We thought modesty made us timeless

We thought modesty made us timeless January 4, 2013

by Sierra

I grew up wearing “holiness.” I’ll wait for a moment so you can finish making jokes. You know you want to.

Holiness hair in action.

Usually associated with Pentecostals, “holiness” dress has several elements:

  1. Long skirts and dresses, usually floor length
  2. No close-fitting or “stretch” clothing unless it’s oversized
  3. Uncut hair (no trimming allowed in my church)
  4. No makeup
  5. Minimal jewelry

The reasoning behind this uniform is that clothing should express your personality and your commitment to modesty (and by extension, your commitment to God and your future husband). It should draw attention to your “countenance,” not your figure. These beliefs have an innocent, wholesome veneer that masks a harmful ideology that supports victim-blaming and rape culture.

But my subject’s a little lighter today.

Basically, we thought wearing “holiness” dress meant getting in touch with a timeless, ahistorical, unchanging ideal for women. It looked like this.
Pictures from Still Waters Camp, a Message of the Hour summer event led by the son of William Branham.

A girl probably being led to baptism.

It was easy enough to understand. Since we weren’t allowed to participate in any overtly modern beauty practices, we assumed that women in the past (especially Christian women) must have looked a little like us. Personally, I had a thing for Waterhouse paintings:

J.W. Waterhouse, Miranda (The Tempest)

A problem: idealized paintings made by 19th century painters about 16th century fictional characters don’t really tell you what women looked like in the past.

We told the comprehensive history of feminine apparel along these lines:

  1. God clothed Eve in the Garden.
  2. Women wore long robes, like men (but, crucially, not the same kind of robes).
  3. Women wore lots of fabric until the 20th century.
  4. From 1920 on, increasing amounts of sin in society caused women to strip off gradually.
  5. Eventually women will return to being naked, like in the Garden before God intervened, but without the innocence.

Except that narrow trajectory, in which clothing becomes simply skimpier and skimpier, doesn’t jive with actual history. The only real constants in the history of fashion are its tendency to change and its reflection of social hierarchies. To take just the 20th century as an example, the narrative of “slowly taking off clothes” doesn’t fit.

In the early 20th century, hemlines did get shorter – drastically so, if you take the cutting edge (flappers) as your example. But flapper dresses also got looser and showed far less cleavage than their predecessors with their shape-accentuating corsets. Compare the tight-bodiced and low cut dress of the Edwardian era with the shoulder and leg-baring flapper dress and its loose sheath silhouette. Which is more modest? I’m stumped.

Kate Winslet in Edwardian high fashion.

1920s dresses, all in a row.

To make matters more complicated, waistbands shrunk again in the 40s as designers had to make do with rationed fabric. Then, in the 50s, dresses got all billowy and long again, making use of extra yards of abundant postwar material. Christian Dior was the designer who pioneered this look. Despite the extra yardage, the dress below sits much closer to the upper body than the ones above. Is one style more modest than the other?

There’s a lot more fabric, but is it more modest? Look at that neckline!

Things nipped in again in the 60s, and the hemline rose. But the necklines also rose, burying the cleavage of the Dior days.

A 1960s dress design with a pencil skirt and a high neckline.

In the 1970s, things got… complicated.

Hippie dresses, wide-leg pants, maxi skirts and mini skirts collided.

I’ll stop there for brevity’s sake.

In each decade, there are possible points and counterpoints. For every flapper there was at least another woman who demurely covered her shoulders and ankles. For every “Jackie-O” inspired fashionista of the 60s, there was a woman who carried on wearing the billowing skirts of the 50s. In the 1990s, only a dedicated minority walked around baring their bellybuttons like Britney Spears. Not everybody wears skinny jeans now.

There has been a range of figure-enhancing and skin-baring from woman to woman within each stage of fashion history. Every generation has had its share of rulebreakers and jeremiads about them. History isn’t just one long strip-tease, with raucous women peeling off layer after modest layer until Good Christian Men are undone. It’s more complicated than that.

I mean, really. Is this modest?

A woman requires “assistance” lacing her corset, having thoroughly padded her bum with petticoats and wire.

And really, is there so much difference between the amounts of skin showing in this picture…

1920s women on the street.

…and this one?

Contemporary women on the street.

The “holiness” dress I was raised to wear wasn’t hearkening back to some ageless era when women were virtuous and hemlines were long. It was constructed in the mid-20th century out of fear of feminism, and has been worked at constantly ever since.

If you told my great grandmother that women back in the good old days never took a blade to their hair or let their ankles show, she’d laugh you out of her house before you got the chance to see the photos of her younger self, decked out in bobbed hair and a flapper skirt.

Comments open below

Read everything by Sierra!

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog  the phoenix and the olive branch

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  • Fantastic! I already knew everything you mentioned, but I’d never put it together before. Somehow, despite knowing about some of the erm… “indelicacies” of fashions in the past, I’d still managed to buy the narrative that we wear less/reveal more now than we did previously. But, as usual, it’s more complicated than that.

  • dangermom

    I should think that costuming for women has just about always featured tension between modesty, concealment, and enhancing of sexuality. (At least, I have an interest in costuming history, and that’s how it seems to me.) Concealment has a lot to do with both modesty AND sexual attraction.

    Victorians, for example. Corsets, tight bodices emphasizing the hourglass figure, bust enhancements, evening gowns with amazingly low necklines, not to mention really blatant fashions like bustles (!) — they were wearing about 35 pounds of fabric each, but there was a lot of sex wrapped up in that package. You could imagine all those layers coming off, the hair being unbound, phew!…and they were discreet compared to the Georgians. Every age has had this going on.

    Oh, and let’s not stay in Europe! Let’s talk saris. 6 yards of fabric draped over a blouse and a petticoat, and it’s modest and sexually alluring at the same time. Wearing a sari casts a woman as mature, ready for marriage, elegant, and all sorts of other things (including authoritative and in control). They’re endlessly intriguing, what with the centuries of layers of meaning.

    I could go on a long time, but I’ll stop. 🙂

  • Karen

    Let’s play a game: who’s showing more skin, the modern woman in a t-shirt and jeans, or the Edwardian woman in her summer dress?

  • Nea

    Oh! Oh! I know the answer! It’s the Regency woman wearing a knockoff of what she considers Greecian robes. Lots of cleavage and arm on display, and very little in the way of corsets and petticoats to reshape or hide the body.

  • Those, those, those…. HUSSIES!

    (not really)

  • Sarah

    Another factor in the history of fashion is that the richer you were, the more fabric you could afford. So at various times, royalty wore much longer (and of course, more elaborate) clothes than peasants. Think of the medieval loooooong sleeves and trains on dresses and veils that fell to the knees and men’s shoes with toes so long they had to be hooked onto the hose at the knee for royalty while peasants were lucky to have more than a basic long peasant shirt and rags tied around their feet. Or look at the renaissance pictures in which sleeves and sometimes entire jackets were cut open in regular intervals to reveal puffs of underclothes, proclaiming that the wearer was rich enough to waste fabric by cutting it up instead of hoarding every last inch of it. In many societies, showing the hands, and particularly the forearms, was not immodest so much as a statement that the show-er had to work for a living and could not afford to go around with his hands covered, calling on servants to do all his menial tasks for him. In China the peasant women wore tunics with pants so they could move around while they worked in the fields and cooked and cleaned while rich town women wore long robes (with looooong sleeves) over their pants because they could sit around all day instead of having to be able to move around well.

    It seems to me that modesty in dress is one area in which fundamentalists have appropriated something that used to indicate wealth and have claimed that it actually indicates holiness. Refusing to use old English words for bodily functions and fluids is another example. Women not working might be another, though that might be more complex.

  • Jenny Islander

    My personal eyepopper was discovering that the buttoned-up full-skirted look of upper-class teenage girls looked very different in real life. Those high-necked, full-sleeved “waists” with their dozens of tiny buttons were see-through! The corset covers underneath, which resembled the cute little T-shirts and cami tops teenage girls wear today, except heavily embroidered–because they were on view. Girls even went to parties in their see-through waists, with a decorative overlayer made entirely of ribbons or a gauzy scarf draped over their elbows or wrapped around their shoulders.

  • Jenny Islander

    Their Victorian descendants tended to think so. The Regency look was a bit too much–Victorians were comfortable with “effective” and “becoming” clothing (more or less what we might call “attractive” and “shape-enhancing”), but those skimpy old dresses were over the line! But of course, the Regency style did not call for parading around in a nightie and a slip all the time any more than Victorian fashion put women in low-cut, trailing ball gowns all day long. There were bits for filling in the neckline, little jackets and lovely shawls, and styles that covered up a lot more without any additions needed.

  • Karen

    Women in the court of Catherine de Medici in France wore acres of skirt but didn’t cover their breasts. The salmar khameez — tunic over trousers — now favored by modest women in Pakistan was invented by their remote ancestress to wear while riding astride horses as part of an invading army.

    Also, good catch above that class was more important than gender in many cultures.

  • dangermom

    Very true. Besides, in England at any rate, it’s too cold and damp to waltz around in a nightie all day. 😀

  • dangermom

    Oh, I KNOW. Seeing antique blouses is always a bit of a shock when they turn out to be see-through! Heirloom sewists are still doing that kind of thing, and you just put it over a tank top.

  • Hamilton

    The idea of anyone looking back at the past and seeing only modest dress on women before the 1920s is just hilarious to me. Mostly I’m familiar with the 18th century. Women, especially those in the upper classes, were all about beautiful fashion and ridiculous hairstyles, without even getting into the figure enhancing shapes and exposed chests. Heck, even the men of the period were much more fashionable.

  • texcee

    And let’s not overlook men’s fashions of the past — hose and codpieces! Leg hugging fabric and decorated, padded (the bigger the better) groin coverings with ties at the corners so they could be opened as needed!

  • Jenny Islander

    Or upper-class fashion for men during the Regency period, which was basically painted on–some years just the lower parts of the trousers, some years everything from the six-pack on down.

    Come to that, Victorian upper-class men’s fashions dictated trousers so tight that they wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Mod Squad. With bright vertical stripes. You can see details in back issues of Harper’s Bazar archived at Cornell University’s HEARTH Project.

  • Polish garb for nobles often features sleeves that are not actually usable.


  • Meggie

    Officers during the Napoleonic Wars use to put their trousers on while wet as they shrank as they dried and ended up figure hugging. Nice.

    It bugs me when people do the “back in the olden days when we were all perfect …” that they never put it into the cultural and climatic context. I live in Australia but but Europeans have only been here for 225 years. If I look back at what my ancestors wore, I am actually looking at what people wore in the UK. Is it really fair to say that I wear less than my ancestors without considering that I live in a very, very hot climate and they lived in quite a cool climate.

  • Jenny Islander

    Just a few pages in and hi there, Victorian lady’s nightgown with little cap sleeves and broad vertical lace inserts right over the breasts. Also hello corsets that create va-va-voom silhouettes, including a corset made expressly for a wedding that lifts and separates, but does not cover, the bride’s breasts. From the clothing it’s clear that a woman at home, expecting no company or only some very close friends, might loosen or leave off her corset, but in public she wore clothes that were designed to show off the figure created by firm lacing.

  • newcomer

    To understand how flapper dresses can be suggestive, it really helps to see them on someone in motion. For something so boxy and innocuous-looking on the hanger, they can play a mean game of peek-a-boo with a moving body inside. Bias cuts, light drapey fabrics, and/or sheer fabrics (frequently layered JUST enough to obscure only what is required by law to be obscured, or with something opaque and skimpier underneath)- it’s ridiculous just how much can be revealed with something so loose-fitting and tubular, and is pretty much the antithesis to the idealized Victorian approach, which often created an exaggeratedly feminine shape with layer upon layer of stiff fabrics and boning (so while being extremely form fitting [and form-creating], there was an extreme amount of control over just how much of the woman’s actual body could be seen, whether in terms of shape or actual skin [such as in those decollete-framing ballgowns]). I like both eras’ styles, personally.

    I seem to recall reading something about the structure of historical clothing (and especially women’s clothing) mirroring other aspects of the culture- in times of great stress and uncertainty or change, when people are struggling for a greater sense of control, women’s clothing tends to become much more ‘structured,’ with masses of foundation garments creating not very natural silhouettes. The other extreme is the loose, drapey, and/or waist-obscuring styles. Regardless, it definitely seems to be very cyclical, with some very fun in-betweens.

  • WOW!!! I’m in love with this site.

  • texcee

    Going back to Victorian men’s fashions, if you don’t know what a “Prince Albert” is/was, then look it up. It was a … um … piercing that kept … um … things in place under those very tight pants which were worn with no undergarments.

  • Braddah Shano

    You are extremely ignorant of the things you’re trying to explain. Would love to have you come on my forum and discuss these topics. You have much to learn.