By Anna Ilona Mussmann
Title Image: "Do Not Be Afraid," vintage card
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Edith Head (legendary costume designer of old Hollywood)
Fashion once sanctioned only one silhouette at a time, and to this all fashionable ladies were obliged to conform. They all wore long, clingy gowns in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. They all switched to crinolines by the Century’s mid-point. Nowadays, however, we can go public in anything from a floor-brushing maxi-dress to a pair of thigh-bearing shorts, and no one who sees our clothes will think that we look particularly eccentric. Yet this freedom is rather illusory. Today, the pressure to conform comes from the over-sexualization of our culture (about which I’ve written elsewhere). Modern women are supposed to rival the financial and political achievements of men, but also to sport pouty lips and eternally-youthful figures. In fact, we are encouraged to objectify ourselves (why else would girls post provocative selfies online for strangers?).
Even among liberals, our culture is not without voices against blatant sexualization, but such conversations are hobbled by fears that modesty or chastity would limit personal freedom. A great deal of this concern is undoubtedly tied to the idea that women can only achieve equality by imitating [the worst versions of] male behavior. Our culture seems to say, “The only way to prove that no one else owns you, girl, is to give yourself away for free.” Yet in practice, the result of this role-shift seems to be that women now try to achieve an ever-more-impossible ideal of photo-shopped beauty (and now, instead of just attracting one man and marrying him, we must attract a whole string of men).
Even classy gals who would never appear in a string bikini are influenced by the messages of our world. We all are tempted to run on the sexiness-treadmill in some way. For one woman, the models on the covers of the supermarket magazines trigger feelings of inadequacy that can lead to envy, discontent, or disordered dieting. For another, the lure comes from our culture’s notion of romantic love, and results in a search for a man who will “fulfill” her (only God can do that). Yet others seek to wield power by wearing a certain neckline, a certain hemline, or walking in a certain way. Some women even react by becoming embittered against all men. The problem with all of these sins is that they separate us from God, kill our souls, and deliver disappointment and misery instead of the promised happiness.
From the Christian perspective, modesty and chastity actually liberate us. They cast aside our culture’s sexiness-treadmill, and, far more monumental, they align with the real purposes of human sexuality. As Christian women, we know that our physical bodies are mortally wounded by the fall into sin, but they are also a gift to us in this present life, and in the final resurrection, they will be gloriously healed. It behooves us to treat them with respect (remember, Christ has a human body, too). Modesty is a way of showing respect for something that God designed. Yet how is that accomplished?
It is always tempting to approach the subject of modesty with a set of concrete, enforceable rules and regulations. In one sense, it is perfectly logical to decide that if the female body arouses sinful lust, and if lust should be avoided, then the female body ought to be kept under a burqa. Problem solved, case closed, sin over (and the bonus: the female could save a whole lot of money that would otherwise be spent on cosmetics). Muslims aren’t the only ones who take this approach. I knew a group of Christian homeschool families who required their girls to wear long-sleeve blouses and ankle-length, denim jumpers when they went swimming (denim was selected because it is not clingy when wet). They felt that covering up their daughters would not only protect young men, but also help the girls to escape worldly standards of beauty and to behave like virtuous women. Unfortunately, as any Lutheran could tell you, sin comes from the human heart, and logical human efforts to make sin impossible usually backfire into fresh wrongdoing. Research has found that people can be conditioned to perceive certain sights and imagery as more or less sexual. I would suggest that an insistence on hiding all bodies may lead people to find certain body parts more erotic than they would otherwise. When groups obsess over ensuring that a girl’s butt or legs don’t show, they inadvertently reduce women to mere sexual objects (ironically, as is often pointed out in the blogosphere, this objectifying is a mark of the pin-up Hollywood world that they were trying to flee in the first place).
So, when discussing modesty, let us not talk as if women are essentially walking pornography. However, let’s not play dumb, either, as if men aren’t wired to respond to visual stimuli. Let’s help our Christian brothers avoid sin by dressing sensibly. Let’s teach our teenage daughters to find confidence in appropriate, rather than revealing, clothes. Deep down, any women beyond her teens probably knows that her clingy t-shirt is getting her more masculine attention than she would otherwise receive. Yet discussions about the sartorial side of modesty are often simplistic. If we merely divide clothes into a pile of “physical revealing” and “non-revealing,” we would leave many other implications untouched. The thing is, clothes have a tremendous effect on our feelings, on our position in society, and on how others treat us. They are culturally subjective, yet genuinely powerful.
Clothes are often tied to female insecurity (probably because our culture teaches us to link our appearance and our self-worth). A few months ago, my sister, my husband, and I watched a What Not To Wear episode. The hosts did an instant, on-stage makeover for a woman who walked into the building in outrageously cheap, revealing, and costume-like attire. She fought their critiques until the end, yet when she saw herself with a beautiful haircut and attractive, respectable clothes, she began sobbing. Her entire demeanor was transformed by what she saw in the mirror—she was happier, more at peace, and more ladylike. She had not believed before that she could look like a dignified, lovely woman. The funny thing is that my husband didn’t “get” it. His reaction was, “So they changed her outfit. So what? Why would anyone cry because of clothes?” My sister and I couldn’t help laughing at his thoroughly masculine outlook, because the tears weren’t about clothes. They were about identity and human value.
Adult women who know that they are valuable don’t wear skanky outfits. They just don’t. They don’t need to. As we choose our wardrobes, it is important to remember that they are a way of telling ourselves what sort of people we are. We should dress like dignified, lovely women who belong to the ruler of the universe. This means more than just avoidance of skank. It also means making an effort to look like women who are going places, women who are going to accomplish things, and women who took a shower that day. This may mean that we must humble ourselves and study the way that our fashion choices affect others. Some of us do need to show less skin or buy a size up (you’ve probably heard the advice that a trusted male friend, brother, father, or husband can be consulted briefly about this). I realize that fashionable modesty is harder for some body types than others. I myself am so short that most v-necks are too low on me. It is worth the effort to observe how other women of one’s own body type are able to dress successfully, or even to get a few key pieces tailored to fit.
Yet modesty does not come from a denim jumper. It comes from daily repentance—repentance of our sinful quest to find self-worth our appearance, achievements, or power over others. It is the result of the beautiful, amazing, shocking fact that Christ values us so much that He died for us. As we live the life of new creatures, purchased and won from the power of sin, death, and the devil, let’s remember the advice to wear dresses that “are tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Be a lady, because through Christ, you are one.
***Don't Forget the Avocados.
Title Image: "Do Not Be Afraid," vintage card