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Modesty by any other name

Fashion is fickle. What’s passé one year becomes au courant  the next. But watch it long enough and you’ll notice repetitions. So how to market recycled fashion? Maybe give it a novel sounding name.

Like “modest fashion.” A term that somewhat irritates me.

If you ask me, it’s basically a trend that could have come straight out of the 70s: long-sleeved, flowing maxis, pants or skirts – only now the marketing is skewed towards customers whose faith or cultural practices require them to wear clothes that cover certain body parts.

The Oxford dictionary defines “modesty” as behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.

And therein lies my beef with the marriage of the word “modest” and fashion, as this somewhat suggests that dressing otherwise is to be improper or indecent.

Now, some may argue that I’m taking the term too literally. However if you’ve had the experience of living in a society where modesty is often synonymous with whichever brand of “morality” prescribed by certain religious or cultural edicts, then the term can chafe.

I do accept that there are contexts where “modest” dressing in the literal sense (read: covering arms, legs or heads) is necessary. For instance when entering houses of worship or perhaps as part of the uniform of certain vocations (like say, lawyers’ robes or that of faith leaders).

What I cannot accept is when divergent ideas of modesty in multicultural contexts lead to the imposition of dressing standards of the one upon the other. Like the whole burkini brouhaha a while back. I mean, burkini, bikini – who cares? Enjoy the sun, sand and surf, people, and stop policing what other beachgoers wear!

There have been an increasing number of instances in my native Malaysia where women are being policed by men – and women – of other faith persuasions who take it upon themselves to impose their standards of modesty/morality on them.

There’s been no dearth of news headlines about women being denied access to government buildings because they were deemed not “modestly” dressed. And by not “modest” I refer to knee length dresses and skirts or loose sleeveless blouses. This isn’t even about hot pants or halter tops.

And if you thought that this might apply to some eye-wateringly comely women, there was an instance where a 12-year-old girl at a chess championship dressed in an unremarkable straight cut, knee-length dress was asked to go home and change as her clothes were deemed “too distracting.”

Even some hospitals (where how you’re dressed should be the last thing on anyone’s mind, if you ask me) haven’t been spared this bizarre dress code. You may not be wrong in assuming that the main concern here is the health and well-being of a patient and the peace of mind of their worried kin. Yet instead you could find yourself stopped in your tracks while rushing in to see someone in the ICU, only to be told by an unmoved guard that you are not “modestly” dressed.

One can only pass these fashion/moral police in two ways: go home and change (and possibly lose your turn at whatever you were queuing for) OR succumb to their command and shroud yourself in one of the large bath towels or sarongs that they keep for just these “slip ups”. As an aside, these cover ups are not washed after every use so if you’re icky like me, you might prefer to have a large scarf or shawl that you can whip out at a moment’s notice.

Much has been written about ‘modest fashion’ recently – sometimes glowingly, sometimes scathingly. Some have written about finding new freedom away from the prying eyes of men; others insist that men should keep their eyes to themselves regardless of what women wear. Some feel this phenomenon is taking fashion forward, others think it’s taken a step back. Still others argue that it all depends on context, and I guess that’s roughly where I’m at.

Having apparently fallen far short of the “modesty” benchmark back home for innocuous clothes that wouldn’t pass as “provocative” elsewhere, I’m finding it hard to get on board this new ‘brand’ of fashion.

More so, when in some contexts, it allows others to brand me instead.


Author: Brenda Haas

Editor: Anne Thomas




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17.07.2017 | 15:32