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.

Modesty in dress is a relative cultural concept, even in the West, as seen above in the plain dress of Amish women on an American beach in 2007.

Modesty in dress is a relative cultural concept, even in the West, as seen above in the plain dress of Amish women on an American beach in 2007.

Body

Standards of modesty discourage or forbid exposure of parts of the body, varying between societies, which may include areas of skin, the hair, undergarments, and intimate parts. The standards may also require obscuring the shape of the body or parts of it by wearing non-form-fitting clothing. There are also customs regarding the changing of clothes (such as on a beach with no enclosed facilities), and the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower.

1868 diagram from Harper's Bazaar showing proper girls' skirt lengths increasing as they grow up.

1868 diagram from Harper’s Bazaar showing proper girls’ skirt lengths increasing as they grow up.

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.

In 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

The definition of modest clothing varies vastly between cultures. The photograph shows a girl in a micro skirt in Portugal.

The definition of modest clothing varies vastly between cultures. The photograph shows a girl in a micro skirt in Portugal.

Appropriate modesty depends on context and place. For example, in single-sex public changing rooms, nudity is often acceptable.

In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much body exposure is acceptable in public. In contemporary Western society, the extent to which a woman may expose cleavage depends on social, cultural and regional context. Women’s swimsuits and bikinis commonly may reveal the tops and sides of the breasts, or they may be topless as is common on the beaches of French Riviera. Displaying cleavage is considered permissible in many settings, and is even a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions, but it may be considered inappropriate in settings such as workplaces, churches and schools. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered toplessness or partial nudity. However, in some circumstances partial breast exposure may be officially sanctioned in church as in 2014, newly elected Pope Francis drew world-wide commentary when he encouraged mothers to breastfeed in church if their babies were hungry.

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.

Gender differences

Men and women are subject to different standards of modesty in dress. While both men and women, in Western culture, are generally expected to keep their genitals covered at all times, women are also expected to keep their breasts covered. Some body parts are normally more covered by men than women—e.g., the midriff and the upper part of the back. Organizations such as the Topfree Equal Rights Association advocate for gender equality regarding display of the body. In 1992 New York State’s highest court accepted 14th Amendment arguments and struck down the provision in New York’s Exposure of the Person statute that made it illegal for women to bare their chests where men were permitted to do so.

Traditional indigenous

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.

Religious traditions

See also: Religion and sexuality

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.

Buddhism

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.

Christianity

According to the New Testament, (1 Peter 3:3-4) Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

(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 head covering 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.

Anabaptists

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 head coverings.

Catholicism

A placard informs tourists about the minimum dress standards required to enter St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican

A placard informs tourists about the minimum dress standards required to enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican

Catholics are expected to dress modestly; it is recognised that the forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. The wearing of a Christian head covering at Mass was for the first time mandated as a universal rule for the Latin Rite by the Code of Canon Law of 1917, abrogated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Apart from that, there have never been any “official” guidelines issued by the Catholic Church. But from time to time the Church hierarchy, and some popes, have given opinions on various matters; although these guidelines are not binding, they are often followed. Pope Pius XII stated that women should cover their upper arms and shoulders, that their skirts should cover at least as far as the knee, and the neckline should not reveal anything. Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa stated that trousers were unacceptable dress for women. Many traditional Catholics have attempted to further expand on this latter standard.

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).

Methodists

Further information: Outward holiness

Methodists belonging to the conservative holiness movement, such as the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection and Evangelical Wesleyan Church, have guidelines on modest apparel, in accordance with the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of outward holiness. The 2015 Discipline of the Evangelical Wesleyan Church, for example, states:

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.

Quakers

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

See also: Law of chastity

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.

Hinduism

The premise and concepts of modesty have evolved under Hinduism. During Vedic times, both women and men wore at least two pieces of draped dress that was largely undifferentiated, voluntary and flexible. Stitched clothes such as skirts and bodices were also common in the Vedic period. However, modesty was not determined by the precepts of religion, but by local traditions, social codes, profession, circumstances and occasion. The multiple pieces of draped dress for women evolved into a single length of draped cloth among Indian Hindus, now called sari; but remained two or more pieces in Southeast Asian Hindus. For men, the draped dress reduced to one piece now called by various names such as dhoti, lungipanchalaacha and other names among Indian Hindus, and kamben among Balinese Hindu.

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.

Temples

Inside most Hindu temples, there is an expectation of modesty rather than sexual allurement. Men and women typically wear traditional dress during religious ceremonies and rituals in a temple, with women wearing sari or regional Indian dress. In Indonesia and Cambodia, Hindu temple visitors are often requested to wrap their waist with traditional single piece cloth called kambenwastra or sarung, with or without saput.

Current trends

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

Main article: Haya (Modesty),

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.

Women

“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 head covers 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.

A headscarf

A headscarf

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.

Though by some scholars these expressions of modesty are interpreted as mandatory, most countries do not enforce modesty by law. However, a few countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, enforce specified standards of dress for women.

Men

“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.

Judaism

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.

Women

involves information on how Judaism women are expected to dress in public, around the house and at social events and gatherings.

Judaism Dress Code.
involves information on how Judaism women are expected to dress in public, around the house and at social events and gatherings.

Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women usually wear skirts to their knees, with blouses covering the collarbone and sleeves coming to or covering elbows. See-through materials may not be used and clothes are expected not to be tight-fitting, provocative, loud in color, or display texts. These rules are relaxed to allow for color and text in less strict communities.Some modern Orthodox communities allow the collarbone to be shown (so long as cleavage is amply covered), and sleeves not to reach the elbow. There are many different opinions on these issues. Some communities apply these standards to girls as young as three. Less strict Conservative Judaism recommends modest dress, but this is not broadly observed. Less restrictive branches of Judaism tend to adopt the fashions of the society in which they live.

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.

Men

Standards of modesty also apply to men. While some men will wear shorts and short-sleeve shirts, however strictly orthodox men will not. More modern Orthodox Jewish Men will be more lax in their dress when surrounded by other men (if it is not in a religious environment). Modesty for men most often translates to covering the torso and legs with loose clothing. Different groups of Orthodox Jews have different dress norms. But most have men dress in black suits, white dress shirts, and a Black hat (along with religious clothing).

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.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia