public conversation and flaunting for excitement and entertainment, no restriction upon women’s dress will be able to re-establish true modesty. Modesty, as a sort of secret-keeping virtue, is very hard to practice alone.
Fourth, the fact that modesty is so focused upon lust and women’s clothing loses sight of the fact that modesty concerns far more than sexualized appearance, with bearing upon many forms of behaviour that have become normal and accepted within our society. Modesty, as I have already observed, also involves a rejection of ostentation or a flaunting of wealth. It is founded upon humility and kindness. It is expressed in diligence, moderation, and temperance in consumption. Our society is a proud one, which celebrates self-esteem, assertion, being the centre of attention, flaunting of what you have, conspicuous and immoderate consumption, and which likes to excite envy in others and signal superiority over them. Our society trains us to play this game, raising our pride, greed, gluttony, envy, and lust to obsessive levels, making it profoundly difficult for people to practice modesty: when we have become fixated upon what other people have – their bodies, possessions, power, influence, etc. – even those seeking to be modest and not wishing to flaunt themselves find themselves flaunted by the culture itself. I believe that, when talking about modesty, we need to think far more seriously about the proud character of our society.
Finally, modesty is a public form and expression of the virtues of humility, temperance, chastity, charity, patience, diligence, and kindness. Detaching modesty from these positive virtues, which are cultivated in community, will tend to ossify it into sets of prescriptive and proscriptive requirements. It seems to me that restoring modesty to our society must entail attention to the cultivation of these virtues more generally.
So, over to you! What do you think? What are your experiences with modesty teaching in Christian circles? Which principles guide your own practice? Do you have particular examples where you have seen this virtue in action?