Origins, function of modesty in fashion warrant critique

In a recent article for The New York Times, Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman declares modesty to be the defining trend of the decade. She surmises that our era signifies “the end of the naked dress,” which she reads as a sign that women are now truly liberated (The New York Times, “Women, Fashion Has You Covered,” 4.6.2017).

Tying a trend to a specific time period inherently implies that it never achieved notable popularity before that period, and likely never will again. While microtrends such as flared jeans, shoulder pads and mini skirts can be linked to particular decades, overarching concepts such as modesty are impossible to confine to a tenyear, or even 100-year, period. Additionally, the article fails to cite significant historical events that have led to the rise of modesty in Western culture.

Friedman’s argument ignores the cyclicality of fashion—as soon as hemlines reach the floor, they start rising again. Modesty has experienced widespread popularity at various points throughout U.S. history, and it will inevitably fall out of vogue in coming years or decades.

The conception of fashion expressed in The New York Times article is not only alarmingly narrow, but also incredibly classist. Friedman cites couture runways, the Met Gala, an Upper East Side boutique, and even a previous New York Times piece in order to show the ubiquity and resilience of modest styles in our time, but she is looking for trends in the wrong places: decade-defining trends—grunge, hip hop, punk—usually emerge from the margins, not from couture fashion houses.

To add insult to injury, Friedman spends almost 2000 words discussing the rise of modesty and does not once mention the veil.

In an op-ed for New Humanist, contributor Angela Saini surmises that modesty has not experienced popularity of this kind since Victorian times, and the global controversy surrounding the hijab is largely responsible for its sudden reemergence (New Humanist, “What is behind the trend for modesty in fashion?” 12.19.2016). Major fashion brands did not invent the modesty trend, they are simply profiting from it: in the summer of 2015, Uniqlo came out with a line featuring hijabs and long skirts; in the spring of 2016, Dolce & Gabbana released a line of hijabs and abayas; Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta and DKNY have all launched Ramadan lines targeted at Muslim women (New Humanist).

Saini remarks that although it is important to continue to defend Muslim women’s right to wear the veil, the way that support of the veil drowns out resistance to it is worrying. This could be extended to modesty in general: while women should obviously be free to wear as many layers as they want, the ubiquitous praise of the trend in mainstream and fashion media alike is alarming. Saini explains, “Female modesty has ancient roots. Some anthropologists believe its origins lie in male jealousy and mate-guarding … By behaving modestly, a woman appears to comply with the demands on her to be virginal or faithful” (New Humanist).

Does fashion’s newfound love of high necklines and low hemlines reflect resistance to female objectification, or compliance?

Even contemporary European designers’ interpretations of “modesty” reflect a more complex understanding of modesty than that articulated in The New York Times.

Miuccia Prada went as far as to dub her spring/summer 2016 resort and men’s collections “post-modest,” explaining, “‘Modesty is no longer for today so it has to be exaggerated’” (i-D, “Prada’s post-modest spring/summer 16,” 6.22.2015). Her menswear collection in particular embodies a sense of false modesty, featuring blazers paired with short shorts, dress shirts with the top several buttons undone and lowcut tank tops dressed up with loafers. Prada elaborates that “post-modesty” is about “excess trying to look basic,” which she demonstrates in the juxtaposition of bold signs and symbols with classic, often boxy silhouettes (i-D). The designer’s tongue-in-cheek reimagining of modesty does not focus on covering up the body, but rather, uses it to critique and interact with the world beyond fashion.

Mainstream media that praises the rise of modesty in women’s fashion often leans heavily toward body shaming, rather than commending women who reinterpret modesty in new and creative ways. Friedman cites the surprise appearance of Nicki Minaj in the front row of the Haider Ackermann show with “her left breast almost entirely exposed” as an example of unimmodest fashion gone too far: she surmises that, “The whole look was still somehow much less seductively relevant than Alek Wek in a perfectly cut black cashmere tuxedo coat, skinny black trousers and a black polo neck sashaying her way down the catwalk in front” (The New York Times).

Friedman is not the only one who seems to feel more confident in recent months publicly body shaming women (not to say that this was not an issue pre-Trump era), even in a fairly liberal news source. It is unnecessary to condemn women who choose to dress “immodestly” for the purpose of uplifting those women who uphold the trend.

Additionally, in a show featuring a majority white cast of models, Friedman picked out one of the few Black models as a comparison for Nicki Minaj—putting her on a pedestal as what she believes the singer should aspire to. Then again, had she chosen a white model, she would have appeared to uphold whiteness as an ideal; all in all, it is perhaps best to avoid shaming one woman for her clothing choices in order to commend those of another woman altogether. Friedman’s claims spark broader questions about the relationship between constructions of modesty and anti-Blackness, questions that ought to be thoroughly reckoned with.

Although later in the article, she declares that fashion is “an integral part of the debate over the freedom to make your own choices,” Friedman’s analysis of women’s clothing choices does not support this statement (The New York Times).

The portrayal of contemporary fashion as a reflection of political freedom throughout the article paints a distorted picture of the role that modesty has played in the disempowerment of women. Friedman describes the “new” modesty: “It’s not about power dressing in the old, battering-ram-shoulder sense, but in the sense that when you feel secure and comfortable and protected, you feel stronger” (The New York Times).

Women have been covering up their bodies in order to be “secure and comfortable and protected” throughout history; before once again taking credit for a style that originated from the margins, those at the helm of fashion need to consider their own privileged position. The fashion world is dominated primarily by wealthy, cis white women, while those who are more likely to experience harassment and body shaming—women of color, trans women, plus-size women—are often shut out.

For many, “power dressing” has never been about shoulder pads.

To conclude a thoroughly superficial and whitewashed interpretation of modesty’s place in contemporary fashion, Friedman quotes Michael Kors, who enthuses, “I am convinced that there is something far more alluring about women wearing things that give them confidence, that don’t make them feel as if they have to tug at their hemlines or yank at their straps” (The New York Times).

In accepting that women’s dress is still about appealing to the male gaze—even if it is modesty rather than immodesty that is currently considered “alluring”—Friedman negates her entire argument.

Whether or not modesty comes to represent our era (and I doubt it will), its history is far rockier than Friedman acknowledges.



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