Women’s clothing, fashion and dress have been ridiculed for decades. The focus on what we wear and its messages constantly are the basis of how people, specifically women, are judged and controlled within society. Throughout history, there has been a focus on punishing women for wearing revealing clothing or showing too much skin. With the sexual liberation movement, women gained the ability to express themselves sexually, and the punishing of women who dress modestly became one bi-product. This has been used as a means to further objectify and control women’s bodies. Thus, the politicization of modesty has become more rampant.
Clothes historically have always had messages attached to them. How clothing is designed and the way it is worn are forms of expression. It is a form of art and beauty in itself. With various aesthetics, silhouettes, and body types, clothing has been a way of presenting significant messages about oneself. We see this function applied to many of our media representations of clothing. For example, shows like Euphoria, the Queen’s Gambit, and Emily in Paris utilize fashion as an integral tool to advance the plot.
Empowerment comes in many shapes and sizes. For many, sexual liberation is empowerment and the sexual liberation movement provided a facet for many women to seek empowerment in a society that continuously pushes dress norms on women. For many people, modest fashion is an equally valid approach to self-expression. For some, the showing of certain parts of the body and the hiding of others, the use of boxy silhouettes, the creation of essentially a template in which the body remains hidden are all methods used as a method of empowerment. The ability to only reveal aspects of the body is an expression. Just as the covering of it is. They are both valid approaches. Each utilizes fashion to feel more confident and to display a message that reflects the intention of that individual on that day.
Muslim Women, and Politicizing Modesty
The concept of Western and Eastern beauty and feminism play a deep role in how modesty is politicized within the West. While in more Eastern cultures and traditions modesty has and continues to be the norm, the same can’t be said about Western tradition. The focus of the hijab and the move away from modest fashion as a Western feminist move of empowerment has placed modest fashion on the backburner. This is anti-feminist in itself. The positive effect of Western feminist empowerment was that it allowed for women to be free in what they choose to wear. The intention behind this empowerment was to give individuals the freedom to dress how they wish, to disregard what the male gaze deems as being appropriate. The male gaze refers to the idea that the images that are created in media and society are made in order to satisfy the needs and views of heterosexual males. This concept, coined by Laura Mulvey, gives an understanding that women are portrayed within society when it comes to relative “attractiveness”. However, this Western view contributes to the villainizing of dressing modestly. Dressing modestly is a common social norm in many countries and cultures, but specific presentations of modest dressing tend to face the most backlash.
Take Muslim women, the majority of these women take modesty as being very important for being close to their faith. Modesty, for many of them, is empowering. It is a test of their personal relationship with God and allows them to again represent themselves in a way in which they feel comfortable doing. Today, hijabs and other modest head coverings for the purpose of modesty, are continuously politicized.
This same thing can be said about Catholic nuns and other religious attire. However, the hijab as a specific head covering is vilified to an extent that other religious attire is not. When we look at how Black and brown women cover themselves modestly, the public reaction to it is very different to the reaction of modesty as it pertains to white women. This again is very rooted in the idea of how the politicization of modesty comes as an attack on women who don’t appeal to Western beauty standards.
In Quebec, legislation has been passed to prevent individuals from wearing these head coverings in public. This example demonstrates how religious modesty has become vilified. It takes a piece of clothing, one that is so standard in a person’s dress and turns it into a political statement. It’s a new form of preventing women from their own self-expression. Rather than tell them to cover up, we are telling them not to if it has a religious context to it.
The discourse regarding the hijab and religious modesty has also created legislation in France that bars them from working in public from being on public grounds. It normalizes the notion that religious modesty is evil, that it suppresses women, puts women into boxes, so on and so forth. What it fails to acknowledge, however, is that bodily autonomy in terms of fashion works both ways.
Religious modesty and modesty have now become one and the same. If an individual deems it worthy enough to dress as they please, to display their faith, to display their modesty in the eyes of God, they are not free to do so in growing amounts of Western countries and territories. The goal of female autonomy is to create a space in which there aren’t any boundaries. There was not supposed to be this notion that one can show too much or too little. As we move towards creating spaces that push against outdated ideas of fashion and what is deemed as “appropriate”, society pushes back by passing judgements to make it appear wrong.
What I mean here, is that there is a shift of ridicule from one end of the spectrum to the other. This is what causes the idea of modesty and religious modesty, one that is deemed as “suppression of women” in secular nations, as being wrong. Shaming women for dressing modestly on top of existing traditions that shame women for dressing immodestly is simply a societal reaction to the other freedoms women have acquired in the past century.
Modesty and the Fashion Industry
It is no secret that the Western fashion industry has prioritized the male gaze when creating clothing, trends and defining what is “beautiful”. Through the underrepresentation of women of colour, plus-size models as well as a lack of attention catered towards modest clothing, women who don’t fit the idea of what the male gaze views as being “attractive” have been placed in a compromising position in terms of their self-expression.
Modest fashion within the Western fashion industry is few and far between. Some individuals are known for trying to combat these norms by trying to upcycle and restyle certain pieces to make them more modest, allowing them to be more accessible for women who seek that look. What the fashion industry fails to recognize is that there is a large industry of women within the demographic of modest clothing that are not just religious women.
Fashion is a statement, and modesty has its own valid means of self expression just as every type of fashion does.
When there is a lack of accessibility to modest clothing, it creates a narrative in which we view that modesty is inherently not beautiful, not sellable and certainly undesirable. This contrasts with the reality where for many women the idea of modesty is freeing and preferred.
The lack of accessibility is not only present in what clothes are available generally but also in who the clothes are made for. When we look at modest fashion brands, there is a severe lack of attention towards plus-size individuals. There is a failure to recognize curvier bodies alongside other bodies that don’t necessarily fit standard sizing.
When the notion of modesty gets moulded into one that actively doesn’t include plus-size women, it creates an environment in which anything that these women wear is coined as being “immodest” if being modest was their intention. Within the modest fashion industry, larger bodies aren’t seen as modest – everything that is worn by these women is deemed as “immodest”.
So, not only is modest clothing heavily politicized and villainized in the media as a representation of being inherently wrong but we also see how modest fashion has been placed aside within the fashion and clothing industry.
The reality here is that women’s fashion has always been under ridicule. Creating an industry and political climate through clothing where whatever someone wears is placed under a microscope is anti-women and anti-freedom-of-expression. Fashion and clothing should express whatever message the wearer wishes and placing women into a box where standardized trends and fashion is the only answer, restricts other women from true expression as well as from believing themselves as beautiful regardless of the male gaze surrounding women’s fashion.