* Culture

The Ethics of “Modest Fashion”

What is modest fashion and what is the ethical issue?

I am sitting on a plane reading an article by Dan Ahwa about modest fashion. Apparently, this is a new thing in the fashion world.

For those who (like me) wondered “what is modest fashion?”, the concept seems to boil down to a “more covered” look – longer sleeves, longer hemlines, no cleavage.

For many women (myself included) this isn’t a new or different way of dressing. My mother was a “modest” dresser, favouring practical and fairly androgynous clothing when I was growing up (think jeans and a skivvy or pullover, ‘70s style). My family was also religious and fairly conservative. I’m not sure how much this influenced me, but even as a teenager baring my legs in a mini-skirt or wearing a low-cut top was just never my thing.

While dressing modestly is certainly not new out there in the real world, there does seem to be a consciousness about dressing modestly that is emerging in the fashion world. Ahwa refers to designers Emilia Wickstead and Tory Burch, and online shopping sites such as The Modist.

The clothes on these websites are gorgeous – defying any stereotype your mind conjured up when you heard the term “modest fashion”. But what about the ethics? Isn’t modest fashion encouraging the idea that women’s bodies need to be covered up (whether because our bodies are shameful or because our bodies will encourage men to think lewd thoughts or some other sexist notion)? As Ahwa says, modest fashion might be seen as regressive as a result.

In my view, modest fashion can readily sit with a body-positive/girl-power ethos.

One can say (as I do) that women shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of their bodies or be anything less than open and free about how they look, but at the same time they should not feel any pressure to be “on display” (for men). A woman can feel content in her own skin and yet want to dress in less revealing clothing.

One reason why a woman might want to dress modestly is a practical reason – modest clothing is often more comfortable and easier to get around in. Revealing clothing is often tight, which can be uncomfortable and restrictive. The difference is often significant in the workplace – a long day at work is hard enough, let alone doing it in a tight clothing and high heels that restrict your movement and make you feel quite uncomfortable by the end of the workday. Low cut tops and short skirts can create logistical and practical difficulties. Just ask anyone who needs to bend over a lot during the day!

However, there is another reason why feminist women choose to dress modestly, and it has nothing to do with practicality and everything to do with how women are treated/perceived in the world.

On one view, more revealing clothing is designed for the male gaze. It is designed to emphasise the physical features of a woman’s body that men find attractive (or the features that are considered, by men and women, to be “attractive” in our male-dominated culture). Revealing clothing emphasies the breasts, the waist, the hips, the arse, the legs. It draws attention to a woman’s body and the way she looks, rather than who she is as a person. On this view, it reduces women to pretty dolls who dress up for the benefit of the men around them, to please those men and therefore fulfil the patriarchy’s purpose of having women consider that their physical attractiveness (to men) is their single most important attribute.

Many women embrace modest dressing because it rejects that notion of what women should be, and what is important for women in this world of ours.  Perhaps the real problem with modest dressing is the label itself.  Maybe it is power dressing, in the true sense of the word.

(the article I read was by Dan Awha – The Art of Modesty – Virgin Australia Magazine, August 2019)