What Is Modesty?
Modesty, sometimes known as demureness, is a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid the encouraging of sexual attraction in others. The word “modesty” comes from the Latin word modestus which means “keeping within measure”. Standards of modesty are culturally and context dependent and vary widely. In this use, it may be considered inappropriate or immodest to reveal certain parts of the body. In some societies, modesty may involve women covering their bodies completely and not talking to men who are not immediate family members; in others, a fairly revealing but one-piece bathing costume is considered modest when other women wear bikinis. In some countries, exposure of the body in breach of community standards of modesty is also considered to be public indecency, and public nudity is generally illegal in most of the world and regarded as indecent exposure. For example, Stephen Gougha lone man attempting to walk naked from south to north Britain was repeatedly imprisoned. However, nudity is at times tolerated in some societies; for example, during a World Naked Bike Ride.
In semi-public contexts standards of modesty vary. Nudity may be acceptable in public single-sex changing rooms at swimming baths, for example, or for mass medical examination of men for military service. In private, standards again depend upon the circumstances. A person who would never disrobe in the presence of a physician of the opposite sex in a social context might unquestioningly do so for a medical examination; others might allow examination, but only by a person of the same sex.
Standards of modesty vary by culture or generation and vary depending on who is exposed, which parts of the body are exposed, the duration of the exposure, the context, and other variables. The categories of persons who could see another’s body could include:
- a spouse or partner,
- a friend or family member of the same sex,
- strangers of the same sex
The context would include matters such as whether it is in one’s own home, at another family member’s home, at a friend’s home, at a semi-public place, at a beach, swimming pool (including whether such venues are considered clothes-optional), changing rooms or other public places. For instance, wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it likely would be in a street or an office.
Excessive modesty is called prudishness. As a medical condition, it is also called gymnophobia. Excessive immodesty is called exhibitionism.
Modesty in medical settings
At times of public or private emergency, expectations of modest dress may be suspended if necessary. For example, during suspected anthrax attacks in 1998 and 2001 in the United States, groups of people had to strip to their underwear in tents set up in parking lots and other public places for hosing down by fire departments. On the other hand, even in an emergency situation, some people are unable to abandon their need to hide their bodies, even at the risk of their life. This may apply to decontamination after a chemical or biological attack, where removal of contaminated clothing is important, or escaping from a night-time fire without time to dress.
Most discussion of modesty involves clothing. The criteria for acceptable modesty and decency have relaxed continuously in much of the world since the nineteenth century, with shorter, form-fitting, and more revealing clothing and swimsuits, more for women than men. Most people wear clothes that they consider not to be unacceptably immodest for their religion, culture, generation, occasion, and the people present. Some wear clothes which they consider immodest, due to exhibitionism, the desire to create an erotic impact, or for publicity.
Generally accepted Western norms
Appropriate modesty depends on context and place. For example, in single-sex public changing rooms, nudity is often acceptable.
In private homes, the standards of modesty apply selectively. For instance, nudity among close family members in the home can take place, especially in the bedroom and bathroom, and wearing of undergarments only in the home is common.
In many cultures it is not acceptable to bare the buttocks in public; deliberately doing so is sometimes intended as an insult. In public, Western standards of decency expect people to cover their genitalia, and women to cover their breasts. In the early twenty-first century, public breastfeeding has become increasingly acceptable, sometimes protected by law.President Barack Obama’s health care bill from 2010 provides additional support to nursing mothers, requiring employers to provide a private and shielded space for employees to use in order to nurse.
Since the 1980s it has become more common for young and/or fashionable women in Western societies to wear clothing that bared the midriff, “short shorts,” backless tops, sheer and other styles considered to be immodest.
Traditional indigenous cultures, such as some African and traditional Australian aboriginal cultures, are more relaxed on issues of clothing, though how much clothing is expected varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes. In some African cultures, body painting is considered to be body coverage, and is considered by many an attire.
Modesty doesn’t have to be related to having more clothes especially in the case of natives tribes. Some feel exposed when seen in certain clothes even though normal attire is much more revealing. Having ear or lip stoppers is seen as modest with the opposite being true as well.
Most world religions have sought to address the moral issues that arise from people’s sexuality in society and in human interactions. Each major religion has developed moral codes covering issues of sexuality, morality, ethics etc. Besides other aspects of sexuality, these moral codes seek to regulate the situations which can give rise to sexual interest and to influence people’s behaviour and practices which could arouse such interest, or which overstate a person’s sexuality. These religious codes have always had a strong influence on peoples’ attitudes to issues of modesty in dress, behavior, speech etc.
Modesty in dress is important in Buddhism. The Sekhiya rules of Buddhist Monastic code, for example, provide guidelines on proper clothing as well as recommended ways of dressing for monks.
I will wear the lower robe [upper robe] wrapped around (me): a training to be observed.— Code 1.2, Sekhiya Rule, 
I will not go [sit] with robes hitched up in inhabited areas: a training to be observed.— Code 9.10, Sekhiya Rule, 
The ‘robes hitched up’ phrase above refers to lifting one’s 1 or 2 piece cloth robe, thereby exposing either side or both sides of one’s body to other human beings in an inhabited area. Such exhibitionism is not recommended to monks. Beyond monks, the Buddhist belief is that modesty has a purifying quality to everyone.
(1 Timothy 2:9) In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.
Many Trinitarian Christians consider modesty extremely important, though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.
Historically, communicants of traditional Christian denominations (including Anglican, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Oriental Orthodox,Reformed, and Roman Catholic women) wore a Christian headcovering while worshipping, or, all the time, in keeping with their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; although this practice has waned in some parts of the world, such as in North America, it is commonplace in other regions, such as Eastern Europe and South Asia.
Many Anabaptist Christians, such as Amish groups and some Mennonite groups like Conservative Mennonites, are known for their adherence to plain dress, a modest fashion style. The Hutterites and the Bruderhof, both Christian intentional communities of the Anabaptist tradition, wear modest clothing (often plain dress), and the women wear Christian headcoverings.
Some Catholics have attempted to form cohesive theories of modesty. Sometimes this is from a sociological perspective, while at other times it takes a more systematic, Thomistic approach, combined with the writings of the Church Fathers. Approaches arguing primarily from traditional practices and traditional authorities, such as the Saints, can also be found.
Around 1913, it became fashionable for dresses to be worn with a modest round or V-shaped neckline. In the German Empire, for example, all Roman Catholic bishops joined in issuing a pastoral letter attacking the new fashions.
The Catholic Legion of Decency has been active from 1933 in monitoring morally objectionable content in films. It has condemned a number of films including several on account of the clothing worn. For example, the Legion has condemned the display of cleavage in The Outlaw (1941) and in The French Line (1954).
We require our women to appear in public with dresses of modest length, sleeves of modest length, modest necklines and modest hose; the wearing of split skirts, slacks, jeans, artificial flowers or feathers is forbidden. Moreover, we require our men to conform to the scriptural standards of decent and modest attire; we require that when they appear in public they wear shirts with sleeves of modest length. We require that all our people appear in public with sleeves below the elbows. Women’s hemlines are to be modestly below the knees. Our people are forbidden to appear in public with transparent or immodest apparel, including shorts or bathing suits. Parents are required to dress their children modestly in conformity with our general principles of Christian attire. We further prohibit our people from participating in the practices of body-piercing, tattooing or body art.
Conservative Friends and Holiness-Orthodox Friends, two associations of Quaker Christians, wear plain dress as part of their testimony of simplicity.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has issued official statements on modest dress for its members. Clothing such as “short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back” are discouraged. Men and women are also encouraged to avoid extremes in clothing or hairstyles. Rules on modesty also include women being asked to wear no more than one pair of earrings. Women are generally expected to wear skirts or dresses for church services. Most LDS members do not wear sleeveless shirts or shorts that do not reach the knee.
The church-funded university, Brigham Young University (BYU), requires students and tenants of BYU housing to sign an agreement to live according to these standards of modesty.
The Hindu belief, suggests Christopher Bayly, is that modesty through appropriate dress has the energy to transmit spirit and substance in a social discourse, the dress serves as a means of expression or celebration, with some dressing elements such as saffron threads or white dress worn by men as moral, transformative and a means to identify and communicate one’s social role in a gathering, or one’s state of life such as mourning in days or weeks after the passing away of a loved one.
The canons of modesty for Hindus in South Asia underwent significant changes with the arrival of Islam in the 12th century. The Islamic rulers imposed a dress code in public places for Hindu dhimmis, per their Islamic mores of modesty. The sari worn by Hindu women extended to provide a veil, as well as a complete cover of her navel and legs. In the early 18th century, Tryambakayajvan—a court official in south central India—issued an edict called Stridharmapaddhati. The ruling outlined required dress code for orthodox Hindus in that region. Stridharmapaddhati laced social trends with Hindu religion to place new rules on modesty for women, but gave much freedom to men.
The concept of modesty evolved again during colonial times when the British administration required Indians to wear dresses to help identify and segregate the local native populations. Bernard Cohn, and others remark that dress during colonial era became part of a wider issue in India about respect, honor and modesty, with the dress code intentionally aimed by the administration to reflect the nature of relationship between the British ruler and the Indian ruled. The British colonial empire, encouraged and sometimes required Indians to dress in an ‘oriental manner’, to help define and enforce a sense of modesty, identify roles and a person’s relative social status. Among Indonesian Hindus, the accepted practice of toplessness among teenage Hindu girls changed during the Dutch colonial rule, with women now wearing a blouse or colorful cloth.
Hindus have diverse views on modesty, with significant regional and local variations. Among orthodox Hindu populations, sexually revealing dress or any sexual behavior in public or before strangers is considered immodest, particularly in rural areas. In contrast, the dress of deities and other symbolism in Hindu temples, the discussion of dress and eroticism in ancient Hindu literature, and art works of Hinduism can be explicit, celebrating eroticism and human sexuality.
In general, a disregard of modesty can be confusing or distressing, in particular to traditional Hindu women. Even in health care context, some Hindu women may express reluctance to undress for examination. If undressing is necessary, the patient may prefer to be treated by a doctor or nurse of the same sex.
Islam has strongly emphasized the concept of decency and modesty. In many authentic hadiths, it has been quoted that “modesty is a part of faith”. Modesty is verily required in the interaction between members of the opposite sex and in some case between the members of same sex also. Dress code is part of that overall teaching.
“And tell the believing women to cast down their glances and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women.” -Quran 24:31.
“O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers that: they should let down upon themselves their jalabib.” -Quran 33:59.
Jalabib is an Arabic word meaning “loose outer garment”.
In some Muslim societies, women wear the niqab, a veil that covers the whole face except the eyes, or the full burqa, a full-body covering garment that occasionally does cover the eyes. Wearing these garments is common in some, but not all, countries with a predominantly Muslim population.
“Tell the believing men to cast down their glances and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is [well] acquainted with what they do.” -Quran 24:30
Most scholars agree that men are required to cover everything from the navel to the knees; some men choose also to wear the traditional Islamic cap (taqiyah), similar to but larger than the Jewish yarmulke or kippah. The taqiyah may vary in shape, size and color, with differences according to tradition, region, and personal taste.
Main article: Tzniut, Modesty in Judaism
Modesty in Judaism, called Tzniut (צניעות), is important beyond aspects of clothing. It extends to behaviour in public and in private, and depends on the context.
It is the custom for an observant married Orthodox Jewish woman to cover her hair in public, and sometimes at home. The hair covering may be a scarf, hat, snood called a Tichel, or a wig called a Sheitel.
Women who do not follow all the regulations in everyday life, often do so during religious observances in a synagogue or elsewhere.
Cross-cultural and non-religious
Some individuals adopt modesty standards of other groups or standards of previous generations. An example includes the Noahides who follow Jewish laws but are not themselves Jewish.
- Jennett, Sheila. The Oxford companion to the body. Eds. Colin Blakemore, and Sheila Jennett. Vol. 7. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- “Naked rambler vows to walk on”. BBC News. 26 August 2003.
- Guardian newspaper: World Naked Bike Ride – in pictures, 10 June 2012 While most of the riders are naked, all the photographs in this series obscure details by strategically places handlebars.
- “Definition of Gymnophobia”. MedicineNet.com. MedicineNet.com. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
- “DSM 5: Understanding Exhibitionistic Disorder”. Hypersexual Disorders. Elements Behavioral Health. 21 June 2013. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
- Dru Sefton (25 May 2002). “We’d rather die than take our clothes off, disaster planners say”. Seattle Times.
- Why are Britons so bad at being naked? Sarah Ditum, The Guardian, United Kingdom (16 January 2013)
- Salmansohn, Karen. “The Power of Cleavage“. The Huffington Post, October 29, 2007.
- Davies, Lizzy (12 January 2014). “Pope Francis encourages mothers to breastfeed – even in the Sistine Chapel”. The Guardian.
- “Breastfeeding Laws”. Breastfeeding State Laws. National Conference of State Legislatures, United States.
- CNN, By Elizabeth Landau,. “Breastfeeding rooms hidden in health care law – CNN.com”. Retrieved 2017-02-05.
- Varyanne Sika (10 January 2014). “Fashion for Feminists: How fashion and dress shape women’s identities”. Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA).
- “Santorelli & Schloss v. State of New York”. Cornell University Law School. 7 July 1992.
- “The dominant idea that clothing is necessary for reasons of modesty is a cultural premise. It’s an”. Scribd. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
- The 75 sekhiyas Buddhism Dhamma Dana (2009)
- Buddhist Monastic Code I Chapter 10, Sekhiya Rules, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2007)
- Edward Thomas (2002), The History of Buddhist Thought, Dover Publications, ISBN 978-0486421049, pp 163, 207-208
- See, e.g., Modesty: The Undressing of Our Youth, by Lenora Hammond.
- The Modesty Survey Archived 2009-01-29 at the Wayback Machine.: An anonymous discussion among Christians concerning various aspects of modesty.
- Muir, Edward (18 August 2005). Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780521841535. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
In England radical Protestants, known in the seventeenth century as Puritans, we especially ardent in resisting the churching of women and the requirement that women wear a head covering or veil during the ceremony. The Book of Common Prayer, which became the ritual handbook of the Anglican Church, retained the ceremony in a modified form, but as one Puritan tract put it, the “churching of women after childbirth smelleth of Jewish purification.”
- Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 2012. Abingdon Press. 2012-04-01. p. 131. ISBN 9781426746666. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
The holy kiss is practiced and women wear head coverings during prayer and worship.
- Dehejia, Harsha V. (2005). A Celebration of Love: The Romantic Heroine in the Indian Arts. Lustre Press. p. 102. ISBN 9788174363022.
- The Milwaukee Lutheran, Volumes 26-27. Lutherans of Wisconsin. 1973. p. 62.
- Morgan, Sue (2010-06-23). Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800–1940. Taylor & Francis. p. 102. ISBN 9780415231152. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
Several ardent Methodist women wrote to him, asking for his permission to speak. Mar Bosanquet (1739–1815) suggested that if Paul had instructed women to cover their heads when they spoke (1. Cor. 11:5) then he was surely giving direction on how women should conduct themselves when they preached.
- “Veiling in Other Religious Traditions”. Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies. 2011. Missing or empty
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (17 March 2015). World Clothing and Fashion: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Social Influence. Taylor & Francis. p. 1548. ISBN 9781317451662.
- Henold, Mary J. (2008). Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement. UNC Press Books. p. 1968. ISBN 9780807859476.
Catholic women who came of age at midcentury no doubt recall the hasty search for a tissue or even a handy parish bulletin to pin to their heads once they discovered they had left home without their regular head covering.
- Flinn, Isabella (1 May 2014). Pinpricks in the Curtain: India Through the Eyes of an Unlikely Missionary. WestBow Press. p. 234. ISBN 9781490834313.
- “Learning from the Bruderhof: An Intentional Christian Community”. ChristLife. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
- “5 Beliefs That Set the Bruderhof Apart From Other Christians”. Newsmax. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
- See, e.g.,  Para. 2521-2524.
- “1917 Codex Iuris Canonici”. Canon 1262, Section 2. (Latin)
- “Canon 6 §1 of the Code of Canon Law”.
- See all the following citations, which all expound at least partly upon such guidelines.
- Modesty and beauty – the lost connection by Regina Schmiedicke
- Notification Concerning Men’s Dress Worn by Women by Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (1960)
- See G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, Part III, Chap. V, for an early attempt (1910); see also In Praise of the Skirt, for a more contemporary one (2006)
- The Modesty Handbook (describing the nature of modesty from a Catholic perspective, based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers).
- See, e.g., Those Who Serve God Should Not Follow the Fashions by Robert T. Hart (2004).
- Gernsheim, Alison. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion. A Photographic Survey. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1981. Reprint of 1963 edition. ISBN 0-486-24205-6, p. 94
- “I. The Church”. Discipline of the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection. Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection.
Should we insist on plain and modest dress? Certainly. We should not on any account spend what the Lord has put into our hands as stewards, to be used for His glory, in expensive wearing apparel, when thousands are suffering for food and raiment, and millions are perishing for the Word of life. Let the dress of every member of every Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Church be plain and modest. Let the strictest carefulness and economy be used in these respects.
- Scott, Stephen (1 September 2008). Why Do They Dress That Way?. Good Books. p. 53. ISBN 9781680992786.
- The Discipline of the Evangelical Wesleyan Church. Evangelical Wesleyan Church. 2015. pp. 41, 57–58.
- “Dress and Appearance”, For the Strength of Youth.
- The Brigham Young University Honor Code, which includes “Dress and Grooming Standards,” agreement to which is required for application.
- Tarlo 1996, p. 28–30.
- C. A. Bayly, D.H.A. Kolff, Two Colonial Empires: Comparative Essays on the History of India and Indonesia in the Nineteenth Century, Springer, ISBN 978-9024732746
- Lesile, J. (Editor) (1992), Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, Motilal Banarsidass Publications
- Bernard Cohn (1987), An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195618754
- Robert Ross, Clothing: A Global History, Cambridge, ISBN 978-0-7456-3186-8
- Tarlo 1996, p. 12–59.
- see Bernard Cohn, “Cloth, Clothes and Colonialism: India in the 19th Century”, and Susan Bean, “Gandhi and Khadi: The Fabric of Independence”; both in Weiner and Schneider (editors), Cloth and Human Experience, Smithsonian Institution Press (1989)
- Nye, M. (1995). A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community (Vol. 8). Psychology Press
- Rubinstein and Connor (1999), Staying Local in the Global Village: Bali in the Twentieth Century, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0824821173
- Gupta, M. (1994). “Sexuality in the Indian subcontinent”. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 9(1), pp 57–69
- McConnachie, J. (2008), The Book of Love: The Story of the Kamasutra, Macmillan
- Dwyer, R. (2000). “The erotics of the wet sari in Hindi films”. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 23(2), pp 143–160
- Ichaporia, N. (1983). “Tourism at Khajuraho an Indian enigma?” Annals of Tourism Research, 10(1), 75–92
- Culture and Religion Information Sheet: HinduismGovernment of Western Australia (July 2012), page 7
- “Hadith 20 :: Modesty is from Faith”. 40hadithnawawi.com. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- “Modesty: Not Only A Woman’s Burden”, Patheos
- The Laws of Jewish Modesty Archived May 10, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
- “Canadian Undercover: Bio”. Retrieved 25 July 2017.
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