Perception of Modesty in Dress Varies Based on Values

balancing scale

Through work, travel, family and friends, women who live in multi-cultural environments encounter situations in which what one person calls modest in reference to clothing is often different from what another claims to be modest. These perceptions are based on individual values, influences, or cultural or religious groups with which a person associates.

Groups that strive to encourage some form of modesty in dress in contrast to the prevailing trends of most European and American ready-to-wear manufacturers may be sharply divided from one another over mere inches of fabric such as sleeve or hem lengths. For instance, a group that stresses that women should wear cap-length sleeves at minimum would not associate with another group that mandates that elbows should be covered. As another example, some groups would say a skirt is modest if it just covers the knee while standing. Another group may require that the skirt must cover the knee when seated, requiring the standing length to be at least four or five inches below the knee.

These differences pale when compared with the rules for a larger set of groups in society for which modesty is not a high value. This author has had the opportunity of working with academically high-achieving groups of high school girls that participate in internships for a week at a time in a professional environment. The dress code for the female students is lenient for a professional setting, allowing hemlines to fall two inches above the knee and blouses to be sleeveless. The line is drawn with requiring spaghetti straps and cleavage to be completely covered and fabrics to be non-transparent. Yet, close to half of all the high school girls who participate do not pack enough clothing for the week that qualifies to meet these standards, despite adequate preparation from dress code information mailed to them in advance. Even with continued daily, in-person reminders, a few of these girls have still been known to arrive for work in the morning with skirts nearing mid-thigh length, cleavage showing, and transparent fabrics allowing bra straps or spaghetti straps from camisoles to show through.

Is modesty a concept these girls comprehend? I think they do, in their own way. Some of the girls understand that their outfits are immodest and choose to violate the dress code, hoping that their revealing outfits will slip past the notice of supervisors. Other girls may truly believe that their outfits are modest compared to other items they normally wear to school and that as such, they should not be required to follow a dress code that asks for a critical few more inches in coverage than anything that they own in their current wardrobes. These girls often claim that they "cannot buy" items of clothing to meet our dress code, which not true. If they shop only in junior departments they may need to search more diligently, but plenty of stylish clothing exists in women's clothing sections to provide the coverage which has been requested.

Modesty in clothing would be a more defined concept if everyone worldwide held the same values. If modesty were like a math equation with a definite answer, we could check off outfits as passing the test or not. However, with so many different opinions related to body coverage floating around in modern times, whose standard is right? Certainly we here at Fashion Belle prefer to see women's clothing cover from a high neckline to mid-calf hemline with sleeve coverage at least nearing the elbow. When it comes to the exact inch, however, modest clothing may be better described as a form of art with many facets like a cut diamond. Deference involves setting aside your own freedom in order to not offend the tastes of those whom you are serving. The woman who perfects the art of modesty will gain an added measure of respect, especially in settings where the preferred dress code calls for more coverage than what she would normally choose for herself.