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Jul 22, 2010

Modesty: This Man's Perspective

Have you heard?  It's modesty week on the blogs.  Well OK, here and here; are there others?

I wanted to say a few words on my own virtual real estate about this juicy topic.  Just to reiterate: this is one man's perspective and not an attempt to dictate or to change minds.  So here goes...

I couldn't care less about the amount of skin a person shows, male or female.

This whole modesty debate seems primarily focused on women, and the degree to which exposed skin leads to/invites/condones (unwanted) male attention.  And there's tremendous difference of opinion.  Revealing one's body is seen by some as an expression of lack of self respect, by others as flagrant narcissism, and by others still as a sign of healthy self confidence.  

It can be all any of these things and more.  We all have a body and we all have different feelings about them depending on what culture we were raised in and what we were taught to believe.  If you were told that there's something "sinful" about bodies and their natural functions, well, sure, you're likely to judge harshly those who put their own on display and read all kinds of meaning into it.  If you were taught the opposite, you might make assumptions about those who choose to conceal.

I can say with confidence as an American that American culture is conflicted-bordering-on-pathological when it comes to women, sex, and bodies.  We're bombarded daily with highly sexualized images used to sell us everything from jeans to automobiles.  Our political leaders routinely spout views consistent with religious orthodoxy as if we didn't have separation of church and state, and fear reprisals -- with alarming and increasing good reason -- if they do not.

I am not religious and wasn't raised religious.  I don't believe our actions or way of dress honor anyone other than ourselves, our loved ones, or our communities.  I don't buy the argument that not focusing on the outer allows you to focus on the inner, as if it were either/or.  You can dress like a cloistered nun and still be an idiot.

That said,  I am not particularly comfortable with immodest behavior or dress.  I grew up believing that a confident person conceals rather than displays.  Today, I have ambivalent feelings in this regard.  I often judge a person whose look I interpret as highly sexualized or consciously seductive -- and this can be someone who's completely covered btw -- as a little over the top.  Certainly there's a time and a place for everything, however, and it shouldn't matter.  But it does to me for sure and it's not just about skin or no skin.

What I'm more interested in than modesty is elegance, another highly subjective term.  We all have our own sense of what elegance is and how an elegant person acts or dresses, also based on how we were raised and where.  For many of us, celebrities or the wealthy set the standard for us, rightly or wrongly.

For me, there is an element of modesty in elegance.  Part of elegance is restraint: suggesting as opposed to trumpeting.  I think that's why many sewers (and those who love them)  are taken with vintage style. There's an element on self-conscious play -- even art -- involved as well.  The operative word here is conscious.  Some people are born with what we consider an elegant carriage: they have a beautiful walk, or a way of using their body that seems effortless and natural. I'm not talking about them.

I'm talking about being aware of one's tools and of trying to create an effect -- perhaps even through what can be interpreted as modesty -- that is meant to please both others and oneself.  We all have the potential to be elegant, it's a question of how much it matters to us.

Poor Britney.  I hate to pile on her; she doesn't deserve it.  She's dressed relatively modestly here for her, but elegant?  No.  But she's just shopping and a suburban parking lot is not Fifth Avenue.

The late Ann Miller might be the opposite extreme but gee, doesn't this outfit suggest that she is consciously aspiring to elegance?  She cares.  And you know she probably dressed this way when she went out to the 7-Eleven too.

Elegance is like seeing a window box of beautiful flowers as one walks down the street: it's totally unnecessary but it's beautiful: a sign that someone cares to make an effort to do more than the minimum.  It shows a respect for one's environment as well as for oneself.

That's important to me, not the amount of (male or female) leg or breast one shows .  If you live in a city where there's not a whole lot of private space, this kind of thing really matters.  It's all about the public realm.  Maybe we're all in curlers and pajamas at home but we make an effort when we go out.

Elegance celebrates everything that makes us humans special, with none of the body shame instilled by authoritarian, generally patriarchal institutions like church, family, or even state.

It says, this might take some effort on my part, but it's worth it.  I do it for me and -- as importantly -- I do it for you.

It seems many of us, scarred by the battles for equality perhaps, are loathe to admit doing something partly for others' pleasure, as if we were in some way contributing to our own objectification.  

Thoughts, wise readers?


  1. Great post! I found this especially relevant in Italy. Men and women dress with a refined elegance that is much more attractive than just showing skin. A friend of mine who was traveling with us went for a run without a shirt and was stopped by the police!

  2. I love it Joe! I can see the headlines!

    I've contemplated making business cards with things printed on them like "your perfume reeks" and "my child only needs to see your boobs if he's nursing" and handing them out to people like the "taste police" but I think the bad karma that would grow from that would soon bite me in the ass.

  3. I live in tropical Australia where modesty is the opposite of conceit. Show all the skin you like, but don't forget sunscreen. I'm a 58 year old female civil servant. Today I wore a short dress accessorised with cleavage and pearls to an important meeting and everyone appeared more interested in what I said than what I wore. Once the modesty debate starts, you might as well start looking for burqua patterns.

  4. I agree with every single word you wrote, Peter. From now on, I will carry the image of that flowerbox with the analogy!

    I know this is why I love visiting Japan - in big cities and the remote countryside, all one sees are well-dressed men, women, teens and children (and not wearing 'designer' - just well-thought out, coordinated, neat and clean).

    In that culture, it's ALL about respecting yourself and everyone else around you. Everyone is polite and's the way they were taught.

    On a crowded subway or on the street, you will never hear anyone blabbing on a cell phone. Voices are not raised. You will not hear a car honk impatiently in Tokyo, nor see a scrap of paper or a cigarette butt on the sidewalk.

    It carries through to dress and shows such a refined sense of civility and CARE.

  5. I like today's post. Good food for thought. As I have been looking at vintage patterns, I have noticed how much more covered we all were in the 70s, right through 'till the early '90s. I think I am not much interested in elegance, but perhaps in confidence. The way we dress should give us confidence. But often the way I dress doesn't do that for me.

    I don't agree that a conversation about modesty leads to burqua-wearing. That is an extreme position. If, however, how you dress in an important situation leads others to misjudge you and your opinions/needs/availability for sex, then you have not served your needs well.

    Our culture moves slowly away from old norms. We've come so far since the '70s! I think of the decade from 1968-1978 as the first modern decade of the 20th Century in many ways, certainly in the manner of dress, and the way women were presented in ads and the media.

    On the actual issue of modesty, I have noticed through the years males looking at modestly dressed females in an obscene way, or making faces at a women with a large bustline, or making catcalls at a teen, who was well endowed, in a totally inappropriate situation. When I was very young and sitting next to an old guy, I was requested to take off my jacket as he was looking directly at my breasts. (I declined) It doesn't much matter how a female is dressed, in my observation, for her to be objectified by some male.

    I think for me the issue boils down to aesthetics, more than modesty.

  6. "a sign that someone cares to make an effort to do more than the minimum"

    Well said Peter!

  7. Peter, you are beyond fabulous. What a measured, well-reasoned perspective.

    Modesty is a hot topic because it is SO loaded. Sexuality, religion, and politics all rolled up into one! YAY! It's pretty much impossible to offer an opinion about modesty that won't push someone's buttons. But here's mine:

    I long for a diverse world with room for multiple aesthetics in which leveling judgment against human beings for how much or little they choose to reveal will be considered outdated and lame. I, too, believe in referencing rather than revealing for myself, and think that I can look equally amazing in something low-cut and something high-cut. But I mostly just wish that this issue were less charged, difficult, and angering. Choices are choices. If another woman chooses to wear something more revealing than I ever would, it has little, if anything, to do with me.

  8. Bravo, Peter! Elegance is the grace note of civilized dressing. I love it when I see someone has obviously made an effort to adorn themselves--an arrangement of brooches, a smashing scarf, or a satorial surprise like a vivid lining in a plain coat.

    A great shift in perspective . . .

  9. Thanks, guys! Of course today I'm the one in curlers and pajamas... ;)

  10. sorry, couldn't get past the leather boys...


  11. Peter, where does the fabulous stop? What a thoughtful, intelligent post to read this morning. I may have to leave the house today just to honor it -- and practice a bit of elegance/respect myself.

    Really liked this:

    "It seems many of us, scarred by the battles for equality perhaps, are loathe to admit doing something partly for others' pleasure, as if we were in some way contributing to our own objectification."

    Of course, we ARE still contributing to that objectification, but one day, maybe not . . .

  12. What a genius idea to set the tone for a post on modesty with a vintage burlesque photo! So were your other illustrations in their unexpectedness.

    And thank you so much for transfering the subject from the tense moral dimension into realms of the aesthetic. No, Spears does not look as well turned out as Ann Miller, but the skies will not fall down on anyone because people shop in their pyjamas.

    The aesthetic dimension is not only more beautiful, but, it seems, more relaxing.

  13. This just may be the best post you've ever written, thank you I enjoyed reading it.

  14. I'm afraid I'm too burned-out on the subject to say much other than: great post! Beacause it really is.

  15. Thanks for another interesting perspective. I really enjoy posts like this. My personal opinion is that religion has totally screwed up us when it comes to perception of sexuality and body confidence. I agree with you about modesty and elegance. I was raised with no religion at all, but by a mother who was very concerned about how she appeared in public. She always dressed and always made an effort. Yes, she wore her hair in curlers at home, but if she needed to go to the shop, she got dressed, did her hair and, at the very least, wore lipstick and powder. Such was her influence, that I have sewn myself a complete at-home wardrobe of comfortable, soft clothes that still look presentable, if not elegant, if someone were to turn up out of the blue.

  16. Your photo of Ann Miller(wow, when I grow up I want to be like her)reminded me of one of the federal artist project photos from the 30s of a group of farmers who'd been forced out of the midwest by mortgage defaults and the Dustbowl. They were standing on line at a big farm in California (having loaded their families into their trucks and driven all the way out, camping along the way), looking for work as pea pickers. Every single man was in his very best: Sunday suit coat, clean, non-ripped jeans or bibs, clean shirt, buttoned up to the neck and a good, clean felt fedora. Even after everything they'd been through, they cared enough to make an impression. Part of this (and Ann Miller was cut out of the same cloth, generation-wise too) was that people did care - it made a huge difference in how you were treated. No one wanted to be considered 'poor'. For all the vintage patterns and catalog pages floating around with dresses at $1.50 and women's suits at $2.50, we need to remember just how little people were paid in those days, so people might only have one really good dress or suit for Sunday church, a couple of dresses, a couple of skirts and blouses and a house dress to wear at home. So, people tried to take care of their clothes to make them look as good as they could for as long as they could. As I've said before, I'm 58, so I entered the workplace still in the era where a certain level of dressing up was not only expected but required. Even as a junior secretary, I tried to dress as well as I could so that people would think well of me. For us, too, it was a question of 'elegance' not modesty but I think that has to do with the time.

  17. Very profound. What a fantastic post and a pleasure to read. I'm not generally a deep thinker like you, but love to listen to (/read) interesting ideas. Thanks for your thoughts!

  18. Peter - only my second or third time popping 'round, but yet again I am blown away by your calm, measured, thoughtful post. I think you've reframed this issue (in terms of elegance rather than an argument over proper hemlines) in a way that inspires - which I think relocates style in the realm it should move in, in terms of inspiration and expression. bravo.

    And, as your previous commenters have noted, the flowerbox simile is charming and very apt. Wouldn't it be a nicer world if we could all take a deep breath, relax, and (with that necessary recognition and mutual respect of each other as fellow human beings regardless of size race gender ethnicity etc etc) enjoy putting in the efforts for our selves and for each other? I know I do (caveat: but not on the summer days when I'm doing housework, yardwork, and writing papers. Then I'm a bum!)

  19. This is my first visit to your blog, and thank you for such a wonderful post. (And thank you, Sal!)

    Concepts of modesty *are* so dependent on culture (and climate!) that one person's inappropriateness is another person's average day at the office. That doesn't mean I'm not guilty of passing judgment when I see someone dressed in a revealing way. A woman at work was wearing a wrap dress yesterday that showed a lot of cleavage: I know this woman to be intelligent and good at her job, but I still couldn't help thinking that her choice of outfit was a) inappropriate and b) not doing her any favors insofar as being respected by her co-workers and showing them respect in turn.

    In that way, I do disagree with your statement that how we dress doesn't honor anyone but ourselves: I believe dressing without thought for the situation shows a lack of respect or honor towards your boss/co-worker/mother-in-law/whomever you're interacting with. If "elegance is refusal" (Diana Vreeland?), elegance is also the ability to put others at ease. So, in a way, maybe elegance equals plain old-fashioned manners? What better way to put others at ease than to not have them have to choose between looking at your boobs and looking you in the eye? I exaggerate, of course, but I hope you see my point. As you said, being *aware* of your body, how you dress it, and what that says to others is a powerful thing.

  20. This was an excellent, thought provoking post. I miss some of that elegance, I wish more people put a little more thought into how they look.

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  22. My first visit to your blog and I agree wholeheartedly with your post :-) In part as I'm a woman-of-a-certain-age. I think as we age, elegance and some sense of modesty are actually more flattering. Take the Britney picture - add 20years on to her.... she'd look even worse! How much more well, youthful (if that makes sense) to dress elegantly. We've all seen the powdered 70 year old in a skirt suit; looking better than a 40yr old in sleeveless t-shirt and baggy sweat pants .

    Now off to look around the rest of your blog ;-)


  23. Oh so you are a man?? Didn't know that.

  24. This reminded me of a Lithuanian poem my sister likes... I do not know Lithuanian, so I do not know the poem, but she said it's about a woman who is dressing in front of a mirror, putting on a hat - to go to the trash bins to throw out trash.
    That is, now, my epitome of elegance and a pattern to follow if I can manage that. Not really the dressing up part; the part about doing everything with dignity. Which, I think, also has a lot to do with modesty.

  25. It's probably in bad taste to comment on older posts -- but that leads me to my point. This whole taste/modesty thing just seems like a way of mobilizing cultural capital to suppress or marginalize other people. In particular, relegating "all things" to "a time and a place" is downright foucauldian!

    At the same time, I know it would make me feel weird to see topless women in the street even though I live in a province where that is technically legal on gender-equity grounds. I just don't think I have the right to void other people's freedom because I think it is tacky.


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